When Luis Inácio Lula da Silva and the Brazilian Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) finally came to power in 2002, expectations were high. No one expected the PT government to deliver common ownership of the land overnight. Nor did we expect participatory decision-making along the elegant corridors of Oscar Neimeyer’s state buildings in Brasília. At least not immediately. But for many of us on the left, the PT represented something new. With its roots in militant trade unionism, liberation theology, the grassroots movement of the landless and Paulo Freire- style radical pedagogy, it seemed to combine the participatory democracy of social movements with the representative institutions of liberal democracy.
Warning bells began to ring, though, when Lula’s government appeared to break the bond at the heart of the PT’s original strategy–achieving social justice by strengthening the power of popular movements–by failing to turn its overwhelming electoral mandate into a democratic counterforce capable of driving a hard bargain with the International Monetary Fund. But few petistas (as supporters of the PT are known) internationally or in Brazil were ready for the shock of discovering this past May that the party symbolizing to them a breakthrough in democratic socialist politics was governing on the basis of systematic corruption–including bribery to win parliamentary allies and the improper funding of Lula’s election campaign. The revelations unraveled after a tape-recorded case of corruption in the Post Office led back to the political appointment of a director from one of the smaller parties in the ruling coalition (the PTB, Partido Trabalhadores Brasileiro) as a deal struck with the PT. The PTB got access to Brazil’s notorious system of patronage in return for its votes in Congress. Further revelations came when the PTB’s president, angry at being portrayed as a lone villain, revealed the PT had made monthly payments to an unspecified number of federal deputies to insure their support for government legislation.
I’d visited Brazil in more hopeful times to investigate the PT’s participatory style in cities like Porto Alegre, and to take part in the World Social Forum, hosted four times by that city’s PT government. Recently I returned to find answers to some disturbing questions: What was the nature of corruption in the PT? What was the evidence for it? How had a party of participatory democracy become a party of corruption? Was the whole party infected, or were there just some rotten apples among the leadership?
The exact details are still under investigation by Congress–an investigation hampered by the fact that politicians from all the main parties are implicated in the charges. But it is generally admitted–including by Delúbio Soares, who was forced to resign as party treasurer–that the cúpula (group at the top) of the PT bribed political parties and congressmen on the right in order to pass the PT’s legislation. (Lula won with 61 percent of the vote, but the PT, though the largest party, still has only a fifth of the seats in Congress.)