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Middle classes in Latin America (8). Divided at the ballot and in the streets in Brazil

Mid-income Brazilians have been supplying the mobilized “troops” for the battles around Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, providing street legitimacy to the process as much as to the resistance against it. Español

Maria Hermínia Tavares de Almeida
11 May 2016
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“School teacher: I wish you the wage of a Congressman and the social prestige of a football player” (Street demonstration, 2013)

Due to important socioeconomic changes occurred in the last two decades, the number of mid-income Brazilians has increased significantly, and so has their presence in social life and the political process. The rise of the so-called “new middle classes” has been praised as good indicator of the country´s efforts to reduce poverty and inequalities of different sorts. In fact, at first as consumers and then as protesters and voters, these emerging groups seem to be acquiring a prominent role in Brazilian social and political life, either by adding new issues to the political agenda or redefining the terms under which old issues have been perceived.

These emerging groups are, nevertheless, multifarious in their political leanings, demands and party preferences, as shown in public demonstrations and electoral choices.

As from June 2013, Brazil has been shaken by huge street rallies of different sorts. At that time, thousands of people took to the streets of major Brazilian cities, from North to South, with a wide range of demands and watchwords. Several groups demanded free public transportation, better public healthcare and education; some supported LGBT rights, while others opposed sexual minorities; small groups asked for a military government, while violent anarchists, who called themselves Black Blocs, shattered conspicuous symbols of capitalism, such as car stores and banks. They all shared the demand for better public services and the rejection of politicians and political parties thought to be responsible for mismanaging public resources and for massive corruption aimed at funding parties and electoral campaigns, besides trickling down to the politicians´ pockets.

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“So many things are wrong that they do not fit in this poster” ( Street demonstration, 2013)

Like a summer storm, the massive public demonstrations produced a dramatic change in the national political mood, bringing down President Dilma Roussef´s approval ratings from around 65% to a meager 30%, and signaling the beginning of a political turmoil that is still evolving and, quite probably, will lead to her eventual impeachment.

The June 2013 protests, although a multiclass phenomenon, had in the mid-income strata their main social ballast. Those protests were also the first and the last time that mid-income groups marched together, even if under different banners.

In 2014, a fierce electoral dispute opposing, in the second ballot, Dilma Roussef´s center-left coalition and the center-right coalition led by Aecio Neves, cut across Brazilian society and, also, across the mid-income groups. The graph bellow shows the distribution of voters´ preferences in different income strata. Low mid-income voter preferences are evenly split between the two candidates – 22 % for Roussef and 21 % for Neves --, while Neves was five points ahead among high mid-income voters.

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SOURCE: DATAFOLHA, 2014, opinion poll conducted before the Second ballot.

Political polarization remained high after the elections, drawing a sharp divide through the political elites and the mobilized sections of Brazilian society, where mid-income groups were dominant. Dilma Roussef was unable to translate her victory into political assets capable of sustaining a stable and working government. Her shaky political support soon withered. A robust opposition movement, strengthened by huge street demonstrations, contributed to create a political environment where the idea of impeachment swiftly grew up.

Mid-income movements were important to give the opposition a kind of legitimacy based on the “voice of the streets”. The most important ones were the Free Brazil Movement, Come to the Streets and Rebels Online, the three of them liberal-rightist groups that not only strongly opposed President Roussef, but also rejected political parties and politicians, whom they considered to be irredeemably corrupt. However, the federal government was also capable of mobilizing support in the same income groups. The table below shows de distribution of participants of different income strata in the major streets demonstrations against and in favor of President Roussef´s government in the city of Sao Paulo, where the largest rallies in the country took place.

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In short, mid-income Brazilians have been providing the mobilized “troops” for the battles around the President´s impeachment. They were present in Brasilia, on April 17, putting pressure on the representatives that were about to vote the beginning of the process. And they were, once more, split between the two sides of the political dispute, as shown in the image bellow: pro-impeachment demonstrators to the right, pro-government demonstrators to the left, facing the Congress building, and no one in the middle ground.

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Brasilia, March, 17, 2016 (demonstrations facing the Brazilian Congress)

But these “troops” who provided the street legitimacy to the impeachment process as much as to the resistance against it, have also helped to add new issues to the political agenda, as they have given voice to aspirations for more decent politics, more representative parties, more responsive governments, and better quality of basic public services. This is perhaps their lasting contribution to Brazilian political life.

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