Skip to main content

Gregory Michener is associate professor of government at Fundação Getulio Vargas’s Brazilian School of Public and Business Administration in Rio de Janeiro. This article represents the author’s position and not necessarily the institutional position of the FGV.

For nearly three weeks in June, 2013 – exactly a decade ago this month – more than two million Brazilians took to the streets in more than 100 cities. Citizens newly empowered by social media expressed a cacophony of grievances.

When a commodity-based economic boom gave way to GDP growth of less than 2 per cent in 2012, Brazilians connected rising costs and poor social services with corruption and profligacy surrounding the country’s preparations for the 2014 World Cup. Televised court proceedings of a legislative vote-buying scheme orchestrated under the ruling Workers’ Party (PT), the Mensalao, further fuelled anti-system sentiment.

Yet the 2013 protests were utterly unexpected. At the beginning of the year, PT president Dilma Rousseff enjoyed an approval rating above 60 per cent, a large majority in Congress, and a decade of economic growth. Contrast this with the current context: The PT is back in power a decade later, but the approval rating for Brazil’s recently elected President, Ms. Rousseff’s predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, is below 50 per cent, his coalition minority government is precarious, and Brazil has just emerged from a decade of negligible growth of 0.6 per cent from 2010 to 2021.

The grievances of 2013 persist – in fact, they may even be greater now. Inequality and poverty measures for Brazil, as well as the country’s poverty line, have not budged much since 2011. Per-capita income is much diminished a decade on. And the indignation that fuelled those protests has given way to resignation, with a climate of polarization generating corresponding fear and self-censure.

On one hand, those who do not like Mr. da Silva feel cowed and ostracized. On the other hand, his supporters seem to be self-censoring for fear that the hard right, led by former president Jair Bolsonaro, could return to power.

Amidst this polarization and passivity, political opportunism has flourished. Pork-barrel politics and parochialism are making a comeback, with polarization frustrating unity on key priorities. Recent research on Brazil’s coalitional presidentialism by Cesar Zucco and Timothy Power not only revealed a hollowing-out of the ideological centre, but also a greater ideological distance between Mr. da Silva and Congress than any other Brazilian president.

Much of this opportunism originates in two key factors that distinguish 2013 from 2023: the growing strength of Brazil’s Congress and ideological polarization. After Ms. Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016, Congress fed off the weakness of minority-mandate presidents in a hyper-fragmented legislature, appropriating ever-greater powers. Brazil’s “strong presidentialism,” which was deemed necessary to advance nationally oriented policies, has evidently been upended.

This disunity has had predictable costs, the clearest being a truncated honeymoon for Mr. da Silva. His efforts to ply Congress members with positions in exchange for support – the current government consists of an unprecedented 37 ministries and more than a dozen parties in the cabinet – have apparently been for naught. This past month, the Lower House struck down a water and sanitation bill designed to undo Bolsonaro-era privatization measures, which was a campaign promise of Mr. da Silva’s. Soon afterward, the President did the unthinkable by yielding to the powerful agricultural lobby in Congress, issuing a decree that would dismember key environmental institutions. Meanwhile, a federal police investigation has been launched into people linked to Arthur Lira, the Speaker of the Lower House, who has held up many of Mr. da Silva’s initiatives.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bolsonaro and his supporters have remained uncharacteristically quiet after their 2022 electoral loss, ostracized by the left and fearing legal reprisals after the violence and vandalism that marked the presidential transition earlier this year. But Brazilians who believe fighting systemic corruption should be a priority have also been ostracized. The political elite, the self-described “progressive” parties and the news media have so successfully discredited the Lava Jato (or “car wash”) corruption investigations and proceedings, which jailed Mr. da Silva and dozens of other politicians from 2014 to 2021, that talking about corruption has practically become taboo; over the past few months, the last politicians indicted for grand corruption during the Lava Jato era have been released on procedural grounds. Seemingly forgotten is the fact that Brazil’s political elite really did pilfer from the national petroleum company, Petrobras, to the tune of at least US$2.5-billion.

These are humiliating setbacks. So too is an anticipated electoral amnesty that would forgive political and electoral crimes perpetrated during the 2022 election.

Brazil is beginning to look like it did decades ago. The hope now is that the indignation expressed by Brazilians in 2013 does not completely surrender to growing resignation.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe