Why Brazil’s protests didn’t translate into change at the ballot box

New ideas can only go so far.
New ideas can only go so far.
Image: Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino
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After one of the most complex and fast-changing presidential races in decades, Brazil held an election on Oct. 5 that revealed little of the sentiment for change during last year’s protests. So what happened?

First of all, Marina Silva only won 21% of the vote, a result of a number of factors including successful attack ads by the Workers’ Party and a poorly executed campaign that didn’t convince voters that she would be a viable alternative. Instead, Senator Aécio Neves came within eight points of President Dilma Rousseff. While he would certainly represent a change at the Planalto, he represents the most traditional of Brazilian politics: a wealthy, white, seasoned politician from Minas Gerais. And even though neither Rousseff nor Neves represent a major break from the status quo, they both referred to themselves as the candidate for change in their victory speeches. During her address, Rousseff stood before a massive backdrop that read: “New government, new ideas.” As the two candidates head to a runoff, they’re both jockeying for Silva’s voters and trying to cast themselves as change-makers.

Next, many politicians targeted by the 2013 protests were actually reelected. Despite the fact that corruption was one of the central themes of the protests and a constant complaint of those unhappy with Brazilian politics, notoriously dirty politicians like Paulo Maluf and Fernando Collor got elected. (It’s unclear, however, if Maluf will be able to take office given his ineligibility under the clean record law.) São Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin was reelected in spite of the capital city running out of water, among other things, and the reviled former Rio Governor Sérgio Cabral’s successor, Pezão, is headed for a runoff. Politicians who’ve come under fire for their homophobic views and bigoted behavior like Marco Feliciano and Jair Bolsonaro won reelection.

On the legislative front, this Congress is the most conservative elected since the post-1964 period, according to the Intersyndical Parliamentary Assistance Department. A larger number of members of the armed forces, religious groups, and agribusiness representatives won seats. Meanwhile, two of the country’s biggest parties, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) and the Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (PMDB), lost 18 and five seats, respectively, in the Chamber of Deputies and one seat each in the Senate. (They still, however, represent the biggest parties in Congress.)  The right-leaning PSDB, meanwhile, gained 10 seats in the lower house. Now, in the already fractured party system, there are even more parties in the legislature, rising from 22 to 28.

Given these events, what happened to the demands for change during last year’s protests?

Theory one: Brazilians don’t feel they’re represented by the options at the ballot box, and they’re so tired of the status quo that they don’t bother to pick any candidates. Abstention stood at 19%, the highest level since 1998. The combined number of those who didn’t vote and those who voted blank and null amounted to nearly 39 million people—more people than those who voted for Neves. Null and blank votes for federal representatives in São Paulo doubled since 2002, and tripled in Rio.

Theory two: Change is slow. “When things change very quickly, as in Brazil’s case since democratization, people get used to making a safe vote,” wrote São Paulo-based journalist Leandro Beguoci on Twitter. One sign of a little bit of change involves the PSOL, a left-wing party well-positioned to plug into the protesters’ demands. It saw a handful of modest successes in the election. Congressman and LGBT activist Jean Wyllys was reelected in Rio, and was the seventh-most voted federal deputy in the state. Rio state lawmaker and human rights advocate Marcelo Freixo also won reelection and helped double the number of PSOL representatives in the state legislature. The PSOL’s presidential candidate, Luciana Genro, came in fourth place, winning over 1.6 million votes. This represents an 82% increase over what the PSOL candidate earned in the 2010 election.

Theory three: The protests weren’t directed at a specific political party, but rather institutions overall, writes journalist Leandro Sakamoto on his blog. “A deep and structural societal change doesn’t happen overnight…those young people didn’t ask for a new government, but something deeper,” he says. By this account, change is going to be gradual and will come from more than a single election.

Theory four: It’s precisely the growth of the new middle class that’s spurring a move away from the PT and toward more conservative politicians. “Brazilians face the challenge of updating their politics to match emerging voter sophistication and demands for less corrupt, more efficient public spending,” writes Rio-based blogger Julia Michaels. “Paradoxically, it may be that part of Dilma’s Workers’ Party shrinking appeal is due to a growing conservatism on the part of those who have left poverty during their watch. Voters may not see (or believe in) a clear economic-political connection.” Sakamoto adds a similar idea: “This conservatism isn’t necessarily the fruit of reflection, but comes from the fear of losing the little they’ve managed to achieve and to become a nobody.”

This originally appeared at Follow Rachel @riogringa.