On March 15, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators across Brazil flooded the streets. It was the biggest mobilization since June 2013, when millions took to the streets in protest that began over increased public transit fares and grew to encompass a range of other causes, including World Cup megaprojects, the poor state of public education, the need for political reform and many others.
A different cause united this month’s mobilizations. Protesters could be heard chanting Cold War–era anti-communist slogans, demanding the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff and even calling for army intervention in domestic politics. Thirty years after the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship, Rousseff and her center-left Workers’ Party (PT) face a growing challenge from the right.
The PT has held national power in Brazil for the last 13 years. But Rousseff is increasingly politically isolated. Re-elected last fall by a slim margin, she now has to contend with the most conservative National Congress since 1964 as well as a decelerating economy, hostile media and a corruption scandal that implicates her party. She has very low approval ratings and has increasingly alienated her party’s traditional base of trade unionists and social movement activists, many of whom are disappointed with her pro-market political appointments. Although opposition parties are not yet calling for Rousseff’s impeachment, there is no question that difficult times lie ahead.
Corruption is a very serious issue. But the recent protests have been conspicuously silent about political reforms — such as full public campaign financing — that could help address the problem. And although politicians from several major parties, including the opposition, are currently under investigation for corruption, the only political party mentioned during the protests was the PT. In fact, the one overriding theme of the protests was the anti-PT sentiment.
What accounts for this hostility? Last weekend’s protests must be understood as part of a growing conservative backlash in Brazil against years of PT-directed redistribution. Elite and middle-class hostility toward minorities, the poor and their political patrons has now come to the fore in unprecedented ways.
Eyewitnesses agree that the protesters were generally whiter and wealthier than the typical Brazilian. A survey of participants from Porto Alegre and São Paulo confirms this: Nearly 70 percent were college-educated (in a country where 11 percent are), and more than 40 percent were in the highest income bracket (occupied by only 3 percent of the general population). Former Finance Minister Luiz Carlos Bresser-Pereira remarked that he was witnessing, for the first time in his life, “collective hatred on the part of elites, of the rich, against a party and a president. It wasn’t worry. It was hatred.”
Since Rousseff’s re-election campaign in 2014, political discourse in Brazil has become more polarized than ever. Legislators elected from historically progressive states openly defended policies such as torture and the extermination of indigenous peoples. Congress now includes a sizable “bullet caucus,” which supports militaristic responses to crime, as well as a substantial Christian fundamentalist caucus opposed to gay rights and a very large rural caucus that opposes land reform and indigenous rights. Meanwhile, the PT and parties to its left lost seats, and nearly 30 percent of voters cast blank ballots or abstained — a historic high.
Rousseff’s administration has fallen short of expectations on certain scores, including land redistribution and the reform of the political system. But most progressive commentators agree that the PT represents a significant break from the free-market orthodoxy that previously prevailed in Brazil. There are a number of impressive social achievements based on the unapologetic redistribution of resources and opportunity. Extreme poverty has been reduced by 75 percent since the PT came to power, and overall poverty gone down 65 percent, largely by means of direct cash transfers now received by 44 million Brazilians, or nearly 1 in 4. The inflation-adjusted minimum wage has doubled in the last 12 years, and domestic workers have won expanded rights, including paid vacation.
All this upsets the nation’s elites. But the issue that many find most offensive is affirmative action in public universities, which are the most prestigious academic institutions in Brazil. Though they charge no tuition, the schools are a traditional bastion of elite privilege, the place where senators, ministers, presidents, judges and newspaper editors are all educated. Since 2003, the number of college students has doubled, with the biggest gains among the working class and lower middle class. In the last few years, the universities have set aside nearly half their slots for affirmative action candidates, bringing the subject of racial inequality into public debate after a long period of neglect.
Despite these achievements, the future of the Workers Party looks rough. What happened to the organization once so effective at harnessing social movements to bring about pragmatic social change? Maybe it has failed to mobilize new constituencies or to follow the lead of new social movements. (This was certainly the case with the 2013 protests.) Or perhaps the problem is a political one. The PT has failed to present the redistributive project as one that benefits the entire nation and not just the dispossessed. But one thing is certain: The party failed to predict the revolt of the upper middle classes and elites, whose discontent now threatens the policy accomplishments of the PT era.