Brazil's president meets protests with an anti-Erdogan response

Protests have popped up across the globe in recent years, but government response has varied. Rousseff's approach contrasted with the adversarial position of Turkey's Erdogan, for example.

Alex Almeida/Reuters
Demonstrators block a highway on the outskirts of the city during protests against poor public services, police violence and government corruption, in Sao Paulo June 19. The demonstrations were set off by an increase in bus fares, but protesters soon turned their discontent toward elected officials from mayors in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to President Dilma Rousseff.

As hundreds of thousands of demonstrators filled the streets in Brazil this last week with an intensity not seen here for decades, President Dilma Rousseff reacted by offering careful words of conciliation, highlighting her administration's attempt to put its best face forward as it increasingly steps into the global spotlight leading up to megaevents like the World Cup and Olympics.

"The size of the protests yesterday prove the energy of our democracy," she said in a speech on Tuesday.

The demonstrations were set off by an increase in bus fares, but protesters soon turned their discontent toward elected officials from mayors in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to Ms. Rousseff herself. Many complain officials are pushing ahead with massive investments in the country in the leadup to international sporting events – such as the 2014 World Cup, which will be three times more expensive than the past three World Cups combined – without consulting the public on their priorities.

Protests across the globe, led largely by young citizens unhappy with how their government is run, have become increasingly common the past few years, with uprisings grabbing headlines across the Middle East, in India, and recently in Turkey. Though there are some common threads connecting the demonstrations – the role of social media and violent police response, for example – the way in which leaders engage with protesters has varied decisively.

Rousseff's approach contrasted with the adversarial position of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is also facing popular demonstrations in his country and has referred to protesters as "villains," for example. Yet, current events taking place in Brazil – from upcoming presidential elections to the long list of megaevents, and the country's democratic transition – play a unique role in how the president has reacted, analysts say.

Dictatorship to democracy

Rousseff's time as a political prisoner, tortured as a young woman during the 1964 to 1985 military dictatorship, may have influenced her response. She drew on that experience when reaching out to demonstrators this week, saying: "This message coming straight from the streets proves the intrinsic value of our democracy, the participation of citizens in their search for their rights. And I want to tell you something – my generation knows how much this cost."

She didn't add fuel to the fire – a good thing, analysts say. However; though her words signaled she was listening to protesters and would respond rather than suppress them, Rousseff’s chances of quelling protests outright still seem low after years of Brazilians losing confidence in elected officials, analysts say.

“This speech [Dilma gave] did not serve for anything because these people who are going to the streets are not interested in the opinion of the President Dilma,” says Fernando Rodrigues, a political columnist in Brasília for the newspaper Folha de São Paulo. He cited a recent poll of São Paulo residents by Datafolha, which found that those who viewed the executive branch of government with “high prestige” fell from 51 percent to 19 percent in a decade.

This put it behind even the polemical megachurch Igreja Universal, famous for teaching the so-called “Prosperity Theology" that God will bless the faithful financially.

Mr. Rodrigues says Rousseff’s administration has been “negligent” about maintaining an open dialogue with social movements across Brazil, leading to the pent-up dissatisfaction that spilled onto the streets this week.

“At this point, there is very little that can be done to diminish the force of the demonstrations on the streets,” Rodrigues says. “The elected officials will have to offer many concrete, palpable provisions that people can understand to lessen the frustration of the population.”

Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist and human rights adviser at Amnesty International, described it as “sincere” when Rousseff’s administration said that it “needed to understand” this new kind of demonstration.

"The politicians are afraid of the people. This is always good news in a democracy,” he wrote in an e-mail from Istanbul, where he was meeting with Turkish activists in Taksim Square.

But, he adds, Rousseff’s meeting with a top campaign strategist early in the protests showed her hesitance to deal directly with protesters, and that her political standing was top of mind with presidential elections taking place next year. Before protests even began this month, her approval ratings were already slipping.

“A more confident politician would open a dialogue with social movements, especially when the demonstrations are criticizing the lack of official response about the demands of the civil society," Mr. Santoro wrote.

Yesterday mayors in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and several surrounding cities announced a decrease in bus fares. While welcomed by demonstrators, the announcements have done little to staunch the momentum of the protests. Some 80 demonstrations are expected in cities around the country today, including 12 state capitals.

“Transportation is terrible, education is terrible, public health is terrible,” Rodrigues says. “I think it’s a miracle that people took so long to demonstrate."

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