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Brazilian Elections and Demonstrations of June 2013: The Rise of Conservatism?

Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, University of Brasília, Brazil

It is not simple to characterize the phenomenon of mass protests and their outcomes. In particular, the connection between a protest and subsequent political or regime changes has been much discussed by scholars of constitutional law. The links, however, are not always obvious. Paradoxically history has shown that after mass protests, subsequent elections tend to yield a conservative backlash rather than the fruition of the social catharsis. In 1968 de Gaulle and his right-wing coalition won a landslide victory in the French Parliament after the famous demonstrations that May. More recently in 2011 Spain underwent a right wing takeover of its Parliament despite thousands of students protesting against the economic crisis. Brazil is no exception. Right on the heels of the demonstrations in June of 2013, the country now seems to be headed towards conservatism, based on the most recent congressional elections. This paradox, whereby popular uprisings demand a new future but the traditional machinations of politics cling to the past, raises the question: Why do social catharses and subsequent elections always seem to move in opposite directions?

During the Confederations Cup in June of 2013, thousands of protesters stormed many of the largest cities in Brazil. From the streets of cities like São Paulo, Salvador, Belo Horizonte, and Rio de Janeiro to the roof of Congress in Brasília, the protests included people from all different societal strata and with widely varying demands. The demonstrations had nominally begun from raising bus fares, but quickly exploded to include a wide variety of agendas in which all different sorts of social, economic, and political issues were raised, including conflicting ones. Calls for social justice and rights for historically oppressed groups stood right next door to calls for banning gay marriage, preserving the ban on abortion or drugs, condemning the quota system in Brazilian universities, or advocating for harsher criminal punishments.

Under the spotlight of international press and the events of the Cup, the protests lost their focus. Their demands went from specific issues to generalities, such as putting an end to corruption, or decrying inflation, or the poor allocation of public funds, or the privatization of government services. “Brazil now seems to be pivoting toward a new phase of interaction between demonstrators and political leaders with its wave of protests,”[1] claimed the New York Times, yet despite this bold claim the protests proved ineffective. Although some political leaders did respond to the protests, no lasting “phase of interaction” ever developed.

Reacting to the protests, for example, President Dilma Roussef proposed a risky change to Brazil’s constitutional amendment procedure for the purpose of promoting political reform. By simplifying the rigid amendment rules and creating a “fast track” for political reform, she was trying to respond to the spirit of the protest. Her proposal, nevertheless, proved unsuccessful. Altering a constitutional structure is never easy, and in particular the stability and successes of the Brazilian democratization made it even harder to argue for the necessity of the new procedures.[2] Indeed, there was an intense backlash from many constitutionals scholars to the proposed change.[3] The proposed “exclusive constituent assembly” never materialized. Ultimately, as the protests died down no lasting structural changes had occurred – as should be little surprise, since politicians have a wedded interest in the status quo. The predicted “new phase of interaction” never came to be. Alfredo Saad-Filho lamented that “it is disappointing, but also sobering, to conclude that Brazil is not going through a revolutionary crisis, and that the current political mobilizations are unlikely to trigger one.”[4] The importance of these events notwithstanding, they failed to “shift the political balance in the country,” at least not in the intended fashion.[5]

Brazil utilizes a two stage election process every four years. The president, state governors, senators, and federal and state representatives are all chosen at this time. The first round occurred October 5, during which the senators, federal and state representatives, and thirteen of the twenty-seven state governors were elected. The office of the president and any state governors are contested in the second round, on October 26, if no candidate reaches a majority in the first round, as was the case for the presidency and fourteen governors. As has become typical in Brazilian politics, the choices were largely polarized between two coalitions. The center-left coalition was led by the Worker’s Party (PT), which has been in power since the rise of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2003. The Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) headed up the center-right coalition, whose last president was Fernando Henrique Cardoso, elected in 1994.

With regards to the Brazilian Congress, at least, the movements of June 2013 failed to bear fruit despite what was predicted by journalists, experts, and scholars worldwide. Instead of the anticipated “new phase of interaction between demonstrators and political leaders,” that might spur valuable debates over political renewal and the expansion of social rights, the conservative right saw an increase to their power and influence. The religious, military, rural, and other typically conservative social groups won more seats in Congress than any period since the end of the Brazilian civil-military dictatorship in 1985. For example, the most voted representative in Rio de Janeiro was Jair Bolsonaro, a champion of anti-homosexual activism and apologist for the Brazilian dictatorship. Similarly in São Paulo, Marco Feliciano, a religious pastor and advocate for traditional family values, won the third most votes. In contrast representatives tied directly to social movements lost seats. So did those tied with workers’ unions, from 83 to 46. While Dilma Roussef did secure the presidency once again, the polarization between the PT and PSDB has only intensified, and she faces a hostile congress in the upcoming term with a conservative agenda opposed to many of the historical positions of her party.

We are left with the question of why do social catharses and subsequent elections always seem to move in opposite directions? Why would a sudden uprising of progressive sentiment spark such an immediate conservative backlash? This is an intriguing phenomenon deserving of greater scholarly attention. The events in Brazil, however, showcased how fundamental aspects of democracy such as freedom of speech and political expression are vital to the integrity of its institutions. It also proved that the Constitution can serve as a tool for or impediment to political change. From a sociological perspective, a new class of citizens rose up and claimed their rights and expressed themselves in a public forum previously reserved only for the elite in Brazilian society.

These moments, however, are inevitably capitalized upon by those with other agendas. In a clear example of class conflict, those social groups that have traditionally benefited by the entrenched institutions, now facing destruction of the status quo, can turn it to their advantage.[6] Therefore a movement with a clear purpose, the cancelling of bus-fare increases, became under pressure from the press and the new media a generalized, diffuse, unfocused movement ripe for co-option. As this new vague call to arms took the lead, and the environment of social catharsis validated any and all political claims, conservative leaders were able to seize control of the movement by condemning politics in general while reaffirming traditional conservative values. The elite, although threatened by these movements, can thereby maintain or even expand their power through them in a dangerous cycle.[7] The recent elections in Brazil and their paradoxical outcome are a perfect paradigm of this, and perhaps a useful predictive model for similar movements and backlashes to come.

Suggested Citation: Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, Brazilian Elections and Demonstrations of June 2013: The Rise of Conservatism?, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Nov. 1, 2014, available at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2014/10/brazilian-elections-and-demonstrations-of-june-2013-the-rise-of-conservatism.

[1] Simon Romero. Thousands Gather for Protests in Brazil’s Largest Cities. The New York Times. June 16, 2013. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/18/world/americas/thousands-gather-for-protests-in-brazils-largest-cities.html?_r=0 (last accessed: October 10, 2014)

[2] See, e.g., Daryl J Levinson, Parchment and Politics: The Positive Puzzle of Constitutional Commitment, 124 Harvard Law Review 2011).

[3] See the reaction of four renowned Brazilian constitutional scholars from different universities against the idea of an exclusive constituent assembly to discuss an amendment to the constitution regarding the political reform at: http://bit.ly/1zason1 (last accessed: October 10, 2014)

[4] Alfredo Saad-Filho. Mass Protests under “Left Neoliberalism”: Brazil, June-July 2013, 39 CRITICAL SOCIOLOGY 655 (2013).

[5] Id.

[6] See, e.g., Daron Acemoglu & James A. Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (Crown Business. 2012).

[7] Id.

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Published on November 1, 2014
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