Fernando Haddad and the problem with the Brazilian left

How did the Brazilian left allow itself to come so close to losing against an authoritarian?

October 12, 2018
Supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, presidential candidate of the right-wing Social Liberal Party, react after knowing the results of the first round of Brazil's presidential election. Photo: PA
Supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, presidential candidate of the right-wing Social Liberal Party, react after knowing the results of the first round of Brazil's presidential election. Photo: PA

Fernando Haddad seems to be defined by the things he is not. He is not, for instance, an authoritarian with a history of praising torturers to their victims, and who thinks human rights is a conspiracy to favour criminals, like his opponent Jair Bolsonaro.

It is also apparent that he is not the multiskilled charmer that was his mentor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, now doing time in prison for corruption charges.

What's left is a bundle of negatives that define a man who might, depending on who you ask, save or doom Brazilian democracy.

There is a simple answer to the question of who is Fernando Haddad. The son of a Lebanese immigrant, Haddad was the Education Minister during the Lula and Rousseff governments, and then mayor of one of the largest city in Brazil, Sao Paulo, for one term, only to be thoroughly rejected by voters in his failed reelection bid.

He was nominated to be Lula's Vice President in the 2018 elections, and once Lula was barred from running, he was chosen to be the Workers’ Party candidate alongside his running mate, Communist Party congresswoman Manuela D'Avila.

Looking closely, however, and the question cuts deeper into one relationship: that between Haddad and his party. Theirs has always been a strange relationship.

As mayor, Haddad nourished a borderline sacrilegious friendship with former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, somewhat unfairly maligned as the devil of neoliberalism. Haddad was never supposed to be a candidate—until the very last moment, other names were being considered—and has never truly won over his party.

The Workers’ Party is a burden and a blessing. It thinks of itself as the rightful owner of any leftism in Brazil; for the Workers’ Party, the people can only be saved through them.

It is not a wholly unreasonable idea: The party has been the only leftist party to reach power since 1985's redemocratization, with a long and well-known list of accomplishments. Its main rivals on the left have been either allies, or ultimately relegated to minor roles.

This self-importance is vital to understand Haddad's conundrum. In 2016, betrayed by its former allies, the party suffered a barely-legal impeachment that deposed president Dilma Rousseff. This was a blow from which it never recovered—even worse than Lula’s arrest earlier this year.

For decades the party preached a sort of samba remix of Blairism—that Haddad so obviously longs for. Sometimes, it deployed these politics cynically, to justify anything from policy to corruption scandals. In the end, the elites and corrupt politicians the party defended were just as pragmatic to get rid of them.

More than that, the party cannot come to terms with being hated. For almost 14 years, the Workers’ Party ruled over the country, and it got that hollowed-out appearance that long-governing parties do.

There was much to hate about the party’s rule, including long corruption scandals and economic ruin. This anger is a thing itself, easily taken hostage by the reactionary bigotry of Haddad’s right-wing opponent Bolsonaro. To the minds of the Workers’ Party leaders, however, the party’s main mistake was compromising.

Their manifesto, penned by Haddad, does not match its left-of-center, conciliatory author, but it does match the party’s resentment with the country that they lost. Proposals that Lula had previously shelved—like media regulation and altering the Constitution—are back once again.

The Workers Party claims that this is in the name of actual leftism, no longer constrained by alliances. In reality, their new policy proposals are a series of barely-disguised grudges.

This immature positioning makes it possible for their enemies to paint them—incorrectly, for they have been nothing if not democratic—as just as extreme as Bolsonaro; a group of Maduros-in-waiting.

During the debates, once pushed to the position of defending his own manifesto, Haddad floundered and murmured. There are probably thousands of Workers’ Party politicians and activists who could defend the document; Haddad, quite obviously, is not one.

It’s a strange place Haddad finds himself: he is told to show contrition for the Workers’ Party, but he is currently pretending to be unrepentant. He is told to extort the virtues of actual leftism, but he’s not that man. Haddad is not there. Instead ,there's a man who cannot represent all of Lula’s virtues, but who must shoulder the real and imagined sins of the entire left.

Haddad and the Workers’ Party are self-destructive partners. Haddad cannot exist without his party, but his party will not let him exist as he likes.

At other times, this would not be a crisis. Parties die and others rise, and Haddad might find a nice university classroom to inhabit. But the stakes in the forthcoming election are too high.

The problem is not that Haddad is trapped by his party. It’s that the whole of Brazil is coming along, drowning in the absence of a saviour.