A man wrapped in a Brazilian flag sits amidst 594 footballs displayed on the lawn in front of the National Congress in Brasilia on June 26, 2013. With a kick, they will symbolize the pass to the parliament of the responsibility for improvements. Brazil is currently facing unprecedented social unrest, marked by almost daily street protests to demand better public services and an end to rampant political corruption, at the time that the country hosts the Confederations Cup --a dry run for the World Cup. On the eve, President Dilma Rousseff sought support from senior judges and lawmakers for sweeping reforms in response to the wave of massive protests. AFP PHOTO/ABR - Wilson DIAS (Photo credit should read WILSON DIAS/AFP/Getty Images)

As the dust settles after the municipal elections, the post-mortem reveals a Workers’ Party on the ropes and a rightwing empowered and triumphant.

The results reveal the end of a cycle for the PT, after almost fourteen years in power. The combination of Dilma Rousseff’s disastrous government, the relentless  anti-PT campaign waged in the media, and the selective actions of the federal police and part of the judiciary during the investigations into corruption rackets, all contributed to the debacle.  But the PT contributed generously to its own fall from grace, by abandoning its ethical standards and making alliances with the very morally corrupt politicians it had previously criticised. In the end, it lost its identity as “a party that was diferent” and became to voters just another power-seeking, corrupt agglomeration of politicians.

Out of the 27 state capitals, the PT won in only one — Rio Branco, in the distant state of Acre. While before the PT had 600 mayors, its post-election plunged to just over 250. In São Paulo state, their number fell from 70 to just 8. Even in the ABC industrial ring around São Paulo, once the heartland of the party, the PT has only held on to one town.

The anti-PT sentiment helped to strengthen rightwing forces, both religious fundamentalists, based on pentecostalist churches, and the extreme ideological sector led by the Bolsanaro family, unashamed apologists for the military dictatorship.

The right successfully captured not only the generalised anti-PT sentiment, but also the angry rejection of politics and politicians, which first emerged during the 2013 protests, and successfully channelled it exclusively against the PT. This enabled the centre-right party, the PSDB, to elect a previously unknown  candidate in São Paulo, who ran with the slogan: “I am not a político, I am a gestor”.

This rejection of the political system was also demonstrated by the huge number of abstentions and blank and void votes, which in some cities outnumbered the valid votes.

São Paulo's new mayor
São Paulo’s new mayor

In São Paulo, the PT’s incumbent maior, Fernando Haddad, had introduced popular innovations, like bus corridors, pedestrian areas, cycle lanes and speed curbs, but had failed to bring visible improvements to the poorer periphery areas. However, his honesty was never in question, and he might have won, but for a extremely successful  and slick marketing campaign, which portrayed João Doria, a previously unknown but  extremely rich businesman, as a worker. “João trabalhador” (João the worker) was his slogan, accompanied by a catchy jingle.

As well as São Paulo, its major gain, the PSDB took many other capitals and leading cities. Doria’s victory was a triumph for his sponsor, São Paulo state governor Geraldo Alkmin, who has his eye on a bid for the presidency in 2018. As long as Doria does not mess up, this gives Alkmim a big advantage over his rivals in the party, Aécio Neves and José Serra, who is foreign minister in Michel Temer’s government.

As the 2018 elections draw near, the PSDB is expected to abandon the Temer government and to take up an independent position. The president’s own party, the PMDB, maintained roughly the same number of mayors, although most are in small towns. Many of them downplayed their connection to Temer, who already has less support than Dilma.

Temer has been busy blaming the PT for the country’s economic woes, publishing big ads in the main papers under the headline “we must get out of the red”. The fact that he was vice-president in both Dilma governments, that many of Dilma’s  ministers belonged to the PMDB, and that PMDB congressmen and women, led by Eduardo Cunha, helped to blocked the austerity programme Dilma tried to get through parliament, is conveniently overlooked. Eduardo Cunha has now been ejected from congress for corruption and lying.

While the PT has become a toxic brand, the party formed by party dissidents, PSOL, which has always refused to make alliances with more right-wing forces, did surprisingly well. In Rio its candidate, Marcelo Freixas, a respected human rights lawyer, has reached the second round, as has its candidate in Belém. For many disenchanted PT voters, the PSOL offered the only coherent option.

Marina Silva’s Rede de Sustentabilidade, however, trapped in its own ambiguity, did badly, and several leading members, particularly intellectuals, resigned.

The election disaster has left  the PT staring into a long dark tunnel, with no light visible at the end of it. How should they react?  Should it continue to go it alone, or join forces with other leftwing, progressive groups, leaving behind sectarianism and exchanging ideas of hegemony for humility?  Many feel that a bout of self-criticism is badly overdue. Others say that now is the time to present a new project for Brazil, a way of reforming  the present political system, which with its 35 parties makes good government virtually impossible.

Whatever the party decides to do,  at the moment it seems extremely unlikely that the PT can  recover in time to mount a serious challenge for the presidency in 2018. Not only has the PT name become toxic, but Lula, the obvious candidate, is being played like a fish on the end of a line by the judiciary system. Accused of half a dozen crimes under the Lava Jato investigations, at any moment he could be reeled in, arrested and flown to Curitiba to be questioned by judge Sérgio Moro, and then left to rot in prison while the case is prepared against him. His former minister, Antônio Palocci, was arrested just before the elections. One of Dilma’s most dedicated defenders in the Senate, Senator Gleizi Hoffman, has been indicted. Dozens of politicians from other parties, and from previous non-PT governments, including prominent leaders, have also been denounced for corruption during the  Lavajato investigations, but strangely, so far, only PT members have been singled out for arrest and exposure in the press.

In the midst of the doom and gloom, there were some brighter moments. The São Paulo councillor elected with a record number of votes, over 300,000, was none other than veteran PT politician Eduardo Suplicy. But this was very much a personal triumph. Voters seem to like Suplicy’s slightly dotty behaviour, but they also respect his integrity, the way he supports causes, even if it means  being carted off by the police at protests.

And while Suplicy, at 76, is the oldest councillor, the youngest,  Fernando Holiday, aged just 20, emerged from the street protest movements, like several other newly elected councillors up and down Brazil. In spite of being black and openly gay, he stood for the right-wing Democrats, a party not known for its tolerance of minorities.

But maybe that’s another sign of change in Brazil.

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Veteran correspondent and regular LAB contributor Jan Rocha writes about life in São Paulo and Brazil