Brazilian politics: The power behind the throne

In the three decades since the restoration of democracy in Brazil, the centrist Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB) has rarely been out of power. The two presidents with no PMDB ministers in their cabinets had cause to regret it.

IN THE three decades since the restoration of democracy in Brazil, the centrist Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB) has rarely been out of power. The two presidents with no PMDB ministers in their cabinets had cause to regret it. One was impeached with the party’s help. Another was humiliated by a congressional vote-buying scandal—precipitated, many reckon, by his reliance on small parties-for-hire. A maxim of Brazilian politics is that “no one governs without the PMDB.”

Governing with it is no picnic, either. The PMDB is an indispensable part of the coalition led by Dilma Rousseff, who belongs to the left-wing Workers’ Party (PT). Her vice-president, Michel Temer, is the PMDB’s chairman; the presidents of both houses of Congress are members. They have been cantankerous allies. Ms Rousseff has been beset by a sagging economy, high inflation and a huge bribery scandal at Petrobras, the state-controlled oil company. The PMDB has tortured her by weakening fiscal austerity, the basis of her economic policy, and by joining opposition parties in threatening impeachment.  

On July 17th Eduardo Cunha, the Speaker of Congress’s lower house, announced that he would defect to the opposition (without leaving the PMDB). This was a furious response to allegations, made in court by a lobbyist, that in 2011 Mr Cunha had demanded a $5m bribe in return for supporting legislation helpful to some of Petrobras’s suppliers. He denies that. The government is goading prosecutors to pursue him as a way to curb Congress’s autonomy and divert attention from the PT’s own role in the scandal, Mr Cunha claims. The Planalto, Brazil’s presidential palace, is run by a “band of nutcases”.

It is the person, not the party, that is abandoning the coalition, the PMDB was quick to declare. Still, Mr Cunha’s exit is a worry for the president. Last week came news that police are investigating her predecessor and political mentor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, for possible influence-peddling on behalf of construction firms. He denies the allegation. That is a further blow to the battered PT. Ms Rousseff needs the PMDB more than ever if she is to survive until the end of her term in 2018. Increasingly, it is running the show.

If numbers were all that mattered, the PMDB would be the most powerful party by far. Besides having more seats in Congress than any other, it outguns its main rivals, the PT and the centre-right opposition Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB), in state and local governments. The PMDB has 2.4m card-carrying members, more than the PT’s 1.6m.

Brazil’s military dictators laid the ground for this success, says Natalia Maciel of Rio de Janeiro’s State University. The generals forced parties to merge into two big blocks, one favouring the regime (called ARENA), the other in opposition to it (then called the MDB). The MDB, renamed the PMDB in 1979, played a crucial role in bringing back democracy in 1985. José Sarney, the first (indirectly elected) president of the democratic era, was a PMDB leader. With the help of the electoral machine it had built under the junta, it won a majority of seats in Congress and all but one governorship in a general election a year later.

The regime had hounded out the MDB’s more radical figures, leaving a party dominated by moderates. To maintain its broad appeal, it kept its ideology flexible. Asked what the PMDB stands for, grandees start with freedom of speech—then clam up. Its programme brims with platitudes: its only firm position is against the death penalty. It is more pro-business than pro-market, often lobbying for local and industry-specific benefits. Critics accuse it of fisiologismo, the trading of political support for government jobs (or, in some cases, cash). The party prefers to think of itself as the guardian of “governability”. One (pro-PSDB) banker says the PMDB is “one reason Brazil will never become Venezuela”.

But its clout has rarely matched its girth. In part, as Mr Cunha’s solo defection shows, that is because it is more a label used by independent-minded politicians than the champion of any political philosophy. It has not fielded a candidate for the presidency since 1994, leaving the more ideological PSDB and PT to compete for the top job. The winners turn to the PMDB for support, but not for guidance on how to govern the country.

Ms Rousseff’s woes could change that. Mr Temer plays the part of a prime minister. Joaquim Levy, the budget-cutting finance minister, meets him more often than he does the president, say Mr Levy’s aides. The PMDB’s leaders have recently been saying that the party will put up a candidate for the presidency in 2018. Possible contenders are Messrs Temer and Cunha, as well as Eduardo Paes, Rio’s go-getting mayor (if the Olympic games he will host next year go well).

That may be idle talk. The PMDB always threatens to run, only to extract patronage from the government of the day, observes Marcos Nobre, a philosopher who has written a book about the party. He thinks it will continue to distance itself from the government without pulling it down. If it is serious about leading the next government, it will have to figure out what it stands for.

The Economist |

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