Last Sunday, the main cities in Brazil were stage to a massive wave of protesters dressed in green and yellow. Waving the Brazilian flag and singing the national anthem, more than a million people demanded less corruption and the impeachment of the president. But what exactly does all this national commotion mean?
History repeats itself
In 1998 Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC) won the presidential election for the second time, becoming the first president to have a democratic second term in the country. After a successful first term, the country suffered an international crisis, currency devaluation, and corruption scandals regarding the FHC’s privatizations. Led by the opposition (the Workers Party- PT), thousands of people took to the streets to ask for his impeachment.
The situation today is similar. The recently reelected president, Dilma Roussef, faces a tough time in the next four years. With the US dollar beating R$3.2, rising inflation, and massive corruption scandals involving her party, the president is dealing with a divided nation, where half of the voters did not endorse her reelection in the polls this past October and now want her out of office.
Who are leading the protests?
The main organizers of the protests nationwide are “Revoltados Online” (Online Revolted People) and Movimento Brasil Livre (Free Brazil Movement), among other groups – mainly organized online. The groups vary from young libertarians to non-partisans, but the majority of the people who attended the protests did not clearly support any ideology or party and are mainly middle class families who have been negatively affected by the current economic situation in the country. The reality for most of them changed when the economic climate was favorable to small entrepreneurs and increased middle class’ purchasing power, but that recently shifted due to an escalation of inflation and destabilization of the economy, creating great dissatisfaction. In addition, the mounting corruption scandals involving the PT that were brought to the surface recently contributed to the frustration that is felt by millions of Brazilians.
What does it all mean?
In São Paulo, more than a million people took over the city’s main avenue, Avenida Paulista, with signs demanding the end of corruption, better education, and the impeachment of the elected president. Among the general protesters there were also some radical outliers. Ultra conservative groups and military advocates popped up among the crowd, and were falsely represented by part of the media as the faces of the protests. But aside from those groups, the protesters had mainly the clamor to the end of the Workers Party years in power- if Roussef finishes her term, the PT will have been in charge of the National Office for 16 years.
Despite having some blurred goals and various groups claiming for dozens of different things (impeachment, less corruption, better education, and so forth), the March 15th marches have an important meaning: people are showing the political class that they are not willing to quietly accept whatever scheme goes on in the public offices. Ever since the arrival of the Portuguese, Brazil has had the culture of a political class that uses public institutions to their favor. A number of corruption scandals have emerged during the re-democratization period after the end of the military dictatorship, and were taken with apathy by the middle classes. More than one million people protesting in the streets may be a sign that this situation is about to change.
However, it is important to point out that the lack of focus and political debate may render the movements pointless once again. First, it is possible that a good part of the protesters claiming for the president’s impeachment are not rationalizing the implications that come with it. Second, there is still a representation gap in the country, therefore a significant number of voters don’t identify themselves with the candidates running for office at the national, regional and local levels, which creates the space for reimagining political parties in Brazil. Finally, the country has failed to develop the needed structural reforms in order to strengthen its institutions and promote transparency and democracy, thus an impeachment of the president wouldn’t suffice to solve Brazil’s political problems.
What happens next?
Brazil is experiencing a turbulent period. As it is common in these times, every move has to be precise in order to steer the country in the right direction and avoid undesirable changes. And in the present case, an impeachment might not be the best solution for the largest democracy in Latin America. Such action could shake the trust in the electoral institutions, since it would remove from power a democratically elected president. Also, Roussef has already started some of the much needed changes in order to put the economy back on track – such as appointing a Finance Minister who is taking the obvious measures to control inflation and restore growth.
However, this is not enough. In order for Brazil to regain its political confidence and people’s trust in institutions, the politicians involved in the latest corruption scandals have to be held accountable for their crimes. This will show a commitment with the democratic system. Together with that, transparency improvements and channels for the politicians to account for their actions must be encouraged and strengthened. The population’s civic awakening has to go beyond the polls and the streets, and be transformed into action.
What comes next in Brazilian political scene remains uncertain. The democratic system requires people’s participation, and, as a Brazilian citizen, I hope we become more engaged in the political sphere not only to change the situation we are currently living, but to improve the quality of our democracy. The participation on the political debate has to go beyond the polls and be part of the daily life, demanding accountability from the politicians and the public sector to deliver. But the government also has to do its part and be responsive to the people’s claims. Or they will learn their lesson the hard way.
Marianna Buchalla Pacca is a Brazilian, currently pursuing her masters degree in Latin American Studies at Georgetown. Her main fields of study include government and public sector development.