Thursday, June 17, 2004

Not again?

You have to wonder whether the PT administration in the north eastern state of Piaui is set to suffer the same problems that Governor Vitor Buaiz faced in Espirito Santo in 1996.

Since 8 June there have been strikes by the police and prison officers over pay. According to this Folha de Sao Paulo article, the Piaui governor, Wellington Dias, claims the state doesn't have the money, since much of its receipts from the federal government bypass the state to the municipalities.

To this is the added problem which the local Diario do Povo notes, that inactive workers on the state's books cost Piaui around R$27 million and a debt to the federal government of around 22% of the budget. And Piaui's governor is limited in what he can do, especially since he can't take the easy option of meeting the demands of the strikers and passing it off to the federal government as used to be the norm; the Fiscal Responsibility Law, which was passed four years ago, limits states and municipalities budgets which can be spent on the payroll. Indeed, 52% of the current state budget is spent on its workforce. The Fiscal responsibility Law only allows for 49%.

According to the latest news, the governor has gone to Brasilia to challenge the federal government over its debt. But that probably won't change much. Of far more interest are the possible proposals outlined in the Diario do Povo article today, where the finance minister, Antonio Neto has proposed a series of measures. These would involve making cuts and redundancies and will be outlined in a report to the Legislative Assembly by the end of the week.

Here could lie several problems which observers of the ill-fated Vitor Buaiz will recognise. Although I don't know what the working arrangement is like between the governor and the assembly, a quick look at the figures indicate that of the 30 state deputies, only three are members of the governor's own party.

Assuming an alliance with Lionel Brizola's left-wing PDT and the right-wing Partido Liberal (assuming a similar arrangement as that between the national PT and Partido Liberal (Lula's vice-president is from the Partido Liberal), then the most this coalition would muster is 7. This contrasts with the PFL on 9 and both the PSDB and PPB on 4 each. Of course state alliances may differ from those at the national level, but the PSDB and PFL were a coalition under the former President Fernando Henrique and the PPB is a right-wing party which would find common cause with PFL. These three parties together would bring together 17 - more than half the assembly.

As well as the figures in the assembly is the risk that making drastic cuts would have on the governor's electoral support. The PT being the party of the unions and workers, slashing jobs, making redundancies and cutting the size of the state are not popular actions. Wellington Dias may well bare the brunt of far wider protests and strikes than just the police and prison service if he makes sweeping cuts throughout the state.

This is why a look at Vitor Buaiz's own unfortunate time in Espirito Santo is worth watching. He faced exactly the same problems: a bloated state machine which needed pruning. In 1996 his administration put forward a range of emergency measures. But not only did he upset his constituency and ultimately split the local PT, he was a hostage to a legislative assembly where the right held the balance of power. While they passed the proposals, they made sure he was stuck with the blame for it, letting him hang.

The worry must be the extent to which Wellington Dias and the national PT have learned from that experience. If the situation gets worse and the strikes spread and the administration grinds to a halt, then this will be shown as yet another example of the PT being unable to introduce reform. And that could - and probably will - be used by its opponents in October's local elections. Will the national PT let Wellington go hang? For the sake of Lula and the national PT they can't. The PT gets a pretty bum rap from the national media, dominated as it is by the Globo empire. They need to keep on top of this if they're to have any chance of demonstrating the PT's ability to change the old way of doing things.

PS If you're really, really interested in Vitor's story, check out Fiona Macauley's and my chapter in Radicals in Power. Available at all good book shops. Hint, hint!

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