The crowds are smaller, but they are not going away
BY NEARLY any standard, the protests to denounce the president, Dilma Rousseff, and to rail against corruption in Brazil were huge. Some 660,000 people turned out on April 12th, in 152 cities. Yet that is compared with roughly 2m Brazilians who rallied a month ago. The drop in numbers is sobering for a movement that dreams of toppling the president with massive shows of street support. It means the organisers will have to change tactics and refine their muddled message.
The anger has not ebbed, and the movement is not going away. According to Datafolha, a pollster, three-quarters of Brazilians support the protests. Two-thirds want Ms Rousseff to be impeached over a multi-billion-dollar bribery scandal surrounding Petrobras, the state oil company. Members of her Workers’ Party (PT) and others in the governing coalition are under investigation, although the president herself has not been implicated. Her popularity has sunk from 40% at the start of her second term in January to 13%. Even in the PT’s heartland in the poor north-east, a majority thinks she is doing a poor job.
The movement against her resembles insurgencies in Europe and the United States, but with big differences. Unlike Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain, the organisers of Brazil’s protests are not left-wing and do not constitute a political party. Some compare the protesters to America’s Tea Party, which agitates for small government within the Republican Party. That is closer to the mark. The protesters lean towards Brazil’s opposition parties and hope to influence them. Renan Hass of the Free Brazil Movement (MBL), a main organiser of the protests, wants the Party of Brazilian Social Democracy to be “more macho”. But the movement is too young, and too fragmented, to have infiltrated Congress, unlike the American Tea Party. Dozens of grassroots organisations called protesters onto the streets. n the eyes of Ms Rousseff’s supporters, the protesters represent a privileged elite; some are even prepared to achieve their ends through a military coup. The first claim is partly right, the second is true only of a lunatic fringe. Surveys suggest that three-quarters of them earn at least five times the minimum wage of 788 reais ($260) a month, which makes them prosperous by Brazilian standards. But Carlos Melo of Insper, a university in São Paulo, says that in casting the clash in terms of “us versus them”, the PT forgets that the ranks of “them” have swelled massively, thanks to healthy economic growth (until recently) and policies to reduce poverty. Even people with relatively low incomes see themselves as middle-class.
That makes them receptive to a message that can be read between the lines of the anti-corruption slogans: an over-large state needs watching. Many of the MBL’s adherents are outright libertarians who scorn the PT as “communist”. Even more mainstream groups such as Vem Pra Rua (“Take to the streets”), the biggest of the organisers, argue that Brazil’s tax burden, at 36% of GDP, is too heavy and that the federal bureaucracy, with 39 ministries, is too big. One PT congressman suggested that the movement is financed by the CIA.
It does not need that kind of money. WhatsApp, a messaging service, serves as the office for Vem Pra Rua’s 2,500 activists. The group spent less than 20,000 reais during the March demonstrations to print placards and rent a sound-stage. Some groups raise money by selling paraphernalia. A “PT out!” T-shirt costs 40 reais on MBL’s website. Graphic designers, advertising folk and lawyers volunteer their time. They spread the word on Facebook, which more than two-fifths of Brazilians now use.
Without the prospect of ever-larger crowds, the movement needs other ways to keep up the pressure. On April 15th around 40 representatives went to Brasília, the capital, with a list of demands, including higher penalties for corruption, a first-past-the-post election system (to reduce campaign spending) and an end to re-election of presidents and governors. Tellingly, they presented it to Congress, not to the Planalto, the seat of presidential power. Ms Rousseff has largely handed over responsibility for the economy to the finance minister, Joaquim Levy, and political negotiations to the vice-president, Michel Temer. Although they still want her out, the protesters are starting to act as if she no longer counts.