In a small Brazilian city, José Maria da Silva woke up on Sunday 23 October after a hard working week and prepared to observe a compulsory duty. Not to attend church, even on this saint’s day, but rather to go to a polling-station and vote “yes” or “no” on a simple question: “Do you think the commercial sale of firearms and munitions should be prohibited in Brazil?”
As he walked to the polling-station, José Maria da Silva pondered the R$470 million ($215 million) spent by the government to organise the referendum, and wondered to himself: what is the real question the government is asking?
Also on Brazil in openDemocracy:
Arthur Ituassu, "Lula: the dream is over" (August 2005)
Hilary Wainwright, "No end: the crisis of Brazil’s Workers’ Party" (September 2005)
Arthur Ituassu, "Never the same again" (October 2005)
Robert Cawston "Brazil on a knife edge" (October 2005)
If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work and keep it free for all
His conclusion, Brazilians’ conclusion, was that they were being asked whether they were confident that the public sphere is doing its job in providing public benefits, and one benefit in particular: security. After all, as Thomas Hobbes realised in his 1651 portrait of an imaginary public order, Leviathan, this is the core principle of living in a modern community organised under a central authority.
His answer, Brazilians’ answer, was “no”. Almost 64% of the 120 million citizens obliged to choose between “yes” or “no” in the referendum voted for against the proposed new law banning the sale of firearms. The first such plebiscite in the world – in a country where 36,000 people died by gunfire in 2004 alone – showed no space for progressive politics.
Three major facts influenced the voting and explain why the Brazilian left lost one more opportunity for its voice to be heard:
- the recent corruption scandals involving the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) and some leading figures in President Lula’s government
- the incapacity of the Brazilian public sphere to create and guarantee public benefits
- as a result of the first two, the Brazilian people’s current lack of faith in politics
A matter of trust
Brazil’s government was itself one of the voters’ major targets in Sunday’s referendum. The current ministry of justice, Márcio Thomaz Bastos, had masterminded the disarmament law (Estatuto do Desarmamento) from the start. The law was approved by congress in December 2003 and would, once ratified by popular vote, enforce the prohibition of selling guns and munitions in the country.
“It turned out to be a plebiscite about the government and its public security policies”, said Raul Jungmann, a congressman from a socialist party (PPS) who led the “yes” campaign.
No surprise that the major newspaper Folha de São Paulo published on its front page on referendum-day an opinion poll showing the popularity of the president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva falling fast. 13% of people completely disapproved of the government in December 2004; the number now is almost 30%. A referendum where the citizen is obliged to vote, coming three years into a mandate spent fighting big political fires and in the wake of a systemic corruption crisis, had all the ingredients of disaster. Instead of a serious discussion about a major social issue, there was a massive protest.
At the same time, the plebiscite starkly reveals how public money is typically managed in Brazil. The ministry of justice’s official data shows that only 5.5% of the money previously allocated for the national fund for public security – R$ 23 million out of the R$ 412 million available – was spent from January-October 2005; yet the government spent R$ 270 million in organising the referendum and will deduct R$ 200 million from the taxes due to be paid by the TV networks for broadcasting the “yes” and “no” campaigns’ advertisements.
When José Maria da Silva is asked to trust the public sphere in a country whose current spending, salaries, unequal pension system and interest rates cost six times more than all the money invested in education, health, public security and infrastructure, his answer is short and straight: não.
In light of all this, and after the extinction of the hope the PT fed the country for decades – preaching that everything would be different once the party was elected to govern – the Brazilian people is turning its back on politics. Government is transforming the country into one where reactionaries have a voice and progressive politics don’t. Brazilian people voted against a postmodern policy because in fact the country still lives in a pre-modern era.
After voting, José Maria da Silva felt something was wrong. Something he had felt before but never so strongly. After pushing the button of an electronic ballot, José Maria da Silva felt his act makes no difference.