Brazil: What happens after the social protests?

As the immediate impact of the Brazilian winter protests dies down, Rogelio Núñez of online Spanish-language newsgroup Infolatam looks at the potential next steps for protesters and President Dilma Rousseff.

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This is a translation of an opinion piece by Rogelio Núñez of Infolatam. The original article (in Spanish) can be found here

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff takes part in an Independence Day parade in Brasilia. Photo courtesy of Infolatam

The recovery of Dilma Rousseff’s popularity ratings and the decline of the social mobilisations that spread across Brazil a couple of months ago give numerous indications of what we can expect from this kind of movement. The lessons we can draw from all this, for now at least, are threefold: 1- that the impact of these protests has been rather timely; 2- that no political force has seemed capable of channelling the protests and translating them into votes; and 3- that radical groups have in one way or another ended up controlling the protests, marginalising the middle class sectors (who formed a significant part of the original demonstrations).

The recovery of Dilma

At the time, many thought that the protests would end up burying Dilma Rousseff and putting her reelection bid in 2014 in grave danger. However, everything points to the fact that the effect on the President’s popularity, a key factor given that presidential elections take place a year from now, has diminished somewhat. Dilma’s popularity ratings have been toing and froing, since in May she enjoyed 73.7% approval; however a survey by the MDA Institute revealed that by July, shortly after the protests, her personal approval ratings had fallen by almost 25 percentage points, to 49.3%. Now, though, the President’s popularity seems to have picked up a bit, with a more recent poll carried out in September showing a figure of 58%.

Rousseff has proven adept at riding out the protests: she didn’t criminalise them, presented herself as “an understanding mother” before the frustration of her “sons and daughters”, and has announced various changes and reforms. While these have generally had the air more of political point-scoring than reality (for example, her initiative to call a national referendum on political reform), other projects have gone right to the very heart of the protests. This is particularly the case of improvements to public services, one of the principal demands of the demonstrators. The President recently announced that she would set aside some 2.57bn Reais (US$1.13bn) for the construction of a new 22km metro line in Rio de Janeiro, in an attempt to soothe discontent over the sluggishness of the city’s transport system which can leave workers with a commute of several hours each way. Dilma has said that “These works will bring benefits to 1.8m people who will have a better quality of life because they will be able to spend more time with their families … We’re in a race against time to make up for the time we’ve lost and to try and solve this problem before it gets too late”.

Furthermore, the President had the intuition to realise that corruption is one of the most sensitive topics among Brazilian citizens, and from the start of her presidency at the end of 2010 she has set herself firmly against the continuation of this phenomenon: “Brazil is ready to move on and has already made it clear that it doesn’t want to remain stuck in the same position. We have to make the fight against corruption a priority in the bluntest manner possible”.

This attitude returned to prominence in her recent Independence Day speech, on 7 September, in which she admitted that “the Government should have the humility and self-criticism to recognise that there is a Brazil out there with urgent problems that need to be overcome, and people have every right to be outraged with what is still wrong with the system and the changes that should be made”.

Through it all, Dilma has a certain prestige, thanks to her past and her reputation as a good administrator, and she can be seen as a guarantor of political stability and an economic situation that, for all the problems it has (inflation and a slowing economy), is still a long way off being in a situation that can be genuinely considered a crisis.

Nobody has been able to capitalise on the protests

The recovery of President Rousseff’s ratings has also been reflected in her performance in voting intention polls, which recently reached 36.4%, up from 33.4% in July. Before the protests, though, she was enjoying a 52.8% share of voting intention. Following her are the former environment minister Marina Silva with 22.4%, senator Aécio Neves of the centre-right Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB – Social Democratic Party) with 15.2%, and the Governor of the north-eastern state of Pernambuco Eduardo Campos of the Partido Socialista Brasileiro (PSB – Socialist Party) with 5.2%.

These figures clearly show that no-one has been able to extract political capital from the protests. The centre-right (PSDB), with a new young and attractive candidate in Neves, has not been able to do so, while Silva has only benefitted slightly (with a rating 3 percentage points above the share of the vote that she won in the 2010 elections).

Former Environment Minister and presidential candidate Marina Silva. Photo courtesy of Infolatam

Silva, who was a minister in the government of Rousseff’s successor, Lula da Silva, was recently in a bid to create and register her own party, Rede de Sustentabilidade (Rede – Sustainability Network), a force which she considered “a tool for political participation”. However, this bid failed at the start of October, and she has now joined forces with the PSB and Campos[i]. As the Brazilian weekly Veja underlines: “taking into account the political model, with the effects of the popular protests and the rejection of mainstream political parties, Marina has a special opportunity: she is consistently coming second in opinion polls, with more than 20% of the voting intention, albeit some way behind Dilma Rousseff”. The environmentalist has approached the protest movements, whom she has labelled as “a movement of great beauty” with “the potential to change the country”, referred to the “dissatisfaction” of Brazilians with their political “representation”.

The majority of those who took to the streets view Silva as an admirable figure, but one who lacks a strong and capable political force which would enable her to govern. The PSDB and Neves, meanwhile, have yet to really reach out to the population and convert themselves into a credible political alternative, while Campos is still seen as more of a medium-term prospect than an option for 2014. In the words of Eric Nepomuceno, the special envoy to Brazil of the Argentinean daily Página 12, “it remains evident that the opposition parties have shown themselves incapable of presenting themselves as a viable alternative to the PT. Not only did they fail to mobilise significant sections of Brazilian society, but they were also at a loss as to how to propose a consistent plan for change. As for the principal party of the opposition, the PSDB, neither the twice-defeated (in past presidential elections) José Serra nor Aécio Neves have managed to convince the majority of the electorate that they might be capable of bringing about change in the political scene…”

The protests in the hands of radicals

Another fact to bear in mind is that these kinds of protest movements tend to get watered down over time. The middle classes, the backbone of these mobilisations, end up abandoning the protests, which in turn are left in the hands of the more radical groups in society. This has been the case in Brazil, where after the massive demonstrations of June (when some nights saw more than a million people taking to the streets) the movement entered a quiet phase in July and August, before culminating in a new wave of protest in September, only this time with a smaller turnout and in the hands of extremist and radical groups such as the “Black Block”.

Police in Rio de Janeiro dispersed hundreds of protesters, the majority of them hooded. Photo courtesy of Infolatam

In interviews with El País, two university professors who have studied these groups, Rafael Alcadapini of the Fundación Getúlio Vargas and Esther Solano of the Federal University of São Paulo, considered that “the majority of these young people who make up these groups find themselves on the edge of social exclusion, but are inspired by interpretations from their readings on anarchism, and are mentally well articulated. They don’t go around destroying the symbols of capitalism for nothing”, as Alcadapini explained. “They don’t have a theoretical base, but that doesn’t mean they are lacking in discourse. They are kids from a lower-middle class background, public school students, residents of suburban areas, and so the contact which they have with the country’s problems tends to be much closer. When they talk of violence, it can be provocative because what they want to do is give a new meaning to vandalism: for them, vandalism is their abandonment by the State, delays in the metro, queues in hospitals, the violence to which they are subjected day after day”, pointed out Solana.

What is clear is that these are going to be the principal characteristics of these kinds of movements: their rapid birth (in this case, from a minor protest over public transport fare rises, to the full-blown nationwide demonstrations that materialised a few days later), their lack of capacity to form political groups that can convert the discontent into votes, and their slow downward spiral in the hands of the most radical groups who end up excluding and scaring off the middle classes. In any case, this doesn’t mean that the mobilisations are about to disappear and die out. It is perfectly possible that sooner or later there will emerge new protests headed by the middle classes, given that the issues that affect them remain a long way off being definitively solved, and could even be aggravated in a future scenario of economic slowdown.

[i] The original article by Rogelio Núñez was written before Silva’s switch, so I am adapting it accordingly. Please read my recent article on Silva and her move to the PSB for more information.