Partido dos Trabalhadores

The PT does not simply seek to get into office and drive the machinery of state towards the poor. Rather, it aims to open up the state machinery in the municipalities and involve all citizens - the poor especially - in deciding how it should work, a collaborative process that is both personally and socially transformative. -- Hilary Wainwright

Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, Brazilian Workers Party) was founded in 1981. It grew out of the struggles against the military dictatorship. It has its roots in the poor, the landless, Marxism, Liberation Theology and was greatly influenced by the philosophy and teachings of Brazilian educator and political philosopher Paulo Freire.

PT is unusual, in that, unlike traditional political parties, it does not seek power for its own sake. Since its founding in 1981, PT has acted as the voice of the powerless and the poor. It works with the community as equal partners, which means sharing political power with the community when it gains political office.

These could just be empty words, to be abandoned for a new coat once power has been obtained. This has not been the case in Porto Alegre. The first step PT took when it took office, was to open up the budget to direct public participation. By a complex series of meetings, local representations and dialogue with the community, the community draws up the budget and formally presents the budget to the mayor. It could end there, but the community is then involved in monitoring the budget and drawing up proposals and priorities for the following year.

How well has this worked?

Support for PT has grown, with a PT mayor being returned in four successive elections. The percentage of the population of Porto Alegre that identifies with PT has grown from 6.4% to 46% over a ten year period from 1986 to 1996. Over a ten year period from 1990 to 2001, party membership in Porto Alegre has grown from just under 9,000 members to a little over 24,000 members. The numbers of schools built, health care provisions, paved streets, houses built, clean water supplied, have all shown dramatic increase since PT have been running Porto Alegre with the help of the local community. In many ways these figures are not surprising as it has been the local people who have been deciding their priorities, not corrupt politicians with their snouts in the trough.

Porto Alegre turned down a five-star hotel investment on the site of an abandoned power plant, and instead built a public park and convention hall. The nearby city of Guiaba turned down a proposed new Ford auto plant, arguing that the proposed new employment would be less beneficial than the subsidies and tax breaks that Ford was demanding.

How is it all sustained? Won't people show an interest in local politics when their own interests are under threat, then rapidly lose interest just as quickly?

PT don't leave it to chance. People show an interest in local politics when they have proprietorship in government, to use a phrase coined by Thomas Paine (1737–1809) in The Rights of Man (1791-92) when he argued for representative democracy at a time of absolute monarchs. When people achieve control over their own lives and communities they become emboldened and more assured. Learning from Paulo Freire, PT have educated local people in how to become involved, and to understand their rights. Investment takes place in local businesses to provide council services, local people are encouraged to run these businesses as co-operatives.

The figures on participation in the budget speak for themselves, 1,000 in 1990, 3,700 in 1991, 10,000 in 1993, 20,000 in 1997, and around 40,000 in 2002.

Nothing stands still. PT welcomes criticism. International observers are invited as welcomed guests.

A crowning achievement for PT, was that Porto Alegre hosted the world's first World Social Forum, held to offer a real anti-globalisation alternative to the neo-liberal agenda of World Economic Forum held annually at Davos. 2,000 people were expected at the first World Social Forum, 12,000 turned up. At the second WSF, held over six days in January 2002, 60,000 people turned up. WSF has now spawned a whole series of Social Forums, in Europe, Asia and Africa, and even smaller city-based ones have taken place across the world.

With the election of Luiz Inacio 'Lula' de Silva as President of Brazil (2002), PT now holds the presidency of Brazil. It remains to be seen how well what works successfully at the local level translates to the national level, especially within the limits imposed by the IMF, but already it has been decided that distribution of what the state allocates to the regions will be decided by regional equivalents of the Porto Alegre participatory budget.

Paulo Freire (1921-1997), Brazilian educator and political philosopher, born of lowly background. Freire believed there should be dialogue between pupil and teacher, that understanding the world was as important as understanding the word, that understanding should build social capital. He was especially concerned that the oppressed become the oppressors when given the opportunity and how to break the cycle. His Pedagogy of the Oppressed is currently one of the most quoted educational texts (especially in Latin America, Africa and Asia). A founder member and leading guru of the Brazilian Workers Party (PT). The underlying philosophy of PT is the philosophy of Freire.

MST, Brazilian Landless Workers Movement, is the largest social movement in Latin America and one of the most successful grassroots movements in the world. Hundreds of thousands of landless peasants have taken onto themselves the task of carrying out a long-overdue land reform in a country mired by an overly skewed land distribution pattern (Less than 3% of the population owns two-thirds of Brasil's arable land). They have not waited to be given land, they have taken it. In 1999 alone, 25,099 families occupied unproductive land. There are currently 71,472 families in encampments throughout Brazil awaiting government recognition. The success of the MST lies in its ability to organize. Its members have not only managed to secure land, thereby guaranteeing food security for their families, but have come up with an alternative socio-economic development model that puts people before profits. This is transforming the face of Brasil's countryside and Brasilian politics at large.


further reading

Sue Branford, Bernard Kucinski, Politics Transformed: Lula and the Workers Party in Brazil, 2003

William F Fisher and Thomas Ponniah (Eds), Another World is Possible: Popular Alternatives to Globalisation at the World Social Forum, Zed Books, 2003

Margaret Keck, The Workers Party and Democratization in Brazil, 1991

Paul Kingsnorth, One No, Many Yeses: A Journey to the Heart of the Global Resistance Movement, The Free Press, 2003

Sean Purdy, Brazilian Workers' Party in the pink, Socialist Review, May 2001

Ben Reid, The Brazilian Workers Party and the participatory budget in Rio Grande do Sul

M.E. Keck, The Workers' Party and Democratisation in Brazil, Yale University Press, 1992

Hilary Wainwright, Reclaim the State, Verso, 2003

Gaia index ~ participatory democracy
(c) Keith Parkins 2003 -- October 2003 rev 1