Photo Jonathan Blair

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Queen is Naked: Dilma Rousseff and Brazil’s season of discontent

The profound weakness of Brazil’s political leadership is now in full display. For ten or so days at the end of June, angry middle-class citizens took to Brazil’s streets, spewing rage against shoddy and expensive public services, corrupt politicians, a slow and inefficient justice system, and the government’s spending orgy on sport facilities in the lead up to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Increases in public transportation fares in several cities sparked the protests but the demonstrations quickly became an outpouring of disgust at the abuses of power that have come to define the behaviour of the country’s entire political class.

Governments and politicians were stunned. Mayors and state governors quickly retreated and canceled the fee increase. Reactions at the federal level, however, fed the chaos: President Rousseff immediately committed billions to public transportation. She asked Congress to devote all the forthcoming oil royalties to education (about $140bn). And she announced that a constitutional assembly would be convened to change key components of the electoral system. Legislators also pitched in and Congress rushed through a law that made corruption a grave crime and to a voted—partly against Rousseff’s will—to use oil royalties for education and health care. Meanwhile the Senate even adopted a law making public transportation free for students.

Most of those panicky moves were not really on the political agenda prior to the demonstrations, and none of them are part of a coherent program. Some proposals are no more than pipedreams, while others could end up being counterproductive: most of the oil whose royalties are now pegged to health and education is still extremely deep under the ocean, the effective freeze on transportation fares greatly reduces the net value of any new investment in the system, and the electoral reform is already in limbo. Indeed, the day after Rousseff announced a constitutional assembly, it became clear that such a move would be illegal, forcing her instead to announce a plebiscite whose results would then be used by Congress to modify electoral rules in time for the 2014 elections, i.e. before the end of October 2013 . What will apparently be put to a vote, moreover, looks more like an advanced political science exam than the kind of issue that even an informed citizenry can decide upon: first-past-the post or proportional voting; open or closed list if proportional voting is chosen; full, partial or no public financing of political parties; rules governing electoral party coalitions, and so on, with a plethora of possible—and possibly inconsistent—combinations.

Why such panic and precipitation and why such incoherence in the response? The demonstrations were sometimes large but they rarely reached beyond 100,000, and on average they had less than 400 people – in an extremely wired country of 200 million people in the middle of a football-induced semi-holiday. They were mostly pacific, although significant vandalism at times took place, but always only from small groups. The Brazilian police, the most lethal on the continent, and quite brutal initially, in the end proved shockingly restrained and the three deaths directly related to the demonstrations were all accidental: a participant was killed by a car, another one died of cardiac arrest after inhaling tear gas, and a third one fell from an overpass.  Moreover, and in spite of broad public discontent with the oversize spending on soccer events, the Confederation Cup went ahead without a hitch, and while facilities were obviously well-protected, there were no significant confrontations around the stadiums or disruptions during games. And as Brazil got closer to the final, the whole country appeared to retreat to bars and living rooms to watch the country’s latest soccer sorcerer, Neymar, work his magic.

In other words, the government’s fearful and confused rush to action should be traced less to the scale and force of the movement than to the weakness of the country’s political leadership, primarily of President Dilma Rousseff herself. Elected “by” Lula, who presented her publicly as “me, with a skirt,” she surfed for a while on her predecessor’s popularity and was able to distance herself from the corruption scandals that involved his closest collaborators. For a while, her calm self-possessed and professional public image and even her aloofness appeared to put her somewhat above the dirty and expensive politics of the Congressional coalition upon which she relied to govern. Slower growth, higher inflation, a large trade deficit, and a growing discomfort with lavish government spending, however, began to undermine her popularity. Her handling of the crisis, the first real political test of her mandate, showed her to be wanting: devoid of charisma, lacking political skills, poorly supported and isolated; her quickly calling Lula for help probably killed any claim she may have had to significant political credibility of her own. By the end of the crisis, her popularity hovered around 30 percent, less than half of what it was barely four months earlier.

Rousseff is now the lamest of ducks. Without public appeal of her own, confronted by slower growth and tied by huge financial commitments, she has few if any cards in hand. Governance will get even trickier from this point on as she will have to pay dearly for any concessions from Congress. The expensive deals that this will involve will feed public despondency and the plebiscite, if it takes place, will only add to the confusion.

So, what’s next? The Queen is dead, long live the King? The most obvious outcome of the crisis is the increasingly loud calls for the return of Lula. The wily man stayed out of the limelight during the chaos and will likely do so for a few more months, letting Dilma take all the hits while little real policy work gets accomplished. He could then arrive as a savior and, given the still strong support he enjoys among the poor, his chances of winning an election would be as good as anyone’s. The Lula that would return, however, would be very different from the one that governed in an earlier age of easy prosperity. With his party just as discredited as the others, his rule would likely be more personalist, populist, and even less transparent and accountable than it had become by the time he left power.  More than the plebiscite on electoral reform currently being debated, the return of Lula under such conditions would strongly shape Brazilian democracy, and not for the good.

As for Congress, its old mores look unlikely to change. In the midst of the crisis, and against all rules, Henrique Alves, the President of the Chamber of deputies, took his family with him to the final of the Confederation Cup on an Armed forces plane (the President of the Senate, Renan Calheiros, had done the same thing two weeks earlier). In the end, in sum, far from truly shaking politicians into substantive reform, the brief Brazilian Spring could very well worsen an already detested political system. But, if Brazil wins the World Cup next summer, the politicians who brought the people to the streets could still get away with it all.  The weakness of Brazil’s leadership may have been revealed, but their grip on the political system looks  strong enough to see them through the current upheaval.

[Originally published on Open Canada as “Brazil’s season of discontent”]