A Luta Continua: Brazil’s Protest Movement Sputters, but It’s Far From Dead

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Protesters block stretch of highway in southeastern Brazil, on July 11, 2013.

In Brazil, demonstrators closed highways, shut businesses and brought large parts of the country to a standstill once more this past week. But unlike in June, when the government was shaken by an almost unprecedented wave of unrest, President Dilma Rousseff is unlikely to have been too bothered by the latest displays of dissent.

This time around, the demonstrations organized by unionists and leftist social movements failed to resonate with the larger public. They were a far cry from a few weeks previously when millions of people took to the streets to protest bus-fare hikes, a lack of government spending on infrastructure, and a corrupt and venal political class. The June demonstrations, the biggest in two decades, came as Brazil hosted the Confederations Cup soccer tournament and proved something of a wake-up call for a nation that likes to think it has finally emerged as a major global player. The depth of the dissatisfaction took politicians on all sides by surprise.

But that moment of dissent has fizzled, at least for now. The new protests were the last gasps of unions to piggyback on the national feeling of discontent. Rousseff ignored them; she has more pressing concerns. Polls taken in the wake of June’s unrest show that the approval rating for her government declined from 57% to 30%, the biggest fall for a sitting President since the scandal leading to President Fernando Collor’s impeachment more than 20 years ago. If a presidential election were to be held today — general elections are scheduled for October 2014 — Rousseff would no longer win automatically but face a runoff against Marina Silva, the former Green Party candidate who came in third in the vote last time and who is now trying to create an alternative political movement.

(MORE: Scenes From Brazil’s Angry Nationwide Protests)

However, there is some consolation for the beleaguered Workers’ Party leader. Things look just as bad for her rivals at the state and municipal levels. The main issues in play — transport, health and education — are more local than federal and, even though local leaders have taken swift action to reduce transportation tariffs, they have also suffered in the polls. The approval ratings of governments in both the cities and states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro all fell considerably, sometimes by more than half. The national anger is not partisan — it is aimed at the whole system.

Government officials believe this period of gloom is temporary and point out that Rousseff acted quickly to address their concerns. She has already sent her plans for political reform to Congress and announced concrete measures to deliver 10,000 doctors to Brazil’s most needy areas. The country’s sclerotic, divisive Congress is stalling as usual, but Rousseff can’t be faulted for effort. “The President called for dialogue,” Justice Minister José Eduardo Cardozo tells TIME. “She listened to the voice of the street, and she called on people to get behind her and the pact she proposed. She showed that she can lead.”

Those actions have undoubtedly helped douse the fires of June’s rage. And although the embers are still smoldering, there appears little chance of the blaze reigniting for now. Brazilians are either satisfied with the government’s response, have felt their enthusiasm wane after three weeks on the streets, or have been scared off by the violence that brought many demonstrations to a premature close. Law enforcement reacted heavy-handedly to the first demonstrations, and radical elements within the protest movement gleefully sought to provoke further confrontations, deepening the sense of insecurity. Almost no one turned up at recent calls for action in São Paulo; the megacity saw some of the biggest marches in June. Thursday’s national strike involved only a fraction of the numbers that came out just two weeks before.

(MORE: Brazil’s World Cup Protests Intensify as Country’s Politicians and FIFA Squirm)

Perhaps more significant, the cancellation of the bus-fare hikes means there is no unifying theme for the disparate protesters to rally behind, says Jairo Nicolau, a political scientist in Rio who watched and participated in the biggest demonstrations. “There might be a few specific things that get people out in certain cities,” he said. “But I think it is over. I can’t see anything uniting people en masse.”

But there remain stark, underlying problems. Brazil has grown steadily over the past decade and there are few people who haven’t seen their lives improve. The country has become a continental giant with burgeoning, global ambitions. At home, there is almost full employment and credit is still widely available for domestic consumers. But with the government failing to invest massively in infrastructure or slash the red tape and taxes that hamstring businesses at every level, the economy is sputtering. Inflation has risen and the cost of living is absurdly high for a developing nation. Bread and tomatoes cost more than they do in the U.K., for example, and jeans and domestic appliances carry price tags three times those of the U.S. Growth is now forecast to fall to below 2% both this year and next, and although that in itself it is not disastrous news, it should set alarm bells ringing for those with an eye on the second half of 2014.

That’s a critical moment for both Rousseff and soccer’s governing body, FIFA. The World Cup kicks off in June and Rousseff vies for re-election a few months later. If the government doesn’t do more to address long-standing social woes, it won’t be just at the soccer tournament where things will be kicking off. “This isn’t Turkey, I don’t think we’ll see daily or even weekly protests in the near future, but with the election next year and the World Cup, that could change,” says Rafael Cortez, a political consultant with the Tendencias agency in São Paulo, referring to the unrest that hit another budding regional power this year as well. “The Cup is symbolic and it could get people out on the streets. People won’t lack for reasons to protest.”

MORE: Brazil’s Protests: Social Inequality and World Cup Spending Fuel Mass Unrest