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Brazil's Workers' Party down, but not out, following Rousseff’s ouster

Andressa Anholete, AFP | People protest against Brazilian acting president Michel Temer with national and Workers' Party (PT) flags in front of the Planalto Palace in Brasilia on May 15, 2016.

Brazil’s Workers’ Party (PT) is facing its worst-ever crisis in the wake of a long impeachment process that saw Dilma Rousseff removed from the presidential office on Thursday, but the party is unlikely to be going away anytime soon.


After 14 years of uninterrupted rule in Latin America’s largest and richest country, the left-wing PT saw Rousseff ousted for good from the Planalto presidential palace after a parliamentary marathon – with numerous votes in the lower and upper chambers and a trial in the Senate that spanned months.

Hours after the final vote to dismiss Rousseff, her vice president turned arch-enemy Michel Temer was sworn in as president. Temer is now supposed to carry out the rest of Rousseff’s presidential term until 2018, and has already formed a new, more right-leaning cabinet bereft of PT members.

Experts said that while the PT was reeling from the impeachment, labelled a “coup” by a combative Rousseff and her supporters, the party was nevertheless unlikely to disappear from the political landscape it has dominated for more than a decade.

“Unlike a lot of Brazilian political parties that have one or two congress members, the PT stands out as a national, popular party with support and presence across the country. In that sense it is like a mainstream party in Europe,” said Oliver Stuenkel, a political analyst at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in Sao Paulo.

Daryle Williams, a history professor at Maryland University and a Brazil expert agreed. “You will find the party diminished, but it is certainly not going the way of extinction,” he said, noting that, exempting the past few years, the PT ruled over a period of great economic prosperity that lifted millions of Brazilians “into the surviving working class and middle class”.

Williams pointed out that the PT members still hold hundreds of elected positions across the country, including many seats in the National Congress, and head several state and city governments.

It also counts many supporters among those involved in the projects it launched while in power, including the popular Bolsa Familia and Minha Casa federal assistance programmes, as well as in its initiatives to forge stronger regional ties among like-minded governments in the region.

“Those projects, at least those aspirations, are still out there,” Williams said.

More woes to come?

The experts also agreed that the PT’s woes are unlikely to end with Rousseff’s banishment from Brasilia. The party is expected to suffer a historic drubbing in national municipal elections that are right around the corner, partly over its badly damaged image among voters, but also because it is haemorrhaging leaders.

“A lot of PT officials have left or have been expelled from the party as a result of the impeachment process,” Williams explained, saying some are seeking to salvage their posts at the local level by switching to rival political camps. “That will be very present in this election cycle and may even carry into the presidential elections.”

Stuenkel noted the outcome of the municipal ballots – whose two rounds are scheduled for October 2 and 30 – will have a critical impact on the presidential contest in 2018 for another reason.

“In Brazil you need mayors to organise your party’s campaign at the local level, you need the support of mayors to work the neighbourhoods,” he said. “A big defeat for the PT in 2016 will make it very difficult to win the presidential election in 2018.”

A new narrative

But while the PT collectively mourn Rousseff’s impeachment and brace for unhappy election results this autumn, some say there could be a brighter future for the left-wing camp.

A political graft scandal revolving around the state-run Petrobras oil firm, the Zika epidemic, and the economy’s meltdown created the perfect storm that sank Rousseff and the PT. But that storm has also pummelled all of Brazil’s parties – Temer’s camp included – and it is far from over.

“There is not a lot of strength or legitimacy in Temer’s new ruling coalition, and the political and economic crises are likely to continue,” Williams noted.

Stuenkel thinks that from its new role as an opposition party, the PT will embrace the opportunity to blast Temer over his handling of the situation, and perhaps more importantly, revive its own battered image.

As the Brazilian economy slid into recession in 2015, Rousseff was forced to adopt austerity measures that flew in the face of what her party was supposed to stand for. Belt-tightening divided the PT and turned away supporters.

“The PT was stuck in a dilemma. This is an opportunity to recover and to invent a new narrative for itself,” Stuenkel said. “In a way the impeachment has liberated it from the shackles of government. It’s not all bad news for the PT.”

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