Brazil Woke Up, but Will It Be Able to Stay Awake? | Freedom House

Brazil Woke Up, but Will It Be Able to Stay Awake?

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In recent years, Brazil has been regarded as an up-and-coming global economic powerhouse.  The discovery of deep-sea oil reserves, winning bids for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, and a heightened role in the G20 elevated Brazil’s status among the BRIC group of developing powers.

Despite these achievements and its enhanced international reputation, millions of Brazilian citizens took to the streets on June 20 in numbers that the country hadn’t seen since protests in 1992 demanded the impeachment of President Fernando Collor de Mello. The protests began as a response to a nine-cent bus fare increase, but they increasingly drew attention to the woes of Brazil’s emerging middle class.  These include poor health care and education systems, inefficient use of public funds, and entrenched corruption.

As the smoke begins to settle, it is important to recognize that the June protests have opened a long overdue debate on how the government can adequately address issues like healthcare, education, and social services in a way that meets popular expectations.  The magnitude of the protests and the widespread demands they summoned forth suggest that Brazilian institutions have serious flaws and serious change will be required to bring them in line with the country’s new social and economic realities.

Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, has suggested a plebiscite as a way to incorporate the demands raised by the protest.  The question is whether this could be a step forward.

A number of issues have been catalysts for the protests.  First, Brazil made the transition from a military dictatorship to a democracy with relatively little fanfare at the instigation of its military administration.  A new constitution was put in place and civil liberties were restored.   However, the transition to democracy failed to address some entrenched governance problems, including political elitism, socioeconomic inequalities, a flawed judiciary, and the lack of accountability of state officials.   Additionally, the World Cup and Olympics have made public spending more visible to the public, as billions of dollars are being spent for stadiums.

Lastly, Brazil’s “economic miracle”  distracted a rising middle class from poor public services until now.  According to the World Bank, Brazil’s GDP was steadily growing in 2005 at 3.5percent and it continued to grow rapidly up until 2012, when it slowed to a rate of 0.9 percent.  Household incomes have been steadily increasing in the country since the early 2000s, meaning that services like the internet and electricity have become more readily available, and appliances like refrigerators and washing machines have become more affordable. Low levels of unemployment and increased access to goods and services improved the overall quality of life for large sectors of the population.

However, despite these improvements, this new emerging middle class is still relying on a seriously outdated infrastructure for public services. For example, middle class Brazilians must deal with a serious level of violent crime, made worse by weak rule of law and high rates of impunity (Brazil has had a murder rate of around 26 per 100,000 for the past decade, and the capital city of Maceió in the Northeastern state of Alagoas had a homicide rate of 107 per 100,000 people in 2011). The failure to bring murderers to justice has caused the middle class to distrust the public institutions which are meant to protect them.

How then can Brazil resolve the multi-faceted issues that have arisen during the June protests?  President Rousseff’s answer is a plebiscite that would deal directly with the problems that have triggered citizen protest.  Rousseff proposed that the plebiscite ask the voters to approve broad reforms in campaign finance and voting methods.  But she also suggested incorporating reforms to health care and education, issues which were highlighted in the protests. Rousseff’s plan to “[build] a broad and deep political reform that broadens popular participation and the horizons of citizenship” is an acknowledgement that institutions established decades ago are not responding to today’s problems.

While Brazil’s Congress has dismissed the proposed plebiscite, especially given the short-length of time before elections in October 2013 (Rousseff’s target date), the idea of a plebiscite is widely popular. According to Datafolha, a Brazilian survey group, 68 percent support a plebiscite. Its popularity could be largely due to the fact that Brazil’s Congress has discussed political and electoral reforms for the past 15 years, but party divisions, bureaucracy, and a commitment to status quo policies stand in the way of change.   Opponents say a plebiscite will add additional layers of bureaucracy to an already overloaded system. But the Brazilian middle class has not been satisfied with promises of investment or increased public expenditure, and there is reason to believe that the protests could be reignited by a failure to deal with institutional weaknesses. 

Opponents of the plebiscite need only to look at Brazilian history to see that the local and national governments have benefitted from increased citizen participation.  Participatory budgeting in the city of Porto Alegre resulted in better access to sewer and water connections and increased cooperation between the local government and its constituents. Additionally, in 2010, the government passed the Lei da Ficha Limpa, or the Clean Records Law, which was proposed by over 1 million Brazilians and aimed to curb official corruption. These examples demonstrate that the modernization of political institutions has the potential to provide additional space for citizen participation, especially when the government fails to address persistent inequality and poor public services. In Brazil, citizens have actively used participatory channels to generate change and overhaul inefficient and outdated legislation.  For this reason, Rousseff’s plebiscite may be a place to begin debating solutions to the lack of institutional responsiveness that sparked the June protests.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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