Can grassroots movements change politics in Brazil?

A man walks past coloured ribbons hanging over a street depicting the Brazilian national flag decorated for the 2014 World Cup in Manaus June 16, 2014. In a project called 'On the Sidelines' Reuters photographers share pictures showing their own quirky and creative view of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.               REUTERS/Yves Herman (BRAZIL - Tags: SPORT SOCCER WORLD CUP SOCIETY) - RTR3U4UE

Image: REUTERS/Yves Herman

Teo Benjamin
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Brazil has a new president. After an unbelievably complex process, full of surprises and twists, president Dilma Rousseff was suspended and her vice-president, Michel Temer, took power.

This might be the end of a long cycle in the country’s politics. In recent years, the Brazilian government has run on something they call “governability”. To summarize, it means something like “do whatever possible to guarantee some sort of stability in power”. Most people would call it just “politics”, but it has been taken to another level. Governability became all that matters, so the decisions of today are taken solely with the purpose of maintaining a stable environment tomorrow – in an endless cycle. The whole political world was turned into a free-spin wheel that is disconnected to the real challenges of the country.

This scenario creates an inevitable dismantling in the long-term. The more you negotiate and try to please all political classes, the hungrier they get. Michel Temer’s party (PMDB) is the biggest in Brazil and has the majority in congress, but was split on how strongly it would support the interim government.

That might explain why Temer ended up as vice president in the first place. There is only a certain extent to where you can give up everything in the name of governability. The system enables this cycle to continue and the decision-makers don’t seem interested in changing it. Without new political leaderships emerging to represent new ideas in congress, huge risks remain.


In June 2013, Brazil saw the rise of people-led movements that took the streets in major demonstrations. “The Giant is awake” was the catch line of the day. The idea was that, 21 years after the last big wave of protests, people have again become fed up with the abuses of the powerful political class.

The protests started for a fairly specific reason: the raise in public transportation prices in major capitals of the country, but soon became a big wave of massive discontent. It was about a widespread feeling of political misrepresentation.

The demonstrations didn't change much – in practice, a very conservative congress was elected roughly one year later – but the real change was to bring politics to the centre of the debate. Before 2013, it was unimaginable to have regular people discussing politics at a bar after work (as it still is in many countries much more politically cultured than Brazil). Nowadays, it became a major topic in every conversation.

A political vacuum

More and more Brazilians feel they are not represented by current politicians and, even further, by the mainstream way of doing politics. But, if none of “what is there” represents us, who (or what) is going to take that place?

Some political leaders and parties tried to present themselves as “the new”, but they don’t fully understand or embrace the narrative of the streets and, because of that, failed in their attempt. In the other corner, youth right-wing movements (which are – or were – quite uncommon in Latin America) are understanding the aesthetics of crowd mobilization and gaining ground – even starting to talk about running for public positions in the next election.

Initiatives based on citizen online participation have grown a lot in recent years. Social movements that were mobilized prior to demonstrations (and which provided the spark to light them in the first place) continue to exist, but they do not provide an accessible framework for most people to engage with.

Also, many movements – like the occupation of public schools by teenage students who fight for better conditions – choose to be more horizontal and leaderless, creating some difficulties for the establishment to understand and engage with them.

It’s clear we have to reinvent our way of doing politics, but so far, it is not clear who will profit from this and whether it would be a step towards a more participatory, distributed and just system - as the scattered voices demand.


The perfect scenario to ignite engagement might have been created by Michel Temer himself. On his very first day, he extinguished the Ministry of Culture and this led thousands of artists, performers and common citizens to occupy the buildings of the old ministry in virtually all states. After less than a week, the government stepped back and recreated it, but people were already gathered and mobilized.

As it was not only about a small raise in the bus prices in 2013, it is not only about a ministry in 2016. These were just the triggers.

In parallel, groups of women are strongly gathering around feminist issues, gender equality, sexism and misrepresentation, indicating that all this process might be led by them after all.

What's next?

Now it’s June again and “Occupy Everything” (#OcupaTudo) is the hashtag of the moment. The decentralized narrative created by these grassroots movements has traction once more. It is a more unstable and explosive scenario, but also an opportunity to dig deeper.

The question of the moment is what these horizontal movements can deliver in the short-term. If this new effort dies out without real change in the mainstream political game, people might get tired and it will just reinforce old groups and ideas. In addition, if it twists the establishment and create a real thing (forcing new elections, for example), but doesn't provide frameworks (leaderships, tools and methodologies) for a long-lasting transformation, the vacuum created can be filled by the anti-democratic groups.

This moment can represent a turning point in Brazil's history, when people take matters into their own hands. It will only be successful if done in a participatory, open and empathetic way. It is worth noting that Brazilians are just crazy about social media, so the debates are becoming more regular, but also harder. We will have to accept the contradictions of such a big and diverse country and work on our differences as well as on our commonalities.

It is impossible to know exactly to what extent these grassroots movements can change politics. It is definitely about the process, not the immediate results. For me, it’s time for the Brazilian system to be rebooted – and it has to be done bottom-up.

The World Economic Forum on Latin America is taking place in Medellin, Colombia from 16 to 17 June.

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