Things are happening in Brazil almost too rapidly to keep up, but it’s imminently worth keeping up with. The images that have poured out of Brasilia, where protesters peacefully entered, then literally danced atop, government buildings including the national congress, are a breathtaking evocation of nonviolent direct action and people power. The national government, and the city governments which bear considerable responsibility in Brazil’s federal system for maintaining public order, still have a chance to address these concerns. And indeed these protests, which as Rio Gringa notes (link above) are seen as a moment for Brazilians to “[awaken] from a long stupor,” to “[stand up] to demand change,” present an opportunity for a rapidly changing Brazil to deepen democracy and embrace a new incarnation of its vibrant social movement culture.
Seen in one light, these protests were inevitable. Brazil suffers from enough of an accountability gap that citizens don’t perceive a link between higher bus fares and improved service, or between urban disruption in the leadup to the World Cup and the geopolitical and economic benefits that Brazil’s leaders hope to reap from that event. Couple this dissatisfaction with a lagging economy and the stage was set for unrest. It’s also unsurprising that the impetus of the protests has swiftly made the leap from a narrow focus on bus fares to a broader critique of corruption and of a model of development that has seen “citizens bearing the cost of Brazil’s public improvements before seeing the benefit.” This is not dissimilar from the way that a relatively localized protest over planned demolition of a park in Istanbul rapidly turned into a national-level reaction against the naked ambition and developmentalist vulgarity of Turkey’s ruling party.
This brings me easily enough to my next point, which is the conscious emulation of other social movements. This somewhat mannered assumption of social movement zeitgeist – the claim that Brazil is about to “turn into Turkey,” the signs reading “We got off Facebook” which call to mind Egyptians’ surge into the streets following the internet shut-down in 2011, the inevitable Guy Fawkes masks – provide further evidence for a transnational repertoire of social protest, and diffusion from country to country of this repertoire in the service of a global movement for social rights and government accountability. Certainly Brazil shares enough features – rapid social change, vast geographic and social inequality, citizen insecurity, and turbulent economic shifts – with countries that have seen recent major protests (“Arab Spring” countries, and more recently India, and Turkey, and so on) to make this model of diffusion plausible, and to bear some comparisons to those models. But in contrast certainly to the Arab countries, and with less perfect contrast to the imperfect democracies listed above, Brazil’s democracy may yet emerge stronger from this period of turmoil.
While President Dilma Roussef’s claims that “The greatness of yesterday’s demonstrations were proof of the energy of our democracy” might easily be dismissed as so much political posturing, there may be something to it. In Sao Paulo, city police have reportedly already tamped down the level of repression that occurred early on. This is a precondition to establishing peaceful dialogue with protesters, and is a sign of the kind of adaptive resilience that (supposedly, ought to be) is characteristic of a mature democratic response. Contrast this with Turkey, where a leader of majoritarian mindset (himself a personal target of protesters, as Roussef is not) has had a tough time reining back in repression by personal proclivity.
Brazil’s leaders are on a tough learning curve, but there’s some initial evidence that they are learning. Now they have to go further, adapting to a non-traditional social movement, powered by emerging ICT and social media booms, and outside traditional organizing channels. Bloggings by Boz has good insight here into what this short-term calculus may entail. In the long-term, citizen movements for greater accountability, in a country with notorious levels of corruption, have the potential to revitalize democratic institutions and root out authoritarian enclaves that lie at the heart of elite bargaining over rents and spoils and power. This is much needed, as others have ably pointed out. These gains will be best achieved if protesters aiming to reshape patterns of state-citizen accountability leverage some of Brazil’s progressive, if imperfect, institutions for information and transparency. Brazil is in the process of tortuously implementing a new Freedom of Information law, which civil society and press groups have been vociferously monitoring and auditing – and utilizing! Brazil has also instituted measures to expand fiscal and budgetary transparency, another area where civil society groups are quite active and have been for years. Brazil’s protesters have the opportunity to both use the information afforded them by these institutions, and to demand the further strengthening of mechanisms for transparency and citizen oversight. None of this will be easy. But increased accountability, and maybe even a shake-up in political culture, is just what Brazil needs for 2013.