When Brazil’s former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said recently that his leftwing Workers’ party was preparing to boot Jair Bolsonaro out of office and return to government in 2022 elections, his remarks elicited more than a few smirks.
For years, the Workers’ party, or PT, was considered among the most successful leftwing political movements in Latin America for its ideologically-charged base and political achievements in the early 2000s.
But its reputation was severely damaged by its involvement in Brazil’s long-running Lava Jato, or Car Wash, corruption scandal, as well as a bruising economic recession. Its last president, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached in 2016, and Mr Lula da Silva’s bid at a political comeback in the 2018 presidential race was cut short after he was jailed on corruption charges.
Since then, the party has floundered in opposition, according to political analysts. They say it has alienated crucial swaths of the electorate with a shift to the far-left and a relentless focus on resurrecting the popularity of Mr Lula da Silva, who was released last year.
“When Lula came out of jail, people thought he could resuscitate the PT, but this has definitely not been the case,” said Mario Marconini, a managing director with Teneo in Brazil. “The PT is suffering from a disease: they cannot tell Lula to move away or just forget Lula. They should be thinking of something new. They need a transformation.”
Fernando Bizzarro, a political scientist at the David Rockefeller Centre for Latin American Studies, said: “The party has ceased to be bigger than its leadership. It has become Lula’s party.”
The party faces a fresh test in upcoming municipal elections in November, which present an opportunity to win control over local power structures, including mayorships and councils, which can be harnessed to support federal election campaigns in 2022.
PT president Gleisi Hoffman said her party would use the municipal races to explain “what the party did for Brazil, mainly in the area of economic and social development, and to show itself as an alternative government”.
While candidates are still being finalised, few are betting on a leftwing wave.
“The issue is that the party is now way more radical than the average Brazilian voter and it is not even trying to connect with them,” Eduardo Mello, a professor of politics at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, said. “It speaks to concerns of specific groups. And it doesn’t inspire Bolsonaro to change course.”
Last month, the party underlined its leftward shift by hosting an event with the controversial leaders of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. Mr Lula da Silva, meanwhile, this month described the Lava Jato corruption crackdown as an effort by the US to “block Brazilian sovereignty”.
The developments are important to Brazil’s political trajectory because of the structure of the country’s presidential elections. While the PT’s loyal voter base makes it likely its preferred candidate would reach the run-off in the two-round system, the party appears to currently lack the support it needs defeat the controversial Mr Bolsonaro. A poll conducted by Veja, a local magazine, last month showed Mr Bolsonaro would easily defeat Mr Lula da Silva.
“Anti-PT sentiment is the most important phenomenon of the last five years in Brazil. As long as this negative anti-PT sentiment remains, the chances of a candidate from the left winning national elections are very low,” said Mr Bizzarro.
Mr Lula da Silva, 74, has remained quiet on a potential run in 2022, but Ms Hoffman said the party would support him if he decided to contest the polls.
“We cannot deny his leadership, which is a popular and political leadership,” she said.
Ms Hoffman denied that the PT was losing relevance in Brazilian politics, saying it remained the most popular and largest party, having won more than 50 of 513 seats in the lower house of Congress in 2018 — albeit fewer than the 88 it won in 2010 — and counting more than 2m members.
An opinion poll in May showed the PT had the support of almost 14 per cent of respondents, compared with 4 per cent for far-right PSL, the next largest.
While the poll reflects the PT’s enduring support among a distinct swath of Brazilian society, it also speaks volumes to the weaknesses of Brazil’s party system. With the exception of the PT, Brazilian parties have historically served as vehicles for winning elections rather than propounding ideologies.
“The PT still has a strong base on the ground, which is very uncommon for Brazilian parties. Most parties don’t have organic supporters,” said Prof Mello.
“But it has become way more leftwing,” he added, explaining that the PT tacked left last year in order to mobilise its radical base to demand Mr Lula da Silva’s release from prison. “It will be very hard for the PT to compete in cities like São Paulo or Rio as it once did and therefore it is hard to compete for the presidency.”
The party traditionally enjoyed support in the impoverished northeastern region of Brazil, but even that stronghold has begun to weaken recently as a result of a cash handout programme that the Bolsonaro administration instigated to mitigate damage from the coronavirus crisis.
“If the PT were not relevant, people would not talk about it as much as they do,” said Enio Verri, the PT’s leader in the lower house of Congress.
“I would say that the PT is fundamental even to the rightwing, because they need to talk about us all the time to survive. Without a doubt we are the great alternative.”
Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice