The government of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has been mindful not to go down the same road as others – that of Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan being the most recent – that have opted for bullish, often brutal responses to popular protest. If she may have been less than tardy in addressing the protests that had begun several days earlier in São Paulo over bus fare hikes then spread to other cities, her eventual response to the most serious anti-government protest of her two-and-a-half year presidential tenure was reflective of both a healthy measure of circumspection and a pointed acknowledgement of the legitimacy of public protest in a democratic society.
When she addressed the Brazilian people in a televised broadcast on Friday evening President Rousseff knew only too well that she was facing a public upheaval that had, in the previous days, gained significant traction on account of the role which the social media had played in taking it beyond São Paulo.
These days – as the events of the Arab Spring have so poignantly demonstrated – social media play a powerful role in driving public protest even in less than democratic societies, so that determined popular insurgency can no longer be suppressed simply by harsh police crackdowns. In Brazil, within a very short period, the social media had served to mobilize numbers of protesters far beyond those who had taken to the streets over the São Paulo bus fare hikes. More than spreading beyond its limited geographic locale, the Brazilian protest also quickly took on board a host of other issues including corruption and poverty, familiar themes on Brazil’s political agenda.
The protests also benefited from their impeccable timing, coinciding with Brazil’s staging of the FIFA Confederations Cup, considered a trial run to the 2014 World Cup. The protests, accordingly, served as an ideal platform for Brazilians to vent their feelings over the government’s multi-billion dollar investment in staging the 2014 football World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.
For her part, finding empathy with the protestors and unreservedly acknowledging the legitimacy of public protest in democratic societies was the politically astute thing for President Rousseff to do. Her speech sought to – among other things ‒ send signals of assurance to Brazilians that her government was not about to repeat the harsh crackdowns witnessed in the Middle East, for example, and more recently in Turkey.
No less importantly, President Rousseff made the point – which other governments laying claim to democratic credentials would do well to be mindful of ‒ that managing public protest is perhaps the biggest challenge of governing in a democratic society.
In President Rousseff’s case her response to the public protest appeared to have been shaped in large measure by her own political past as an urban guerilla during the bleak days of Brazil’s military junta. “My generation fought a lot so that the voice of the streets could be heard,” Rousseff said. “Many were persecuted, tortured and many died for this. The voice of the street must be heard and respected and it can’t be confused with the noise and truculence of some troublemakers,” Rousseff declared.
All of this is not to say that her promises, which include a commitment to take yet another tilt at official corruption, will make the protests go away. Having already persuaded the authorities to withdraw the bus fare increases in São Paulo and, moreover, having elicited a conciliatory response from President Rousseff the protesting Brazilians now appear to be on a roll, so to speak, and may try to secure as many concessions as they can from the federal government. The significant thing about the past few days, however, is that President Rousseff, apart from having agreed to meet with the protestors has nailed her administration’s colours to the mast, underscoring the legitimacy of ‘the voice of the streets’ as an integral part of the democratic process. That, above all else, is what makes her address significant.