Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

An Assessment of the Brazilian Government’s Response to the Protests



The wave of protests that first spread across Brazil in June may have subsided for the time being, but President Dilma Rousseff is still dealing with the political fallout.

To recap, after at first not responding to the protests, President Rousseff finally released a statement on June 21 during a ceremony to launch the new mineral sector regulatory framework. Three days later, revealing a sense of urgency, she met with Brazil’s 27 state governors and 26 state capital mayors. Then, on national television, she laid out new reforms to respond to protestor demands: fiscal responsibility; inflation control; stricter penalties for corruption; and reforms in public health, education, transportation, and politics—culminating in a partial constituent assembly that would consider modifications to Brazil’s constitution.

Rousseff’s Proposed Reforms

The president’s proposals seemed to prioritize political reform and addressing corruption. According to Rousseff, the constituent assembly would establish specific rules for selecting leaders and lawmakers as well as new regulations for campaign finance, coalitions between parties, and advertising on TV and radio.  

The idea of a partial constituent assembly is not new in Brazil’s recent political history. In 1999, then-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso supported the implementation of a partial constituent assembly to more efficiently address tax, political and judicial reforms.

Rousseff’s proposal received immediate backlash, however. The president of the Ordem dos Advogados do Brasil (Brazilian Lawyer’s Bar Association), Marcus Vinicius Furtado Coelho, reaffirmed the association’s opposition, stating that political reform did not warrant changes to the Brazilian Constitution. Recently-elected Supreme Court Minister Luis Roberto Barroso and Brazilian Vice President Michel Temer, both ardent constitutionalists, also disapproved. As of June 25, President Dilma Rousseff had opted to forego the constituent assembly.Like the proposals on political reform, Rousseff’s public health reforms were also met with opposition. The Conselho Federal de Medicina (Federal Council of Medicine) fiercely attacked her July 11 signing of the Ato Médico (Medical Act), which would import foreign doctors to compensate for Brazil’s health system needs. The Council claimed that Brazil’s problem was not a lack of doctors, but a lack of adequate working conditions. Roberto Luiz d’Avila, president of the Federal Council, said the bill “was an aggression against medical professionals.”

However, Rousseff has managed to move forward with legislation that would classify intentional corruption as a “heinous crime.” In late June, the Senate approved a draft law amending the Penal Code to increase penalties for corruption, embezzlement and political misconduct. The proposal awaits review and approval by the House of Representatives.

Also in late June, the Supreme Federal Court ordered the immediate arrest of Congressman Natan Donadon, who was found guilty of embezzlement in 2010.  He soon became the first sitting Brazilian congressman to be jailed since the 1988 Constitution was put in place. A powerful congressional committee also approved a measure to provide more transparency when lawmakers vote on whether to strip members of Congress of their seats.

The Brazilian Chamber of Deputies also sought to address social issues. On June 26 it passed a bill that will direct 75 percent of pre-salt oil profits to education and 25 percent of profits to public health.

The Public’s Response

Popular mobilizations in Brazil have catalyzed active government responses. They have also impacted Rousseff’s approval ratings. According to a Confederação Nacional da Indústria (National Confederation of Industry) survey, conducted from July 9-12 with the Instituto Brasileiro de Opinião Pública e Estatística (Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics), the approval rating of President Dilma Rousseff’s government fell 24 percentage points since June—from 55 percent to 31 percent approval. Those who considered the state of the government to be poor or bad increased from 13 percent of respondents in June to 31 percent in this last assessment.

The public’s opinion of the president’s leadership also took a sizable dip, from a 71 percent approval rating in June to 45 percent in mid-July. On top of that, 31 percent negatively assessed the measures announced by Rousseff in response to the protests.

Survey participants also disapproved of the responses to the protests from other political leaders, and, in particular, Congress.  Thirty-nine percent negatively assessed the measures recently adopted by the Chamber of Deputies, and 37 percent did not approve of the Senate’s response. 

Although only 9 percent of respondents claimed to have participated in the protests, 89 percent supported the mobilizations, reinforcing a linkage between the impact of the movement and public perceptions of the government.

These survey results point to a number of conclusions. But top among them is that President Rousseff must quickly learn the lessons from her response to these protests, or face a continued decline in popularity and a population more at odds with her government.

While the protest movement has waned for now, the fundamental conditions and grievances that sparked them have yet to be addressed. Without a continued push for reform, Brazilians are likely to take to the streets once again.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
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