24 Jun 2013

Protests in Brazil Fuelled by Popular Discontent with Corruption and Bad Public Services

Brazil - anti-corruption protestsThe last two weeks have seen the biggest wave of protests in Brazil in 21 years, since the large demonstrations in favour of President Collor’s impeachment in 1992. What started as a mobilisation in the city of São Paulo against a R$ 0.20 (€ 0.07) increase in public transportation fares, first organised by the Movimento Passe Livre (free fare movement) on June 6th, slowly grew to a massive collection of demonstrations in 100 Brazilian cities bringing around 1 million to the streets on June 20th, for reasons ranging from corruption to generally bad public healthcare and education and excessive government expenditures for the 2014 World Cup.

Why have the protests gained such magnitude? Firstly, related to the immediate motivation for the demonstrations, there is the fact that several other state capitals also had increases in public transportation fares in a context where transportation services are becoming more expensive without any apparent improvement in quality. This also comes at a moment where basic living costs in Brazil are rapidly rising due to increased inflation, and higher transportation fares only added to that burden. Secondly, the developments around the first demonstrations in São Paulo contributed to make other problems evident and tap into a generalised dissatisfaction with public services in general, police violence, corruption and the fact that a large part of the population does not feel represented by the current party and political system. At the same time, people have seen the federal government invest billions in the construction of stadiums and infrastructure projects for the Confederations Cup currently taking place in Brazil and the World Cup to take place next year. The recent inauguration of the stadiums was perceived as a signal that the government is not prioritising projects that benefit the population’s basic needs.

The protests in Brazil are also evidence of the revolutionary role of social media in political mobilisation, reaching especially citizens that had never participated in protests before, which were more than 70% in one of the protests, according to a survey. Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube contributed greatly not only for the dissemination of the demonstrations, but also to ultimately mobilise public opinion in favour of the protests through the spreading of videos and photos of police violence and abuse. The video of a police officer breaking the window of his police vehicle, suggesting police action to simulate acts of vandalism and attacks by the protesters, was seen by over 1.1 million people. Several citizens and commentators on television compared police repression to the protests with that seen during the military dictatorship that ruled the country between 1964 and 1985. Moreover, these online platforms have enabled people to follow the protests closely and debate the political issues raised in the demonstrations. Since June 13th, when the fourth demonstration in São Paulo took place to demand that the increase in transportation fares were revoked, more than 130 million people have actively followed social media posts on the topics, and two million posts with the movement’s mottos “the giant woke up”, “come to the streets”, among others, were registered online.

In the meantime, several municipal governments had no choice but to revoke the bus fare increases. Thousands of protesters celebrated the victory, but not without wondering what would come next and what other causes should be taken up by the street movements. This process has seen the mobilisation of great masses of citizens all over the country, but also increasingly diffuse topics and complaints among the demonstrators. Many analysts and members of social movements were critical of this turn in the protests, claiming that demonstrating against everything without focus on concrete issues faced that risk of emptying and weakening the movements. More recently, however, part of the protests has been reorganised to claim for new, more specific demands. In São Paulo, for instance, the organised groups that started the protests against the high fares and low quality transportation service have turned to other issues related to transportation management in the city. While city contracts with private bus companies are being investigated under suspicion of fraud, and accusations of collusion among bus companies have been raised, the City Legislative has reacted to public pressure and the accusations by initiating a request to install a Parliamentary Investigative Committee to examine these issues. Another demonstration has been scheduled for June 25th to demand the creation of the Investigative Committee and increased transparency for municipal expenditures in public transportation.

Other groups of protesters against corruption have now also mobilised against a much more specific issue being currently debated in Congress. A proposal for a Constitutional Amendment (PEC) establishing that criminal investigations be exclusively conducted by the State and Federal Police, thus prohibiting prosecutorial bodies of investigating, was planned to be voted in the Lower House on June 26th and was expected to find large approval among representatives. The PEC has been under discussion for several months, with a deadlock between Police and Prosecutors that have not managed to reach an agreement on the text that should be submitted to Congress. Before the street protests gained this dimension, manifestations against the PEC were mostly limited to representative associations of prosecutors and lawyers, together with anti-corruption movements claiming that the Constitutional change would increase impunity in the country. As it emerged as one of the issues raised among protesters, the Lower House has already stated that voting shall be postponed. Demonstrations in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have brought together around 35,000 people against the approval of the PEC in the past two days.

These street movements in Brazil have shown that the population is extremely unhappy with their quality of life and is no longer willing to tolerate the abuses of a privileged political elite that is seen as benefiting from resources that should be directed to improving the welfare of the population at large. They have made clear that Brazilians are aware of the connection between corruption at high levels of government and the low quality of public services available to them. As the initial message of the movement, “it’s not about R$ 0.20”, but about a demand for accountable governments that act in the public interest instead of their own.

(The picture featured above is credited to Eraldo Peres.)