—Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, University of Brasilia
Last March 15 and April 12, Brazil again became the stage of huge mass protests. Hundreds of thousands of protesters stormed many of the largest cities in the country, bringing back memories of the demonstrations of June 2013 during the FIFA Confederations Cup. The media and some experts immediately attempted to connect both events, stressing the dissatisfaction of the population with the government as their main causes as well as building a chronological timeline of events: March and April 2015 served as the consolidation of the perception – already expressed in June 2013 – that Brazil is indeed in a sort of worst-case scenario, where the political system is rotten to the core and the economy is, in the last years, falling short of expectations. It was as if June 2013 memory spurred these new protests of March and April 2015.[i] Still, the connections between both events are not that clear. If some argue that March and April 2015 “refined the criticism [already present in June 2013], associating corruption to a government and a party”[ii], in a direct reference to Dilma Roussef’s government and her Worker’s Party (PT), others might argue that the two sets of protests are structurally distinct.[iii] Beneath this debate lies two relevant questions: 1) Is Brazil facing an institutional crisis strong enough to jeopardize the democratic achievements of the last several years?; or 2) could those movements express more positive structural changes in Brazil, brought about by years of democratic life and social change?
The mass protests of June 2013 were clearly a sign of a social catharsis, when thousands of people from everywhere thronged the streets while the FIFA Confederations Cup matches were taking place in the stadiums. They began with a clear agenda: the hike in public transport fares. But, as violence increased, especially after the disastrous police reaction with rubber bullets and tear gas to scatter the crowd, a social catharsis emerged. Along with it, a wide variety of agendas and grievances, from calls for social justice to banning gay marriage, gathered momentum. This is indeed when those protests escalated and gained the attention of worldwide media. It is also when those generalized, diffuse, and unfocused protests, especially under pressure from the press and the new media, could more easily be coopted.[iv] It is no wonder that, in this environment where any and all political claims could be validated, conservative movements could seize control of the movement by condemning politics in general[v] and corruption in particular. The paradox of the simultaneous reelection of Dilma Roussef from the center-left Worker’s Party for a second term (by a small margin of 3.3 percent), while the recent elected Brazilian Congress is the most conservative one since democracy was reinstated in 1985, is a clear sign that Brazil is dealing with an explosive reality. The polarization in society strengthened the polarization at the institutional level. The demonstrations of March and April 2015 are a further manifestation of this polarization.
The demonstrations of March and April 2015 had a quite distinct background and agenda, and, unlike those of June 2013, they were not a complex movement originated from a sort of social catharsis involving people from all different societal strata. Above all, they were movements structurally well-prepared and previously announced, whose participants hailed mostly from wealthier classes,[vi] and who generally opposed the left-wing coalition headed by the Worker’s Party (PT). In addition, they were far less spontaneous than the demonstrations of June 2013, and their agenda was quite straightforward, although also characterized by some generalities, such as corruption and an overall dissatisfaction with politics. But the target was well identified: Dilma Roussef’s government and her center-left Worker’s Party (PT), and those generalities were immediately associated with some recent events such the bribery scandal at the state-run oil company Petrobras, and the political crisis especially in Dilma Roussef’s political coalition in Congress.
In the face of an economic slump and with media coverage at an all time high, the political vacuum was then easily filled with the conservative discourse, and the opposition parties took advantage of the situation. Moreover, the defeat by a small margin of the center-right coalition headed by the candidate Aécio Neves (PSDB) in the presidential election last year aggravated the scenario, and many of those who voted for candidates other than Dilma Roussef saw those protests as an opportunity to express their resentment. In São Paulo, for example, according to a Datafolha survey, 82% of all protesters of March 15 voted for Aécio Neves.[vii] Although one could make some reasonable criticisms of Dilma Roussef’s government — such as the economic slowdown, the party bureaucracy, the corruption scandal implicating her party, and her new package of pro-market fiscal policies – events suggest other, more underlying causes. In some ways, one could point out a deep and genuine disappointment with politics and institutions in general, which is immediately channeled to the central government and is aggravated by the fact that Brazil has a very centralized presidential system. Especially when some corruption scandals appear in this environment, even when not directly involving Dilma Roussef, distrust and disillusionment are a natural side effect. Others could point out a more structural cause: the social change derived from years of policies directed to promote redistributive justice primarily to the dispossessed, which naturally upsets the elites. This redistribution has sparked, in some ways, the most irrational hatred and violence against her government and her party, and particularly an evident growth of radical right-wing movements. It is no wonder that many (27% in São Paulo)[viii] requested her impeachment, even though no legal basis for such a claim could indeed be found. Even more serious, some have called for a military coup to dissolve the government, a symptom of a country whose memory and reflection of years of dictatorship from 1964 to 1985 is rather weak.
If a connection can be traced between the earlier and current protests, then, it may be found in the capacity of conservative groups to mobilize the masses through a vague subject such as corruption, a generalized distrust in politics, and a strong appeal to nationalism. The idea that the government as well as its party are ontologically corrupt and that politics is simply the exercise of individualism, conspiracy, and bargains has a very persuasive appeal, and history shows how effective those sort of arguments are for destabilizing institutions.[ix] This scenario thereby paves the way for the rise of “manichaeism as the dominant feature of our mass culture,”[x] where friends and enemies fight with each other in the streets, and where the most guttural irrational claims appear under the guise of freedom of speech. Democracy is then placed in jeopardy through the exercise of its own freedoms and institutions.
Still, from a broader perspective a more optimistic take may emerge. In a sense, even though they challenge Brazilian democracy, years of democratic life, constitutional culture, and undeniable social gains in the last decades have engendered some stability and yielded the inertial effect of preserving the rules of the game. There is a learning curve that progressively transforms those calls for impeachment or, above all, military coup into arguments and claims without real substantial impact. In the marketplace of ideas of a democratic nation, they are exposed to ridicule, even though they renew pain in those who were victims of the dictatorship of 1964.[xi] It is symptomatic of this progress that the media, which has incited to some extent these new protests, and even opposition politicians, as the ex-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002), have in many respects argued against such radical claims.[xii] And the protests, even though in some ways marked by radicalism, may show that it is necessary to rebuild politics and governance. Without surrendering to the voices of some groups who historically took advantage of entrenched institutions and are now facing the disruption of some of their benefits, the time is ripe to give serious thought to how Brazilian society has changed over the years of democratic life, constitutional culture, and rising pluralism. In short, it is time to diagnose and repair the remaining weaknesses of its constitutional democracy.
Suggested citation: Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, The Mass Protests of March and April 2015 in Brazil: A Continuation of June 2013?, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Apr. 29, 2015, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2015/04/the-mass-protests-of-march-and-april-2015-in-brazil-a-continuation-of-june-2013/
[i] As Manifestações dos dias 13 e 15 de Março. Polarizações Desérticas. Entrevista Especial com Marcelo Castañeda. Instituto Humanitas Unisinos, Mar. 9, 2015, available at: http://www.ihu.unisinos.br/entrevistas/540582-crise-politica-brasileira-da-ideia-de-golpe-ao-fortalecimento-do-menos-pior-entrevista-especial-com-marcelo-castaneda (last accessed: March 28, 2015).
[ii] Demétrio Magnoli, Chefe de Facção. Folha de S. Paulo, Mar. 21, 2015, available at: http://www1.folha.uol.com.br/colunas/demetriomagnoli/2015/03/1606160-chefe-de-faccao.shtml (last accessed: March 29, 2015).
[iii] Valério Arcary, Março de 2015 não foi uma continuidade de Junho de 2013., Blog Convergência, March 27, 2015, available at: http://blogconvergencia.org/blogconvergencia/?p=3580.
[iv] See, e.g., 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.
[vi] According to Datafolha Survey, 76% of all protesters had a university degree, which clearly shows that most of the protesters belonged to the Brazilian wealthier classes. See Pesquisa diz que 47% foram à Paulista para protestar contra a corrupção, Mar. 17, 2015, available at: http://g1.globo.com/politica/noticia/2015/03/pesquisa-diz-que-47-foram-paulista-para-protestar-contra-corrupcao.html (last accessed: April 2, 2015).
[vii] See, e.g., Pesquisa diz que 47% foram à Paulista para protestar contra a corrupção, Mar. 17, 2015, available at: http://g1.globo.com/politica/noticia/2015/03/pesquisa-diz-que-47-foram-paulista-para-protestar-contra-corrupcao.html (last accessed: April 2, 2015).
[ix] See, e.g., Denise Rollemberg & Samantha Viz Quadrat, A Construção Social dos Regimes Autoritários: Legitimidade, Consenso e Consentimento no Século XX – Brasil e América Latina (Civilização Brasileira 2011).
[x] Luiz Werneck Vianna, Um Outro Mundo é Possível, Estado de S. Paulo, April 5, 2015, available at: http://m.estadao.com.br/noticias/opiniao,um-outro-mundo–e-possivel-,1663919,0.htm (last accessed: April 7, 2015).
[xi] Juliana Dal Piva. Dor que se renova na exaltação à ditadura. O Dia. Mar. 31, 2015, available at: http://odia.ig.com.br/noticia/brasil/2015-03-31/dor-que-se-renova-na-exaltacao-a-ditadura.html (last accessed: Apr. 3, 2015).
[xii] See Fernando Taquari, “Não adianta nada tirar a presidente”, diz FHC sobre impeachment. Valor Econômico, Mar. 9, 2015, available at: http://www.valor.com.br/politica/3944178/nao-adianta-nada-tirar-presidente-diz-fhc-sobre-impeachment (last accessed: April 3, 2015).