It was billed as a gathering of socialism's stars, but no-shows and last-minute cancelations put a damper on the 22nd Socialist International Congress.
Brazil might have seemed an attractive venue for a socialist these days. South America's largest country has an elected leftist president for the first time.
But Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat -- all previous guests of the assembly -- didn't attend the latest four-yearly summit of the world's left-leaning parties. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said he was stuck in Saudi Arabia and couldn't get to Brazil in time for Monday's opening.
Spain's former premier and grand old socialist, Felipe Gonzalez, blamed a canceled flight, and Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller also dropped out late, pleading a full plate of domestic issues.
Mongolia's prime minister made it, though it took him 20 hours. Why did he think there were so many no-shows?
"It's the distance," Nambar Enkhbayar surmised. "And there are lots of events taking place."
Organizers insisted they weren't disappointed, stressing that 600 delegates from more than 100 political parties were on hand to tackle poverty and social injustice under the 52-year-old Socialist International's motto: "For a more human society. For a world more fair and just."
The lackluster turnout contrasted with the Socialist International in its heyday, the 1960s and 1970s, when it was an arena for fierce ideological debate among such powers of the left as Germany's Willy Brandt, Israel's Golda Meir and Britain's Harold Wilson.
The sudden coincidence of aborted flights and pressing matters back home raised suggestions that it was mainly about geography. Paris, venue of the higher-profile 1999 congress, is much easier to get to than Sao Paulo.
"It's rare that that this would happen to five or six leaders at the same time for basically the same reasons," said David Fleischer, a political science professor at the University of Brasilia who closely follows the Socialist International.
With or without the no-shows, Fleischer added dismissively, "most of the people in the Socialist International are dinosaurs."
The organization's president, former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres, played down any suggestion that the low-octane turnout reflected the decline of socialism as a political force.
He acknowledged that center-left political parties have recently lost power in former strongholds like France and Italy. But he said parties sympathetic to the Socialist International have won victories in Eastern Europe, and besides, "This is a meeting of political parties, not of leaders or of governments."
Luis Ayala, the Socialist International' Chilean secretary-general, said the group will soon have 170 member parties, compared with 120 four years ago.
"Some of the delegates here today will be the leaders of their countries tomorrow," he said.
South African President Thabo Mbeki is participating, and on Monday the delegates enthusiastically applauded their host, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, for his speech in which he called on the UN to reform itself and shift its mission toward helping the underdog.
"The only war we should be waging is against hunger and inequality," said the former union leader. "That's a war worth fighting."
But Silva's Workers Party hasn't joined the Socialist International, judging the organization to be not leftist enough. It will vote on the issue in 2005, and if it joins, the Socialist International could get a huge boost, Fleischer said.
"But if the meeting is going this way," Fleischer said, "perhaps it shows that this might not come to pass."
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