In response to last Sunday’s protests demanding Dilma’s removal from office, tens of thousands of Brazilians gathered in state capitals throughout the country in support if not of the government, then of institutional and social democracy. Some marchers called for Dilma to remain, but marchers also levied criticisms against the current state of governance, not only in the Planalto (the presidential palace) – as last Sunday’s protests did – but in Congress, too, where corruption is widespread and prosecutors have begun actually charging politicians (in contrast to the current lack of evidence of Dilma being directly tied to corruption).
The protests were not as large as those of last Sunday – perhaps because they fell on a weekday. The fact that tens of thousands (including 37,000 in São Paulo) gathered demonstrates that not all are willing to allow the pro-impeachment/anti-Dilma crowd monopolize public space or the terms of political discourse among the public.
In contrast to last Sunday’s protesters, who tended to be socially and politically conservative, Thursday’s protesters were unsurprisingly from the center-left or left (and not necessarily unified in their vision/goals – because there is no such thing as a homogeneous/monolithic, singular “left”), the demands were generally broad, with anti-corruption slogans, anti-impeachment slogans, and pro-democracy chants. At the same time, protesters were not uniformly partisan toward the PT or pro-government in their rhetoric (though some were openly supportive of Dilma), and many social and economic issues were also levied on the placards and chants of protesters. These issues included protests against lowering the age of adulthood from 18 to 16, calls for wage increases, opposition to Dilma’s and Congress’s move toward austerity measures. Some countered the calls for military intervention last Sunday, insisting 1964 “never again” happen. Some acknowledged both the need for Dilma to finish her term, and the need for her to improve.
In general, the marchers this past Thursday were rarely strictly pro-PT or pro-Dilma (though obviously, there were such voices). Rather, the march generally filled two functions: to protest against efforts to undermine institutional stability over partisan calls for impeachment or for military intervention; and to outline a vision of the social needs and issues the government should be addressing, but hasn’t.
While not enough to lead to some overwhelming turn of events in Brazil, the protests do reveal a few things. First, part of the discourse in the protests is whether impeachment should be a political tool or not, with last Sunday’s protests in favor of removing a president some don’t like through impeachment, and Thursday’s protests effectively collectively arguing that, even when a president is unpopular, that is not enough to impeach. Additionally, conservative efforts to shape the discourse and frame issues around Dilma (rather than Cunha, Renan Calheiros, Fernando Collor, or others) are not going unchallenged. The third issue may be obvious, but it’s still important to note: anti-corruption sentiment crosses the political spectrum. Last Sunday, anti-Dilma protests held her responsible for corruption and thus, eligible for impeachment; Thursday’s protests focused on politicians who have been charged with corruption. While targets of anti-corruption rhetoric fall into somewhat partisan lines, the fact remains that Brazilians generally feel it is a very real issue, one that have mobilized over in recent years and continue to do so. Put another way, while who they blame for corruption may fall along partisan lines, they all agree that it is an institutional problem that needs to be addressed. Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, these two protests generally show the broader issues at play in the debate over the nature of democracy in Brazilian society more generally. Last Sunday’s protests operated on a more limited institutional democracy, hinging on electoral politics and institutional or (extralegal) military mechanisms to transform regimes; by contrast, Thursday’s protests defined democracy more along social and economic lines, supporting institutional stability but demanding greater equality in social and economic policies.
Brazil has seen something not so dissimilar to this before, in the early 1960s, as the country polarized, ultimately leading to the military coup of 1964. However, despite this superficial similarity, a coup or even impeachment seems unlikely. If anything, the fact that this time, even many in the opposition is calling for the removal of Dilma through legal institutional means (namely, impeachment) suggests that the political ferment, and even the investigation of corruption, do not mark Brazil’s democratic weakness, but its strength. It seems fully conceivable that Dilma will finish her term; what happens in the 2018 elections, and how the next 3 years affect that context, are much more difficult to predict.