-OpEd-

SAO PAULO — The Brazilian Workers Party refuses to take a critical look at its past. Sticking to a mistaken narrative about the governments their party led under presidents Luis Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff could help reelect the current, arch-conservative President Jair Bolsonaro. And while not as openly absurd as Bolsonaro's obscurantism and paranoia, the continued delusions of the Workers Party (PT) can be just as harmful to Brazil.

The PT will not recognize the mistakes it made, which mired the country in the worst recession in its history in the years after 2010. It is suggesting the party would adopt the same, disastrous economic policies should Lula win a third term as president. This is just the fuel the Bolsonaro camp needs.

The second Lula government and first Dilma presidency produced a veritable disaster that mostly punished the poorest.

And by already labeling anyone who is not with the PT as 'coup' supporters and 'radical neoliberals,' the PT leadership is reducing the chances of drawing them to their side in a second electoral round in 2022. The PT's economic disaster happened gradually. In his first government beginning in 2003, Lula faced major challenges and achieved surprising success thanks to a virtuous and consensual program, which sadly did not last.

His income redistribution policies, like Bolsa Familia, are important, but we can only reverse centuries of social exclusion within a sustained process of economic growth. For that, one needs predictable policies that assure currency stability and balanced public spending, and bolster the business environment.

In Lula's second government, it became clear these were not among the PT's objectives. The aim then was to expand public spending and intervene in the economy through state-sector firms and autarkic entities like the Central Bank, as previously outlined by PT economists.

The change in orientation began with the rise of Rousseff and the economist Guido Mantega at the end of the first Lula presidency. They replaced the team that had laid the bases of growth in the decade after 2000. Spending increased with the 2008 slump and became excessive under Rousseff's presidency, as its poor results began to emerge.

Costly subsidies did not increase investment. Inflation exceeded set targets, but the government forced the Monetary Policy Committee to cut the base rate in 2011. From then on, Rousseff ordered price curbs in a clumsy attempt to control inflation.

It was a blatant turnaround in priorities. Macroeconomic policies are meant to keep stability for the economy, so firms can invest, work and produce more. The president did the opposite, using state firms as tools to obtain macroeconomic goals. It led to stagflation (inflationary recession).

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Former Brazilian President Lula da Silva (PT) holding a press conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil, March 2021. — Photo: Vanessa Carvalho/ZUMA Wire

The first Lula government's strength had been its ability to form a team that could combine economic stability with income distribution policies. That was the best thing they did. By moving away from the economic consensus of the early 2000s, the second Lula government and first Dilma presidency produced a veritable disaster that mostly punished the poorest, and reversed the social achievements of the preceding decade.

Yet in spite of its tremendous failures, the PT refuses to criticize its past. On returning to the political arena last month, Lula remained in his usual, parallel reality, qualifying the troubled Petrobras oil giant as a "well managed state firm."

Brazil's biggest firm was not only the victim of corruption, but further undermined by government interference in fuel prices and auctions of oil fields. While corruption is terrible, it is not the worst of our ills. We would probably not become a developed country with honest politicians alone, and must have the right economic policies.

Refusing to accept its past economic policy failures, the PT can only explain its fall through conspiracy theories. Lula's conviction and Dilma's impeachment were, in fact, legitimate. But such institutional atrocities happened in Brazil precisely for the economic crisis their governments had generated. It wasn't just the elite taking their revenge. The PT fell because of its own errors.

But when economic crises are too deep, democracy itself can collapse.

Politics and economics are independent forces that become related in the most complex form. Presidents are more likely not to be reelected when there is stagflation. Thus Dilma Rousseff almost lost in 2014 and Bolsonaro may lose next year.

But when economic crises are too deep, democracy itself can collapse. That happened to Brazil in 1964, and is a process that is again, regrettably underway since 2014. The PT's cherished, and mistaken, vision of recent history is strengthening Bolsonaro's authoritarian project and complementing the harm of his "necropolitics." Its narrative is blocking the possibility of a broad coalition of Brazilians, including PT supporters, who believe in democracy as a force that can free the country from Bolsonaro's autocratic aspirations.

The recession that began in 2010 was primarily the work of the PT, and Bolsonaro's rise to power, its consequence. To prevent history repeating itself, it is imperative for the guilty to recognize their mistakes.


*Weller is a lecturer in economics at the Getulio Vargas Foundation's School of Economics in Sao Paulo.


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