Will Roussef’s Political Move End the Protests in Brazil?

PHOTO: Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff(C) is seen during a meeting with Supreme Court and congressional leaders to gain support for her proposal for sweeping political reform in response to mass protests calling for a better quality of life.EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff(C) is seen during a meeting with Supreme Court and congressional leaders to gain support for her proposal for sweeping political reform in response to mass protests calling for a better quality of life.

On Monday, Brazilian President Dilma Roussef unveiled a series of daring political proposals designed to put an end to the protests that have unnerved the Brazilian government in the past couple of weeks.

After meeting with members of the Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement), Roussef offered a statement in which she responded to some of their main concerns.

She essentially highlighted her government's advances in social equality and education, announced that Brazil would spend $22 billion to expand public transportation, suggested harsher penalties for corruption, promised fiscal moderation, and put forward the idea of hiring foreign doctors to work in careworn public hospitals. In a controversial move, Roussef also proposed a plebiscite to call for a constitutional assembly to overhaul the country's political system.

The first five points are tailored to meet with some of the demands that have to do with education, public transportation, corruption, fiscal policies (i.e. spending on events like the World Cup), and healthcare — all concerns that have repeatedly surfaced during rallies across the country. The sixth proposal intends to deal with those who have bitterly criticized Brazil's political system and the politicians that take advantage of it.

All in all, Roussef's proposed plan seems to offer rather accommodating responses to these very real issues, but they don't likely signal the end of protests

"The protests are likely to go on," said Paulo Sotero, Director of the Brazil Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center a Washington-based think tank. "There were protests yesterday in various cities after the announcement, and there is already a major rally called for July 1."

The most immediate problem has to do with Roussef's sixth proposal. The government has not offered any specifics about the transformations that the political system supposedly needs. Not to mention, Brazilian critics blasted Roussef's call for a constitutional assembly, and accused her of trying to trick the protesters.

Politicians haven't responded much better. Roussef's vice president and members of the governing coalition had spoken against such a measure in the past, so it's not quite clear why Roussef proposed it. A constitutional assembly, after all, is an overreaching mechanism used to write a new constitution.

"Her statement shows that she is obviously listening to the streets," Sotero said. "But the main proposal—the plebiscite to call a constitutional assembly to reform the political system—is not politically viable."

That's true. The government was forced to withdraw the idea early on Tuesday. Officials are now discussing the possibility of enacting reform through a referendum.

In the meantime, the Movement Against Electoral Corruption (MAEC), one of the NGOs that proposed the three changes detailed above, is pushing for reform in another way. The Brazilian constitution includes a provision for direct action by the people. If 1.5 million citizens—one percent of the electorate—sign a proposal, congress must vote it. The MAEC is now recollecting those.

Both options to pass political reform point to a more complicated issue that will probably contribute to the protests' survival, according to Sotero.

"They are symptomatic of the situation in Brazil," he said. "They are both forms of direct democracy. That is, they are not the traditional way in which a representative democracy usually works. Because of the wide nature and the anger of the protests, direct democracy has become and seems to be the only game in town."

The Brazilian movement is highly fragmented and horizontal. Despite the presence of groups like the Free Fare Movement, it has no clear leaders and follows no specific orders. And since there are no individual leaders or organizations taking decisions, nothing stops small groups or numerous individuals from maintaining the protests alive even after the government answers most of the demands put forward by the largest groups.

In all likelihood, the demonstrations will continue, in a subdued form, for at least a couple of weeks. They could grow once again or ultimately fade, and their subsistence will ultimately depend on the political mood and what the government does in the coming days.

"This is a situation that requires leadership," Sotero said, "so the question is: Will Dilma or any of the leaders of the opposition rise to the occasion?"