Brazil’s Right Comes Roaring Back as Lula Starts Prison Sentence

Updated on
  • Rightwing parties have seen numbers swell in recent weeks
  • The number of Democratas federal deputies has almost doubled

Further political upheaval is on its way in Brazil, if recent party-swapping by lawmakers is any guide to October’s elections.

After years on the ropes, the right is poised to come roaring back, based on the sharp rise in legislators joining conservative parties as shown in a Bloomberg tally of their own reports. And with former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva now in jail, and likely barred from standing in the elections, the left is starting to fragment.

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on April 7

Photographer: Heuler Andrey/AFP via Getty Images

Longstanding, implacable opponents of Lula’s Workers’ Party, the center-right Democratas party has seen its number of federal deputies almost double in recent weeks -- from 21 to 41 -- as legislators take advantage of Brazil’s pre-election transfer window to find a party likely to boost their prospects. Around 60 federal deputies, or almost 12 percent of the lower house, have swapped political parties over the past month with right-wing parties proving the big winners. What’s not clear is whether this surge merely represents a backlash to 13 years of PT rule or a deeper shift in Brazilian attitudes toward the role of the state.

"The left is going to face a big challenge in the 2018 elections, especially if Lula remains in jail for a long time," said Rafael Cortez, a political analyst from Tendencias. "There’s been a much greater mobilization of organizations linked to the right."

Once one of the largest parties in Congress, representing around one fifth of the lower house, the DEM had been in decline since Lula’s victory in the 2002 elections. Now, it senses an opportunity.

"It’s a conservative party, which maintains social and moral values and defends private initiative," said DEM lawmaker Alberto Fraga. "The collapse of the PT shows that our approach was right."

Other right-leaning parties, whose candidates have been advocating a leaner state, tougher policing to combat crime and a more business-friendly environment, have also seen a dramatic rise in their members. Four years ago, the Podemos party did not exist and now it has 18 deputies. The PSL, aided in large part by the affiliation of presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, has grown from one to ten.

Brazil Pivots Right

Legislators join right-wing parties ahead of October's elections

Bloomberg tally of parties with largest changes

Meanwhile, left-leaning parties, which have championed social welfare, government intervention in the economy and labor rights, have seen a decline in support. The PSB, the new home for possible presidential candidate -- ex-Supreme Court president Joaquim Barbosa -- saw its numbers fall from 34 to 26 deputies. Rede, the political vehicle for presidential candidate Marina Silva, also saw two of its four lawmakers leave the party.

The ideologically flexible MDB party of President Michel Temer is now at its lowest ebb since 1999, with 55 deputies in the lower house after 15 departed and 5 joined. The exodus was prompted at least in part by fears that the party is now identified with the corruption scandals that have rocked the Temer administration.

The decline of the MDB means that the PT is now the largest party in the lower house, with 60 lawmakers, or just under 12 percent of the chamber. "The size of the caucus shows the party is alive," said PT Deputy Ze Geraldo.

Still, the PT has been hemorrhaging support since the last elections, losing eight of its legislators since 2014. The latest x-ray of the current political landscape will come on Sunday, when Datafolha polling firm is expected to release the first public opinion survey after Lula was arrested.

— With assistance by Matthew Malinowski

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