Brazil election: Why antigovernment protesters are now voting Rousseff

Many far-left Brazilians, active in the protests that rocked this South American nation over the past year and a half, have taken a 180-degree political turn. But that doesn't mean smooth sailing for President Dilma Rousseff.

Nacho doce/Reuters
A supporter takes a picture next to banners bearing the image of Brazilian President and Workers' Party (PT) presidential candidate Dilma Rousseff during a march in her support in Sao Paulo October 2014.

The bohemian neighborhood of Lapa is a familiar place for Marcus Galiña and his peers. Lapa's streets were host to many of the antigovernment protests that swept the nation over the past year and a half. And Mr. Galiña, an artist and an avid protester, was often there, witnessing the familiar scenes in demonstrations calling for better public services and government accountability: protesters in gas masks, Molotov cocktails, stun bombs, and arrests.

But just days before Brazil’s presidential runoff, the battleground for antigovernment protests in Lapa is a sea of red, the color of Brazil’s ruling Workers’ Party.

Galiña – like many others active in Brazil’s protests – is doing something that few could have imagined just a few months ago: enthusiastically supporting the reelection of incumbent Dilma Rousseff.

“It’s a strategic vote,” he says of backing Mr. Rousseff on Sunday. “The masses have to be Machiavellian, like the politicians are,” he says.

Galiña, who protested a Rio visit by Rousseff last year and who says he plans to take up demonstrations the day after the election, isn’t alone in his political 180. Disillusioned Brazilians who angrily protested last year say the current tight race has led them back to the government they long demonstrated against.

But support for Rousseff in Sunday's hyper-polarized runoff election could bring about renewed disenchantment, says Luiz Jorge Werneck Vianna, a sociologist at Rio de Janeiro’s Pontifical Catholic University.

“How is it that Dilma will govern after the election? Will she govern with that left? She will not,” says Mr. Vianna.

'Critical' support for Rousseff

Part of the far left’s journey back to Rousseff has to do with the lack of a candidate that met this group’s political demands. In the first round of voting in early October, Brazil’s far left vehemently rejected former environmental minister and socialist party candidate Marina Silva, who took over the ticket after her running mate was killed in a plane crash.

They pointed to problematic alliances Ms. Silva tried to make as she scrambled for support, teaming up with Pentecostal church powerhouses and the financial sector. Many left-leaning Brazilians instead voted for small, far-left parties that fetched less than 2 percent of the overall votes, and Ms. Silva was knocked out of the race.

The runoff pits Rousseff against the center-right candidate Aécio Neves, whose party Galiña and his peers do not seem as interested in engaging social activists.

It’s a tight race, according to polls that put only a few percentage points between the two. The class divide between Rousseff and Mr. Neves is deeply pronounced: Neves polls higher among wealthy and college educated Brazilians, while Rousseff has a lead in Brazil’s poorest states, where large portions of the population participate in welfare programs like Bolsa Família, which gives cash directly to mothers in exchange for keeping their kids in school and up to date on medical visits.

Endorsements for Rousseff among influential figures in Brazil’s far left include a well-known founder of the citizen media collective, Ninja Media; an actor from a popular YouTube comedy troop that makes snarky political satires; and the Rio activist and independent media group Colectivo Vinhetando. The latter declared that voting for Rousseff was simply a way to veto her opponent, not necessarily a stamp of approval for Rousseff: “We declare our critical vote for Dilma Rousseff, maintaining, in spite of this, our opposition to her government.”

Despite the election being painted as a high-stakes battle between left and right, the candidates’ platforms are, in many ways, rather similar.

Both Rousseff and Neves promote closer ties with Washington, includiing steps to reinvigorate stagnant economic growth, and a continuation of Bolsa Família. Both promise to fight corruption, as allegations against each party abounds. This includes heated bribery charges in state-owned oil company Petrobras that link back to the Workers’ Party. Neves, on the other hand, is under investigation for allegedly using public funds when he was state governor to purchase land from a relative in order to build an airport.

'In order for us to learn'

In June 2013, when antigovernment protests rocked Brazil – spurred by anger over a rise in the price of bus fares – the movement brought together Brazilians of diverse and even clashing political stripes, united in their exasperation with the status quo.

During the largest protest on June 20, 2013, hundreds of thousands of Brazilians demonstrated in more than 300 cities. Rousseff’s approval ratings tumbled in the aftermath.

One year later, as Brazil prepared to host the 2014 World Cup, protesters were notably more homogeneous, made up of far-left activists who often faced off with police. The targets of their ire – public spending, corruption, and poor public services like education and healthcare – implicated Rousseff. But it was her predecessor and mentor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva who fought to host the cup, an event Rousseff’s administration continued to champion and spend lavishly on. Complaints about police violence led protests to expand to include the Rio state government, which is allied with Rousseff. However, she earns credibility with the far left for her party's history of anti-poverty programs and progressive policies like college scholarships for low-income students and affirmative action programs at prestigious public universities.

Many in among the far left that demonstrated until the very end now express robust support for Rousseff on social media, with hashtags like #AécioNever and #CoraçãoValente (“brave heart,” a nod to her time as a political prisoner and torture victim during Brazil’s 1964-85 military dictatorship.) A popular retro-colored meme depicts young Rousseff wearing thick glasses and a slight frown as she is photographed for her mug shot.

But not all Brazilians active in antigovernment protests are lending their support to Rousseff. Unlike many of her peers, Carol Bertoni, a receptionist in a commercial building and a routine participant in protests, decided she simply won’t cast a ballot on Sunday.

“Did we shout against them for a whole year to now go and vote for them?” she asks. “I think we are going to need a hundred more demonstrations like the ones of 2013 in order for us to learn.”

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