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Meet the king-makers of Brasilia


This article was first published on October 21 in the Dispatch column of the website It is reproduced here with permission from the author and Foreign Policy and has been slightly edited to reflect the results of the subsequent second round of the presidential election, which brought a clear but narrow victory to Dilma Rousseff and the PT. The balance of power in the National Congress had of course already been determined in the first round. The original article can be read here.

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Despite the narrow victory on Oct. 26 in the presidential runoff election for Dilma Rousseff of the Workers Party (PT), real power in Brazilian politics lies elsewhere: with the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB).

The nation’s largest political party, the PMDB boasts the greatest number of members, mayoralties, and newly won seats in the 598-seat National Congress. Given the PMDB’s obvious clout, it’s odd that the party has chosen not to field a presidential candidate in two decades. But thanks to Brazil’s tangled political system, one where 28 different parties hold seats in Congress, the PMDB can arguably wield more power without the presidency. In Brasilia, politics operates as a complex game of shifting alliances, where favor-swapping is obligatory and the PMDB is often the kingmaker.

Dilma Rousseff does not have a majority in Congress, and won’t be able to govern without forming a coalition with the PMDB. But to win that support, Rousseff will have to offer something in return — specifically, government ministries and coveted positions in state-owned companies. The PMDB currently holds the vice-presidency and five ministries, including the mines and energy ministry and the agriculture ministry, two of Brazil’s most powerful.

A coalition of the unwilling

The PMDB’s origins date back to the 1960s, when Brazil’s leftist president, Joao Goulart, sparked Western fears that the country would fall to the Communists. With covert backing from the United States, hardline military officials led a takeover of the government, setting off two decades of repression and torture. In 1965, the regime began allowing two political parties, the pro-military National Renewal Alliance Party (Arena) and the anti-military Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB), to operate in the country as a nod towards democracy. The latter brought together people of all classes, backgrounds, and ideologies, under a single unifying principle: support for democracy.

As the regime’s power began to ebb in the late 1970s, it allowed a restricted number of new political parties. Several factions broke away from the MDB, which added a “p” for “partido,” or party, to its name to become the PMDB (its platform did not change). Over the next few years, the PMDB rapidly consolidated power, with many of those who had collaborated with the dictators jumping ship to join their former rivals. 

The fall of the junta also paved the way for the rise of José Sarney, one of Brazil’s longest-serving and most infamous PMDB politicians, and the patriarch of one of the country’s most powerful families. Elected to Congress in 1957, Sarney quickly aligned with the generals during the dictatorship, becoming president of Arena in 1979. As the regime came to an end in 1985, Sarney broke away to found a dissident party that then struck a deal with the PMDB, making him the running mate for the PMDB’s candidate in the presidential election, Tancredo Neves. Tancredo, grandfather of the unsuccessful candidate Aécio Neves, won the race but died of a serious illness before he could take office. Brazilians hoping for profound change looked on in disbelief as Sarney, one of the military regime’s most notorious collaborators, assumed the presidency.

What had already grown into a big-tent party with no defining ideology became even more so. It was purportedly driven by a desire to bring stability to Brazil. But instead, the PMDB became increasingly defined by individuals and interest groups poised to use its size and influence to further their personal causes. “What was a transformative party was no longer transformative,” says political analyst Mauricio Savarese. “And since the late 1980s [the PMDB] has basically become a party which will support whoever is in government, in return for favors.”

The politics of the pork-barrel

The PMDB came to epitomize the Brazilian term “physiologist,” a pejorative “denoting a person or party for sale, always seeking personal advantage,” according to a Wikileaked U.S. diplomatic cable written in 2004. The PMDB “survives on a vast grassroots apparatus built around regional chiefs and patronage networks, which it nurtures by joining the governing coalition at the state or federal level whenever possible,” the cable said. Its members “are not guided by principle, but by fluid assessments of their own interests.”

Consider the Sarneys, a multimillionaire family that has run Maranhão, Brazil’s poorest state, as a personal fiefdom for over 50 years. State governorship, Senate seats, government jobs, and government contracts are shuffled between family members and their friends, a task aided by the Sarneys’ ownership of Maranhão’s biggest media network, Mirante. Sarney is said to effectively control the congressmen representing Maranhão and the neighboring Amapa state, which he himself governs, and remains one of the most influential members of the PMDB. He has held served as president of the Senate four times, with successive corruption scandals failing to diminish his considerable power over regional and national politics.

When the PT’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won the presidency in 2002, he refused to forge a coalition with the PMDB, which had supported Lula’s election rival. After his victory, Lula’s chief of staff, José Dirceu, urged him to join up with the PMDB and give the party control of two ministries. Instead, Lula asked Dirceu to form a governing base by negotiating with a string of smaller parties. “Forming an alliance with the main party tolerated under the dictatorship, and a key ally of the Cardoso administration [which preceded Lula], was not easy to justify to PT supporters,” Brazilian political analyst Hernán F. Gómez Bruera noted in his 2013 book, Lula, the Workers’ Party and the Governability Dilemma in Brazil. “Furthermore, the PMDB is a political organization known for its opportunism, its clientelistic practices, and the corruptness of its leaders,” Bruera also wrote.

But Lula’s attempt to move away from the PMDB did not go as planned. In 2005, Brazilian newspapers reported that that the PT government had been making large, monthly payments to congressmen in its coalition parties in order to guarantee their support in passing legislation. The resulting corruption scandal, known as “Mensalão,” became one of the biggest in modern Brazilian history.

Dirceu, accused of masterminding the Mensalão, was among 25 people jailed by the Supreme Court in 2012 for their roles in the scheme. One month after the scandal broke, Lula awarded three ministries to the PMDB, and the PT has allied with its former rival ever since. The coalition has only grown stronger under Rousseff. 

The PMDB is generally conservative, forcing the PT to the center and helping to block progress on social issues like gay marriage and land redistribution.

But overall, says Savarese, the PMDB does not really care about policies. “It really is a party for sale: what is cares about is money and prestige,” he says. “What they want is to run as many ministries as possible, ideally the ones that are close to the money … if you give them that, then they will usually vote for your policies.”

The power to legislate

The PMDB does, however, enjoy decisive influence over legislation. This is most evident in a congressional bloc known as the “ruralistas,” composed of legislators representing agribusinesses like cattle ranching, agriculture, and logging. In 2012, the ruralistas sought and won passage of a controversial new Forest Code, which gave amnesty to landowners who illegally deforested before 2008. The new code also nearly cut in half the area of Brazil that the previouslaw said must be reforested. All but one of the 73 lower house deputies who were part of the PMDB voted to amend the code, against the express wishes of President Rousseff.

The fragmentation of power in the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies. Nov 2014.  Chart: Suffragio

In the last election in 2010, Rousseff ran with PMDB president Michel Temer as her running mate — the first time the PT and the PMDB shared a presidential ticket.”But the PMDB still repeatedly threw their weight around because they are always hungry for more,” Savarese says. Indeed, in 2012, the party blocked Rousseff’s choice for leadership of the National Agency of Land Transport, allegedly in response to her decision to give the Fisheries Ministry to a rival coalition party without informing the PMDB first. Congressional inquiries into alleged wrongdoing by politicians are commonly used as another form of leverage by the PMDB, with its majority in the Senate giving it the power to mold investigations to its liking. “They enact revenge when they do not get what they want,” says Savarese.

The PMDB modus operandi is classic “pork barrel politics,” says University of Brasilia political scientist David Fleischer, with the party using its influence to procure federal government money and favors on its own terms. Having “too many parties … leaves Brazil in a situation of difficult governability,” says Fleischer, speaking before the October 26 run-off. “If Dilma wins she will have to cobble together a coalition of more than 12 parties. To do that she needs a lot of glue, and glue in this case means pork barrel.”

At a PMDB party convention last June, delegates voted on whether to remain in Rousseff’s coalition. The results revealed a sharp split within the party: 59 percent favor staying aligned with the PT, while 41 percent want a change. After the first round, a group of PMDB deputies (representatives in Brazil’s lower house of Congress) announced they were supporting Aécio. But the party as a whole remained with Dilma.

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