The Department of Government
The Department of Government

Moderating the Brazilian Workers’ Party

Tue, October 12, 2010

Do organizations respond to changes in their external environment? Is any organization too radical to moderate in response to changing circumstances? Can leaders make a clean break with the past, or does an organization’s legacy constrain its efforts to adapt and survive? Does organizational change happen all at once, or in bits and pieces? Is leadership really that important?

These are some of the questions Wendy Hunter, associate professor of Government, answers in her new book published by Cambridge University Press, “The Transformation of the Workers' Party in Brazil, 1989–2009,” which traces the changes the Brazilian Workers’ Party underwent as it transformed itself from a militant, ideological, grassroots organization to a moderate, vote-maximizing, professional political party. In little over a decade, the Workers’ Party went from political outsider to the top of the political establishment, winning two consecutive victories in presidential elections, the first in 2002 followed by reelection in 2006.

Originally a political party advocating socialism, the Worker’s Party gradually softened its programmatic demands for major redistributive programs and also decreased its emphasis on societal participation in government as well as demands for ethical government. This moderation resulted largely from a political and economic context bounded by a non-ideological electorate, majority-wins electoral institutions, and structural market reforms in the domestic and international economies.

However, change was layered and incremental. While the Worker’s Party responded to external pressures for change, it did so in pieces which eventually added up to substantial transformation. Change was also often issue-specific, with across-the-board transformation never materializing, but rather coming quickest and most profoundly on the issues most critical to generating broad public support for the party. Changes in how the party projected itself were the first to come, while internal restructuring came much slower or not at all, as these deeper changes in party organization were constrained by historical legacies.

The presence of a popular leader – Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a leader more popular than the party itself, who possessed unique appeal to diverse groups in the electorate and consequently enjoyed the power of persuasion within the party – was decisive in facilitating change.

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