More than a million Brazilians have taken to the streets this past week in the largest mass demonstrations since the impeachment of President Fernando Collor de Mello in 1992. It began as a modest protest movement in Sao Paulo against a seemingly routine 20 cent bus fare increase, but has quickly transformed into a broader and more diffuse protest against a range of grievances: political corruption; the dismal performance of public services such as transportation, health and education; and even excessive spending in preparation for the World Cup. The mostly peaceful protests have spread to dozens of cities across the country while capturing the world’s attention.
Explanations for this outburst of angst are varied. Some analysts point to Brazil’s economic woes and suggest that two and a half years of low growth, and signs that the consumption-led credit boom is coming to an end, are finally catching up politically, prompting popular discontent. Others see the protests as a manifestation of the government’s inability to meet basic needs, and potentially, as an indication that governance challenges are on the rise in Brazil in a more meaningful way.
All of these explanations have a kernel of truth but are ultimately incomplete. To be sure, the current macroeconomic cycle has generated an environment more prone to discontent, but that doesn’t explain the outburst on the streets. Something deeper and more structural is going on, and it has to do with how a cycle of economic enrichment over the past ten years is changing the public’s expectations of its politicians.
Delivering on growth and employment is no longer good enough. Voters will increasingly hold their leaders accountable to improve the quality of public services such as health, education, transport and crime prevention. The good news for President Dilma Rousseff is that such a trend, and even the current protests, don’t pose an immediate governance challenge. Nor are her prospects for re-election next year in serious jeopardy. The bad news, however, is that delivering on these new demands won’t be easy, and they will only intensify in years to come.
While the current economic environment doesn’t explain the recent bout of protests, it does enable them. The general mood in Brazil is one of growing pessimism and unease. To understand this sentiment, it’s important to remember that Brazil has undergone profound social changes over the last decade. The best example is the expansion of Brazil’s so-called “C” class, which is how Brazilian economists describe the equivalent to the American lower middle class. In 2005, it represented only 21 percent of the population, but in the ensuing years it has jumped to 54 percent. The rise of the C class has already had profound effects on Brazilian society, from politics to consumer products to the content of Brazilian telenovelas. Much of this demographic’s growth was due to the explosion in access to personal credit and the ability of lower-income Brazilians to buy goods and services in installments.