IN 1988 A group of centre-left politicians and academics who had opposed the military dictatorship that governed Brazil from 1964 to 1985 set up a new political organisation, the Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB). Its members were reformers, not populists, statists or pork-barrel conservatives. As one of its leaders, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, later wrote: “We advocated a blend of free-market reform and social responsibility” like that espoused by Felipe González in Spain, Bill Clinton in the United States and Tony Blair in Britain. Under Mr Cardoso they governed Brazil between 1995 and 2003. As the party shifted to the centre-right, it became one of two rival anchors of the political system, along with the left-wing Workers’ Party (PT). In the six presidential elections between 1994 and 2014 it averaged almost 40% of the vote. And now, suddenly, the PSDB looks far closer to extinction than its symbol, the toucan.
On paper, it had a strong presidential candidate in last month’s election in Geraldo Alckmin, a four-term governor of the state of São Paulo. Mr Alckmin assembled an eight-party coalition and thus enjoyed far more free television time than any of his rivals. Yet he won just 4.8% of the vote in the first round on October 7th. Many of the PSDB’s erstwhile supporters switched to the aggressive conservative nationalism of Jair Bolsonaro, who was elected in a run-off vote against the PT candidate. The PSDB also fared poorly in the election for congress. It now has only 29 of the 513 seats in the lower house, down from 54 in 2014, and eight senators rather than 12. Mr Alckmin was one of five PSDB governors elected in 2014. Now the party will rule in only three states (out of 27).
Its problems do not end there. One of those three governors is João Doria, who narrowly won in São Paulo. A former lobbyist, he was a protégé of Mr Alckmin. But the two fell out, and Mr Alckmin backed Mr Doria’s opponent. While the PSDB remained neutral in the presidential run-off, Mr Doria supported Mr Bolsonaro.
Under Mr Cardoso, the PSDB boasted both brilliant technocrats and some effective politicians, both nationally and locally. Mr Cardoso’s governments slew inflation, modernised the economy partly through privatisation and pioneered social reforms that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the PT would go on to expand. In São Paulo, the PSDB reduced violent crime; in Ceará, in the north-east, it created primary health-care and literacy programmes.
Only two years ago, in the wake of the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s chosen successor, some analysts were writing the obituary of the PT, blamed for the slump and systematic corruption. It survives as the main opposition to Mr Bolsonaro. Why did the PSDB become the victim? Like the Clintons and Mr Blair, it looked dated. Mr Doria was right when he said in victory that the party “lost touch with the reality of Brazil”. The party’s leaders squabbled among themselves. As the founding generation aged, they failed to groom successors.
Above all, with Brazilians in an angry mood the PSDB began to look like the establishment. It joined the unpopular outgoing government of Michel Temer but reaped no benefit from supporting necessary pension and labour reforms. It began to seem as corrupt as other parties. Aécio Neves, its presidential candidate in 2014, has been charged with seeking bribes (which he denies). While PT supporters “have an almost religious attachment to their party, the vote for the PSDB was much more instrumental”, says Sergio Fausto, who runs Mr Cardoso’s think-tank. The instrument broke in Bolsonaro’s wave of rage.
Mr Doria is now poised to take over the remains of the PSDB. All this “represents the defeat of the historical PSDB,” Folha de S. Paulo, a newspaper, editorialised this week. The party’s name may live on, but “the PSDB as we know it is definitely dead,” declares a prominent member. “There’s no reason to remain in the party.”
The task for those who believed in the PSDB is to reinvent the reformist centre in a Brazil bitterly polarised between Mr Bolsonaro’s right-wing populism and the unrepentant statism of the PT. That means founding a new organisation that attracts young people, and seeking a new leader. Some see that role going to Luciano Huck, a television host, whom Mr Cardoso wooed in vain before this year’s election. That Mr Huck, who has no previous political experience, may well be the best hope for the reformist centre says much about the way Brazilian democracy has changed since 1988.