A discord between demonstrators and the organizers of antigovernment protests in Brazil?

Demonstrators in Brazil recognize that both the government and the opposition are guilty of corruption, despite the selective discourse of the groups coordinating the demonstrations. Português. Español. 

Esther Solano Lucia Nader Pablo Ortellado
26 November 2015

Demonstrators protest in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Flickr. Some rights reserved.

On August 16, we conducted a survey with demonstrators who were on the streets protesting against the federal government and the political situation in the country. We concluded that, at least in São Paulo, the demonstrators recognize that both the government and the opposition are guilty of corruption, despite the selective discourse of the groups that organized the protests. Also at odds with the right wing groups that are leading the protests and preach small government, the demonstrators support universal and free public services such as healthcare and education. This survey follows up on another one that we conducted at the demonstration on April 12, which revealed that the dissatisfaction and distrust of the demonstrators was not focused on President Dilma Rousseff and her Workers’ Party (PT), but extended to the entire political system, including all parties, NGOs, social movements and the press [1].

Although the distrust in the political system is widespread, the groups leading the protests are doing their best to selectively channel the indignation, emphasizing the corruption of the federal government and sparing other political actors, such as the president of the Lower House of Congress, Eduardo Cunha, who could be useful allies in an impeachment process.

Accordingly, we measured perceptions of the severity of corruption scandals involving the government and the opposition and also perceptions of the involvement of the political leaders of both sides. Nearly all the demonstrators (99%) considered the corruption scandals involving the ruling Workers Party to be serious -- both the “mensalão” vote-buying scandal and the “Lava Jato” kickback scheme. However, we also found that the corruption scandals involving the opposition Social Democratic Party (PSDB) are also perceived as serious. Of the scandals in which the PSDB is implicated, 80% of the demonstrators considered the “mensalão tucano” campaign funding scheme to be serious and 87% considered the price-fixing of commuter rail construction contracts in São Paulo to be serious.

When we examined perceptions of the individual involvement of politicians from the two sides in corruption, things were a little different, although not as much as might have been expected. 90% of the demonstrators considered President Rousseff of the PT to be corrupt and 77% considered Mayor Fernando Haddad of the PT to be corrupt, but a sizable portion (42%) of the demonstrators also considered Governor Geraldo Alckmin of the PSDB to be corrupt and 38% considered Senator Aécio Neves of the PSDB to be corrupt.

The distrust in the political system as a whole, captured in the April survey, could pave the way for two different types of solutions: those that attempt to broaden and deepen democracy or non-political solutions to the crisis. The sociological literature, for example, usually identifies the emphasis on the internal democracy of civic associations and social movements as the basis for an in-depth reform of the democratic system.

As such, we inquired whether the demonstrators were more in agreement with the non-political solutions, such as giving power to the military, judges or actors outside traditional politics, or if instead, they wanted solutions that attempt to strengthen democracy, with more participation - whether institutional (through plebiscite) or by organized civil society (participation in NGOs and movements).

The results, in this case, were mixed. 56% agreed fully or in part that, to solve the crisis, it is necessary to hand power to someone outside the political system. 28% agreed fully or in part that the solution is to give power to the military and 64% said to an honest judge. Meanwhile, 77% agreed in full or in part that participation needs to be increased through mechanisms such as plebiscite and 59% said by strengthening NGOs and social movements.

We also sought to determine whether the indignation driving the demonstrations of 2015 is similar to the concerns that prompted the protests of June 2013, despite the profound difference in the political orientation of the leaders and the social composition of the protests (formed by older and richer people). Various opinion polls have shown that the indignation in June 2013 consisted of a combination of a rejection of the representative system and demands for more and better social rights, particularly healthcare, education and transport.

As such, we sought to investigate to what extent the demonstrators agreed that public services that provide social rights should be universal and free. This question was important not only because it indicated profound and more or less hidden connections between the two waves of protests, but also because it revealed a major discord between the beliefs of the demonstrators and those of the leaders of the protests - who have a strong neoliberal orientation.

We encountered extremely high levels of support for universal and free public services. Among the demonstrators, 97% agreed in full or in part that healthcare should be universal and 96% said it should be free. Moreover, 98% agreed in full or in part that education should be universal and 97% said it should be free. Even the recent social and somewhat heterodox demand for free public transport (called “tarifa zero” or “zero fare” in Brazil) was supported in full or in part by 49% of the demonstrators.

Finally, we sought to investigate the extent and the way in which the demonstrators have incorporated the current trend of moralization of politics known as “culture wars” [2]. This trend consists of both an increasing prominence of moral issues on the political agenda (such as drugs, gay rights, abortion and capital punishment) and a moral treatment of social and political matters.

As such, we asked whether the demonstrators agreed with a series of phrases that express some of these moral attitudes in politics. In addition to identifying the scope and reach of the moral discourses, we wanted to know whether punitive attitudes were more frequent for issues involving relations between social classes (such as inequality, criminality and immigration) and whether, on issues related to individual rights (such as homophobia, women’s rights and drugs), more permissive attitudes predominated.

We found that on issues involving relations between social classes, 70% agreed in full or in part that “it is fair that people who have studied and worked hard in their lives should have some privileges”; 86% agreed in full or in part that “the best way to achieve peace in society is through harsher punishments for criminals” and 80% agreed in full or in part that “blacks should not use their skin color to obtain privileges such as racial quotas”.

Meanwhile, we also found that more permissive and tolerant attitudes prevail on matters of individual rights and freedoms (perhaps because they can involve people of the same social class). 79% of the demonstrators disagreed that “rape would be less frequent if women were more careful and didn’t wear revealing clothing”; 61% disagreed that “relationships between gays are unnatural and gays should not show affection in public” and 50% even agreed in full or in part that “people should have the right to smoke marijuana legally provided they do not harm others”.

[1] Esther Solano; Lucia Nader; Pablo Ortellado. “Um protesto contra todo o sistema político?” El País. April 14, 2015. Available here.

[2] Pablo Ortellado “Guerras culturais no Brasil” Le Monde Diplomatique Brasil. Available here

Original version published in El País, Brazil

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