Brazil: The Day after Temer

By Marcio Cunha Filho*

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Demonstrators in São Paulo demanded the resignation of Brazilian President Temer on May 17, 2017. / Mídia NINJA / Flickr / Creative Commons

Brazil’s political turmoil has reached new heights with the leaking of audio recordings of President Temer allegedly authorizing bribes to prevent the former Speaker of the House, Eduardo Cunha, from concluding a plea bargain arrangement with investigators.  Although the recordings were inconclusive and Temer alleges that they were fabricated, their emergence was enough to push an already fragile government to the verge of collapse in less than 24 hours.  The day after the leak, according to press reports, four of Temer’s ministers were already discussing his replacement at a closed meeting with current Speaker of the House Rodrigo Maia, who is the next in line for succession. Some parties, such as the PPS, have already left Temer’s coalition. The PSDB, Brazil’s largest center-right party and Temer’s main coalition partner, is also discussing a possible withdrawal from government.  (The party’s former President and one of Temer’s closest allies, Senator Aécio Neves, was removed from office by a Supreme Court decision as part of Operation Car Wash.  (See here and here for previous articles about the Lava Jato investigations.)

  • Temer has denied the possibility of resigning, but there are a few ways he could be forcefully removed from office. Most observers argue that, however he departs, the Constitution would require his successor to be indirectly elected by Congress within 30 days.  Others posit, however, that if the Superior Electoral Court condemns Dilma and Temer together for illicit funding in the 2014 Presidential campaign – the trial is in early June and is likely to be the fastest possible way to remove Temer – then the electoral code dictates that new direct popular elections be held (as long as annulment is not declared within the last six months of their term, which ends in December 2018).
  • Key political actors seem to be favoring the scenario in which Congress indirectly elects the successor. Although very fragmented, the Brazilian Congress is mostly conservative or right-leaning, and many of its members fear that former President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, who polls currently indicate would easily defeat any other candidate, might be elected in a popular election.

In this context, indirect election would put Brazil’s political system on the very edge of legality.  During a similar crisis in 1964, Congress’s ousted left-wing acting Vice President João Goulart and elected another itself, without popular approval, in an act almost universally seen today as illegal.  That act ended up throwing Brazil into a violent military dictatorship that lasted for more than two decades.  In the current political crisis, if Congress were to act against the current rules of the electoral code and without popular approval, this could again be another step towards the establishment of an illegal regime, which could further curtail accountability and democratic mechanisms in the country.  Placing the destiny of the country in the hands of a Congress, with many of its members under investigation themselves, might be a mistake with profound consequences.  Popular elections would also entail great uncertainty as well, but the uncertainty of elections is an inherent element of democratic systems.  When political actors try to limit or manipulate electoral outcomes in the name of predictability or security, this is when democracy dies.

May 19, 2017

* Marcio Cunha Filho is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Brasília; federal auditor in Brazil’s Office of the Comptroller General; and CLALS Research Fellow.

Can the 2018 Election Overcome Brazil’s Crisis of Legitimacy?

By Fabio Kerche*

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The Brazilian flag. / Club Med UK / Flickr / Creative Commons

The political and economic crisis punctuated by the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 persists unabated under the troubled administration of Michel Temer.  Stagnation is fueling unemployment, and the government’s efforts to rein in pensions and limit public spending are reinforcing the perception that the principal objective of those who ousted Dilma is to cut back on social rights promised in the 1988 Constitution and deepened by Dilma and her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.  Even more ominously, the continuing cascade of corruption allegations is also undermining support for the new government.

  • Surveys show that only 10 percent of Brazilians rate the Temer government as “good” or “great,” and that its legitimacy is further undermined by whistleblowers alleging that the president and nine of his ministers are corrupt.

The notorious “Car Wash” anti-corruption campaign is hurting more than Temer and his men.  Zealous prosecutors and judges are essentially criminalizing not only politicians’ behavior but, through aggressive interpretations of the law, the practice of politics itself.  The targeting of Dilma’s leftist PT is most obvious, but the deluge of charges is now buffeting all the major political parties.  Leaders of the center-right PSDB, including former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, have been accused of corruption as well.  Except for some miniscule political parties, virtually the entire political system now faces corruption charges.

The 2018 presidential election offers the most plausible avenue for emerging from the crisis, but even that remains highly problematic.  There is a relative consensus among the political class and political analysts that a new, legitimate, and directly elected president could reverse, or at least limit, the deterioration of the political system.  With just over a year remaining for candidates to register, the likely roster is very uncertain, in part because a basic feature of constitutional democracy – that citizens are allowed to compete for office – is increasingly in jeopardy amid the current anti-corruption fever.  Early polls place Lula as the strongest among the likely candidates, and he remains in first place even when surveys include Sérgio Moro, the most important judge in the Car Wash saga, who has not declared himself to be in the running.  But it is unclear whether the courts will let Lula stand for office.  Right-wing media are hammering Lula’s alleged corrupt practices while downplaying those of Temer and his cabinet.  Potential candidates of PSDB have been denounced for receiving bribes and having overseas bank accounts, and their numbers are shrinking in the polls.  An alternative now being floated as a potential PSDB candidate is João Dória, the newly elected mayor of São Paulo who, like U.S. President Donald Trump, is a non-mainstream politician and businessman who formerly hosted the Brazilian version of the TV show The Apprentice.)

  •  This uncertainty – even if the parties resist the continuing wave of Car Wash denunciations and take back some political space from the unelected judicial branch of government – raises the question whether, over the next 18 months, Brazil’s 32 year-old democracy proves itself to be irreversible or to have been an all too brief interlude in the country’s political history. The apparent appeal of outsiders in an environment that is criminalizing politics is a worrisome sign.

April 24, 2017

* Fabio Kerche is Research Fellow at CLALS and Researcher at Casa de Rui Barbosa Foundation, Rio de Janeiro.

Brazil’s Prison Violence Reflects Deeper Social Problem

By Andrew Johnson*

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An interim detention center in São Paulo, Brazil. / Rovena Rosa / Agência Brasil / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

It has been a horrific start to 2017 in the Brazilian prison system, and reversing the trend will take much more than increased public funding.  A wave of violence began on New Year’s Day when 56 inmates were killed during a riot inside of a penitentiary in Manaus.  A series of deadly inmate uprisings followed that massacre, bringing the number of inmates killed this month to 120.  Macabre images of inmates’ decapitated corpses strewn about prison yards captured on cellphone cameras and posted to the internet reminded Brazilians that overcrowding, a weak state presence, and institutionalized gang power have combined to make Brazilian prisons – with over 600,000 inmates – tinderboxes ready to ignite at almost any time.

  • During a year I spent conducting fieldwork inside jails and prisons in Rio de Janeiro for a book and documentary film in 2011, I saw inmates crammed into cells at three and four times their intended capacity. On the worst nights, men unable to find space on the floor or a concrete bunk tied their torsos to the steel gates with t-shirts and attempted to sleep while standing.
  • The Comando Vermelho and other gangs controlled entire cellblocks and used smuggled cell phones and strategic visitors to maintain regular contact with leadership. This communications capability and weapons caches inside the cellblocks enabled them to act as the de facto government. Prison guards knew that they were outgunned and outnumbered, and they knew their off-duty lives could be easily extinguished by an order initiated inside the prison.  January’s riots revealed how thin the veneer of state control really is inside.

Impassioned pleas, prompted by the riots, to reduce overcrowding and provide more resources to Brazil’s prison system are being launched in a time of austerity.  The Brazilian Senate recently approved legislation that could freeze public spending for the next 20 years.  Public investment would certainly reduce the likelihood of future riots, but the crisis in Brazil’s jails and penitentiaries is not caused simply by underfunding.  It is the result of decades of the state treating inmates, and the residents of the neighborhoods where most of them were born, as less than full citizens.  Pastor Antonio Carlos Costa, leader of the human rights organization Rio de Paz, told me the state and public’s reactions to the many thousands killed by the police and hundreds murdered in prisons each year were limited because “they are poor people, people with dark skin, people considered killable.  These are deaths that don’t shock us, they don’t make the Brazilian cry.”

There is no excuse or justifiable defense for the inmates involved in the 120 murders that occurred inside Brazilian prisons this month.  It was an inhumane slaughter propelled by gangs, greed, and a power grab.  But the solution to Brazil’s profoundly troubled prison system lies much deeper than increasing public spending or reducing overcrowding.  Refusing to treat people as killable, gang-affiliated or not, is a goal that may take decades and will require a commitment that is much costlier than any public spending intervention or new legislation.  Laws protecting human rights would have to be enforced for all Brazilians, including prisoners.  Law abiding middle and upper-class citizens would have to push back and no longer tolerate some of the world’s highest murder rates and jails where 80 men squeeze into a cell built for 20.  Transformation this profound would be a difficult message to sell on the campaign trail, but anything less than that sort of social and cultural change from the government and the public will fall short of fixing the deeply rooted problems with Brazil’s prison system.

January 27, 2017

*Andrew Johnson is a Research Associate with the Center for Religion and Civic Culture’s Religious Competition and Creative Innovation (RCCI) initiative at the University of Southern California.

Michel Temer’s Shrinking Presidency

By Matthew Taylor*

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Brazilian President Michel Temer. / PMDB Nacional / Flickr / Creative Commons

Self-inflicted troubles are forcing Brazilian President Michel Temer into difficult choices between his party and an angry public.  When he became president three months ago, his game plan was simple and bold: undertake legislative reforms that would put the government’s accounts back on track, enhance investor confidence, stimulate an economic recovery, and possibly set the stage for a center-right presidential bid (if not by Temer himself, at least by a close ally) in the 2018 elections.  Allies in his Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) would ensure that he had the backing of Congress to push through reforms that might not bring immediate returns, but nonetheless might improve investor confidence.  Sotto voce, many politicians also assumed that the PMDB would be well placed to slow the pace of the bloodletting occasioned by the massive Lava Jato investigation and stabilize the political system.

Last week, the public’s worst suspicions of the PMDB-led government were confirmed by a two-bit scandal that claimed Government Secretary Geddel Vieira Lima, who was putting pressure – with Temer’s help – on a historical registry office to authorize construction of a Salvador building in which he had purchased an apartment.  Temer sought to repair the damage by holding an unusual press conference Sunday in which he promised to veto a proposed congressional amnesty of illegal campaign contributions.  But Temer now faces another important ethical fork in the road: how to respond to Chamber of Deputies approval of anti-corruption legislation yesterday that – while originally intended to boost efforts to clean up government – neuters the reforms and prevents judicial “abuses,” a move widely seen as an effort to intimidate judges and prosecutors.  The bill now heads to the Senate, which seems unlikely to repair the damage and indeed, may further distort the bill in an effort to undermine Temer’s ability to resurrect the reforms through selective vetoes.  The reform package had been a poster child for the prosecutors spearheading the Lava Jato investigation, and it was pushed by a petition drive that gathered more than two million signatures.  Prosecutors have threatened to resign if Temer signs the severely mangled measure into law.

Despite Temer’s initial successes, the outlook for the remainder of his term remains grim.  The bad news is going to continue, causing the Congress and Temer even more sleepless nights.  A deal expected soon reportedly will require the Odebrecht construction firm to pay a record-breaking penalty for its corrupt practices (perhaps surpassing even the US$1.6 billion Siemens paid to U.S. and European authorities in 2008), and plea bargains by nearly 80 company executives might implicate as many as 200 federal politicians.  It threatens to paralyze legislators and further weaken the PMDB’s already decimated crew, undermining Temer’s ability to coordinate with Congress.  Economic forecasts now show economic growth of less than 1 percent in 2017 and, with 26 state governments facing budget crises, politically influential governors are begging for federal help.  A much-needed pension reform promised by Temer has not yet been made public, much less begun the tortuous amendment process in Congress.  Temer increasingly is being forced to choose between helping his allies and achieving reform, or satisfying a public fed up with politics as usual and baying for accountability and a political cleanup.  It will take all of Temer’s considerable political skills and knowledge of backroom Brasília to revise his game plan for these challenging times.

December 1, 2016

* Matthew Taylor is Associate Professor at the School of International Service at American University and Adjunct Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.  This is adapted from this CFR blogpost.

Brazil: Implications of Dilma’s Victory

By Eric Hershberg and Matthew Taylor

Sala de Imprensa / Flickr /  CC BY-NC 2.0

Sala de Imprensa / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

President Dilma Rousseff’s reelection – by a tight 3.28 percent of the vote – sets the stage for a period of challenges and political uncertainty.  The Social Democratic Party (PSDB) candidate, former governor Aécio Neves, was truly a formidable contender, and Dilma and the Worker Party (PT) showed new weaknesses.  The battle was marked by a strong desire for change – even Dilma’s campaign slogan was “Governo Novo, Ideias Novas” (New Government, New Ideas) – and the big question now is what sort of change will come from the PT’s fourth consecutive turn in office.

  • Dilma lost overwhelmingly in the Worker Party’s (PT) old stomping grounds of the southeast (by 2-1 margins), but picked up support in Neves’s state of Minas Gerais and thoroughly dominated the northeast (by 3-1 margins in many places), including Pernambuco, which had gone to Marina Silva in the first round.
  • The lower middle class, known widely as Classe C, ultimately appears to have thrown its lot to Dilma – apparently driven by the PT’s relentless message that only it could be trusted to protect their interests and social programs like the Bolsa Família.
  • The PT emerges from the battle bloody and bruised. The Rousseff campaign’s systematic deconstruction of Marina Silva in the first round buys the resentment of a solid fifth of the electorate.  Former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was an uneven participant in the campaign, inexplicably absent at critical moments and losing his cool at others.
  • The PT won 19 of 27 governorships, and Dilma’s alliance did well in the Chamber of Deputies and Senate, but the opposition is likely to be far more assertive, as the combined issues of the economy, public services and corruption proved during the campaign to be useful wedges to drive between the middle class and the PT. A newly combative and forceful Aécio will be the clear leader of the opposition.

Dilma faces formidable challenges.  The economy was moribund for almost all of her first term, and fairly urgent work is needed to cope with a deteriorating current account, the weak fiscal results, resurgent inflation, and declining personal credit, especially among the politically influential Classe C.  Management of public services – theoretically manager Dilma’s strong suit – needs attention, and she actually has little hope of driving meaningful change singlehandedly.  The corruption story, moreover, is an immediate threat.  If the testimony of foreign exchange dealer Alberto Yousseff, who was given whistleblower protection in exchange for testifying to the police, is to be believed, this is an enormous scandal that may shake the administration to its core.  In light of this political scenario, it is perhaps not surprising that Dilma’s victory speech focused on building consensus, suggesting she would push political reform via plebiscite, promising anti-corruption reforms, and suggesting, after largely downplaying the issue on the campaign trail, that inflation and fiscal balance will be key priorities during her second term.  Whether she can actually accomplish these goals on her own timetable is a big question.

(Click here to read the full version of this article.)

October 27, 2014

Elections in Brazil: The Force of the Latin American Left

By Eric Hershberg and Luciano Melo

Aécio Neves – Senador & World Economic Forum / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Aécio Neves – Senador & World Economic Forum / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

The first round of Brazil’s presidential election has set the stage for a runoff playing primarily to class differences.  By the eve of the election, polls hinted at the real possibility that the center-right candidate Aécio Neves of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) would edge out the other principal opposition contender, former Minister of the Environment Marina Silva.  Silva enjoyed a spike in the polls after she replaced the late Eduardo Campos, who perished in a plane accident in August, as the Brazilian Social Party (PSB) candidate.  Sunday’s results confirmed Silva’s decline, as she captured only 21.3 percent of the votes compared to 33.5 percent for the PSDB and 41.6% for incumbent President Dilma Roussef of the Worker’s Party (PT).  The PT used its potent propaganda machine to portray Silva as a potentially dangerous candidate – an indecisive leader who could not be trusted to sustain popular social programs such as the Bolsa Familia conditional cash transfer program, which has helped lift millions of Brazilians out of poverty.  Also, Aécio and Rousseff built their images upon two iconic ex-Presidents – the former on Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC) – seen by the middle and upper classes as the leader who managed to defeat hyperinflation and putting Brazil on track for economic growth – and the latter on Lula, Rousseff’s mentor, who is idolized among the most disadvantaged parts of Brazilian society as the President who helped the poor become less poor.

To win the runoff on October 26, Aécio needs at least 70 percent of Silva’s votes – she has only hinted at supporting him – while Rousseff would succeed with only half of that.  It is clear that Dilma and the PT will double down on their negative advertisements, now aiming at Aécio rather than Marina.  The PT’s barrage over the airwaves will highlight the risks of abandoning the course set out by Lula and followed by Rousseff.  Voters will be told that the opposition may underfund cash transfers, privatize the state oil company Petrobrás or treat it as a profit-making enterprise rather than as a development bank, thus increasing unemployment as occurred during the Cardoso years.  And the PT will no doubt remind voters of its consistent efforts to boost minimum wages and chip away at the vast inequalities that had long characterized Brazil.  Surely they will portray Neves as an elitist out of touch with the majority that has benefited from the PT’s redistributionist agenda.  Aécio and the PSDB, by contrast, will highlight the worrisome slowdown in growth under Rousseff, the failure to significantly improve public services – it was frustration over health, education and, particularly, urban transportation that drove the social protests that began in mid-2013 – and the over-regulated and over-taxed economy.  Most of all, Neves’ campaign will harp on the persistent scandals that have bedeviled the PT over the past decade and that have helped to fuel popular disdain for politicians.

The election results in Brazil are likely to become increasingly polarized in terms of class.  Dilma appears poised to prevail in the poorest states of North and Northeast, where Bolsa Familia and other cash transfer programs, subsidies, wage increases and Lula’s image are compelling.  In turn, Aécio should come out ahead in the richer states such as São Paulo, which offer the largest pool of voters and where highly educated and middle- and upper-income Brazilians are concentrated.  We make divergent predictions: Hershberg anticipates a PT victory, since for all the speculation about the travails of the Latin American left, it has built very substantial foundations of support in societies that credit the left with finally making some advances to tackle Latin America’s yawning inequalities.  Warnings that Aécio represents a return to elite rule will resonate among the PT’s electoral base, and the PT’s success will be nourished by its powerful organizational capabilities.  Melo, by contrast, anticipates a PSDB triumph.  In this scenario, the corruption, disappointing growth rates over the past two years as the commodity boom has slowed, and widespread frustration about the quality of public services will generate an anti-incumbent dynamic that will bring to an end a dozen years of PT rule.

October 10, 2014

Brazil: Is Marina Silva the PT’s Nemesis?

By Luciano Melo

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Photo courtesy of the Marina Silva campaign website

No politician in recent years has been able to shake and polarize Brazilian politics as Marina Silva has since becoming the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) presidential candidate after its original nominee, Eduardo Campos, died in a plane crash last month. She has an alluring biography: born into an extremely poor family and illiterate until she was 16, she worked as a rubber tapper and rose to become one of the most prominent ecologists and defenders of the Amazon region alongside Chico Mendes, a true Brazilian hero. After earning a degree in history, Silva entered politics in the mid-1980s. Several years later she received the most votes as a state representative for Acre, served twice as a senator, and later became the Minister of Environment in Lula’s administration (a position from which she resigned due to fundamental divergences with the Workers Party and Dilma Rousseff). In 2007 she won the UN’s Champions of the World award, and three years later she ran for President under the Green Party banner, amassing 20 million votes on a platform emphasizing environmental issues and education.

Recent polls find roughly a third of Brazilian voters favoring Silva in the first round of balloting scheduled for October 5, and running even with or slightly ahead of President Rousseff in an anticipated run-off election three weeks later. The Brazilian media suggest that a large part of Silva’s appeal comes from a personal aura of transparency and rectitude – a refreshing change from others competing for Brazil’s top job. She has also demonstrated an old-fashioned ability to compromise in order to form alliances. A committed environmentalist, Silva teamed up with Eduardo Campos, a titan of agribusiness, and now, heading up the PSB ticket, her running mate is Beto Albuquerque, a moderate farmer who can bring a certain level of balance in the economic-environmental equation. On the separation of church and state, however, Marina may face a difficult balancing act. She is an evangelical Christian, winning a large chunk of religious voters in 2010, and she has defended the teaching of creationism in schools, saying that God created even Darwin. She rolled out an agenda for advancing LGBT rights recently, but criticism by Pastor Silas Malafaia, one of Brazil’s main evangelical leaders, forced her to reverse course and abandon her position 24 hours after having presented it.

Although Brazil is a religious country, laïcité – a French version of secularism – is a serious matter for the upper and middle classes, and Silva’s religiosity may cost her votes. She has exposed her core weak spot, which the other candidates will exploit in the upcoming debates and electoral campaigns. But popular concerns about corruption run much deeper in the eyes of the Brazilian people. The fact that presidents Dilma and Lula and the PT have become synonymous with misconduct in general, and mismanagement regarding Petrobrás in particular – a scandal involving 40 PT members in a multi-million real scheme – weakens their ability to counterattack amidst Silva’s continuous rise. What we will see in the elections in October is therefore a battle between the PT’s Bolsa Família – one of the most successful social programs in the history of Brazil – and a candidate who theoretically embodies honesty and honor. Whatever the outcome, it seems that PT has met its biggest challenge in 12 years.

Brazil: Evangelicals Gaining Influence

By Daniel Azevedo

Photo Credit: Igreja Adventista Central de Porto Alegre / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Photo Credit: Igreja Adventista Central de Porto Alegre / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Brazil still has the largest Catholic population in the world, but evangelical churches are gaining in size and political clout.  In the 1980s, persons identifying themselves as evangelicals made up 6.6 percent of the population; today they are 22.2 percent, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics.  Whereas Catholics have generally not organized politically, evangelicals from various parties have gradually been gathering under their religious banner.  They have been growing in numbers and influence since the 2010 elections that chose President Dilma Rousseff.  That year, fearing she would lose the second round of the election to opposition candidate José Serra, Rousseff signed a letter to deputies and senators of the “evangelical bench” promising that she would not sign any laws that went counter to their values, such as legalizing abortion or gay marriage.  The letter gave her the support of evangelical churches, and ensured Dilma’s victory.  Also in 2010, the evangelical bench in the legislature grew 50 percent compared to the 2006 election, reaching 60 deputies and 3 senators.

The evangelical bench anticipates even greater gains in the general elections this October, although polls substantiating its optimism are lacking.  The Folha de São Paulo reports that the Evangelical Parliamentary Front of the House of Representatives estimates it will grow 30 percent, reaching up to 95 representatives – 18 percent of the total House.  This could have legislative consequences.  As a congressman, for example, Pastor Marco Feliciano tried to win approval for a “gay cure” law, which would make it legal for psychologists to treat and “heal” homosexuals in search of heterosexuality.  (Feliciano may at times be an outlier.  Last year he said that “black people are cursed by God in the Bible and, for that reason, Africa is the worst continent in world.”)  Despite the evangelicals’ strong unifying platform, gaining support beyond their bases may be difficult.

The evangelicals seem to have electoral strategies in Rio de Janeiro in place.  Among the four pre-candidates for state governor, two of them are members of the evangelical bench.  Early polls suggest one or the other may become the executive of Brazil’s second most important state, although both face legal problems.  The first one, Anthony Garotinho, has been accused of money-laundering and illegal distribution of political propaganda; his Caravana da Palavra da Paz allegedly misused public money and broke election laws by distributing Bibles and other materials just to people over the minimum voting age.  The other, Marcelo Crivella, is suspected of misusing of public money with his NGO, Farm New Canaan.  (The Portal de Transparência Brasil, an NGO tracking Brazilian politicians, has found that all of the evangelical bench members face unspecified lawsuits, and 95 percent of them are on the list of House members missing the most sessions.)  They are leading the polls, albeit with only 19 percent and 18 percent of intended votes, because the two non-evangelical candidates have apparently more serious political problems.  One is connected to the current and discredited governor, and the other faces serious legal challenges.  Despite the low probability of a breakthrough at the presidential level in the near future, the evangelicals’ efforts in the legislature and states strongly suggest their conservative voice will be an increasingly powerful force to be reckoned with.

Brazil Protests: Amorphous Causes, Unpredictable Consequences

By Matthew M. Taylor

Protestors in Brazil / Photo credit: Izaias Buson / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Protestors in Brazil / Photo credit: Izaias Buson / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Hundreds of thousands of Brazilians hit the streets of a dozen state capitals this past week.  The initial trigger was a proposed hike in São Paulo bus fares, already among the world’s most expensive, but news media soon reported that the protests reflected anger with the rising cost of living, crime, corruption, impunity, and the high costs of hosting the World Cup. Lackluster public services haven’t helped, and widely televised police violence last week provided another rallying cry.  Polling by Datafolha shows that the protest is a middle class phenomenon, with 77 percent of the marchers in São Paulo claiming a university degree.  This growing demographic group is turning against President Dilma Roussef’s Worker’s Party (PT) but it is also weary of the opposition PSDB, especially in São Paulo state.

So far, the protests have been difficult for political parties to harness for their own ends.  Partisans who showed up at the marches on Monday waving party flags were reportedly forced to pull them down by indignant protestors.  Dilma’s popularity has been falling – she was recently booed at the opening match of the Confederations Cup – but the marchers don’t seem collectively exercised about her policies or those of any single party or politician.  Aecio Neves, Marina Silva and Eduardo Paes, her potential opponents in elections scheduled for late 2014, have yet to capitalize on her vulnerabilities, as the protestors seem to be casting “a pox on all their houses.”  An outside candidacy is a rising possibility, but Brazilians have been wary of supposed political saviors after the rapid rise and fall of Fernando Collor in 1990‑92.  Anger is directed at the political class as a whole because it is incapable of responding to public disgust with Brazil’s unsatisfactory public services.

It is quite possible that the protests may peter out on their own, especially if the renewed violence seen in São Paulo on Tuesday night alienates supporters.  If the protests continue and remain peaceful, they may result in increased social solidarity and a shared sense of patriotism in the face of an unsatisfactory political system.  Something similar happened during other mass protests in the past, especially the Diretas Já marches of 1985.  A renewed consensus in favor of a more robust and effective democracy would be salutary, but the concrete results arising from the protestors’ demands are difficult to predict.  One thing to be sure of: withdrawing the proposed bus fare increase proposal is too little, too late.