The Politics of the Brazilian World Cup

By Luciano Melo

Embed from Getty Images

The 2014 World Cup, scheduled to begin in just 66 days, at this point poses greater risks for President Dilma and her administration than it does benefits.  When the Brazilian government presented its preliminary budget for the event in 2007 – around US$14 billion, or an estimated billion dollars for each 70,000-seat stadium – President Lula was perhaps the most popular president Brazil had ever had.  Despite the mensalão vote-buying scandal several years earlier, Lula was a “man of the people” with a strong personal magnetism.  Brazilians were seeing themselves as an emerging power with a dynamic economy.  Dilma, Lula’s chief of staff, was anointed his successor; she easily won the 2010 election; the Workers Party’s continuity in office seemed assured for the foreseeable future; and the World Cup would be a crowning jewel.

The scenario today looks far grimmer for Dilma.  Her support in the polls dropped from 43 to 36 percent just last month, underscoring her lack of charisma, and the largest Brazilian companies – Petrobras and Eletrobras – have lost half of their market value under her administration.  Cost overruns on World Cup projects have tripled and now exceed the annual budgets for both health and education ($35.6 and $28.8 billion, respectively).  Massive protests last year raised doubts about Dilma’s governance.  The armed forces are being deployed to maintain order in urban slums.  Brazil is now ranked 72nd in the Corruption Perception Index 2013 (a decline from 2012), and press reports indicate that nobody believes that World Cup construction companies have been chosen through a transparent process.  Economic analysts deem budget cuts and taxes increases inevitable – and austerity is in the cards no matter who wins the October 2014 elections.

World Cups and Olympic games are important for governments seeking to boost their image before international and domestic audiences.  If the Olympics in London 2012 aimed to sell England as a beacon of innovation, and the winter games in Sochi marketed Putin’s Russia as a powerful and modern state, the World Cup was Brazil’s opportunity to project itself internationally as a global player with a vibrant economy.  It was to show that high levels of violence and corruption are part of the old days.  Mismanagement and other problems so far suggest those objectives are beyond reach.  Domestically, if Brazil fails to win the cup, we will again see thousands (if not millions) of people protesting in the streets, and Dilma’s prospects of securing a second term will be complicated.  Should Brazil win, however, a soccer-induced surge of national pride may assist her re-election despite public concerns about the cost of the tournament and other economic woes.  But the reprieve probably would be short-lived.  The military move into the favelas is an ad-hoc measure, since organized crime has spread to surrounding urban areas and is likely to reemerge as strong as ever once the events are over.  The middle class and the private sector will continue to pressure the government to fix woefully inadequate public services and improve the business climate – even more challenging with austerity budgets.  The national soccer team could help Dilma win a second term, but the celebration is destined to have a short life. 

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