Mobilize for Democracy: Power Struggles and Protests in Brazil

Nicole Drake
The Machiavellian Eye
5 min readApr 19, 2016
Brazilians protesting the impeachment wave signs saying “Respect My Vote” in Portuguese

Actions undertaken by ordinary citizens that are intended, directly or indirectly, to influence the selection of government personnel and/or the policy making process are the foundations of modern political mobilization. Political mobilization is composed of five different participatory modes, of increasing levels of severity: appeals, adversarial activities, cronyism, resistance, and protests. The category of “protests” is further divided into strikes, participations in demonstrations, and outright legal action. The degree to which these manifestations find expression as political activity depends partly on the nature of the political environment itself — including the political structure and institutions, the party system, and the pattern of political values and beliefs. While voting is the primary and most commonly utilized method through which citizens have their interests represented, in certain cases that precious vote can be overriden by those in power, and citizens must turn to these more aggressive forms of political mobilization in order to be heard.

In Brazil, a country which has recently added political corruption to the list of things that its famous for — placed only slightly below football and the Amazon Rainforest and right above unnecessarily gorgeous women — the current attempts to impeach President Dilma Rousseff serve as a painful example of that. The first female president of the country, Rousseff’s first few years in office were met with a 92% approval rating, one of the highest in the world. Unfortunate timing led to her incumbency coinciding with the one of the worst recessions in Brazil’s history, and her involvement in the Petrobras scandal and attempts to shield Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva from legal repercussions for his own involvement have only made her popularity levels drop lower and lower. The official grounds for her impeachment, according to Jonathan Watts in his article, “Dilma Rousseff: Brazilian Congress Votes to Impeach President”, are:

“Rousseff is accused of window-dressing government accounts with a temporary transfer of money from state banks ahead of the last election.”

This allegation does have the ring of political intrigue and sound grounds for an impeachment, but as Watts points out later in his article, the lineup of those who were responsible for judging her for these crimes in the lower house was not really composed of those who had particularly clean hands themselves.

“Deputies were called one by one to the microphone by the instigator of the impeachment process, Cunha — an evangelical conservative who is himself accused of perjury and corruption — and one by one they condemned the president.

“Yes, voted Paulo Maluf, who is on Interpol’s red list for conspiracy. Yes, voted Nilton Capixiba, who is accused of money laundering. “For the love of God, yes!” declared Silas Camara, who is under investigation for forging documents and misappropriating public funds.

“And yes, voted the vast majority of the more than 150 deputies who are implicated in crimes but protected by their status as parliamentarians.”

The people of Brazil, aware of this, have been protesting the political maneuver for months. While there have been large demonstrations in support of the impeachment from those who think getting any of their corrupt leaders out of office is a benefit, other groups are calling this what it really is: a coup. The attempts to remove a President from office who has not committed any acts of corruption grander than the average politician in Brazil, as sad as that observation is, show themselves to be nothing but a dramatic grab for power and a disrespect for the vote of the people. Even many voters who do not like or agree with Rousseff or her policies showed up to anti-impeachment protests in support of democracy. As Chico Buarque said in an article by Jonathan Watts and Bruce Douglas for The Guardian:

“People who voted for the PT, and people who don’t like the PT,” he said, “it is clear that we are here united in our appreciation of democracy and in our robust defence of democracy.”

In the history of Brazil, this is a turning point. This is the moment where the masses must take action and stand up for their right to be represented. This is the people’s opportunity to do more than just vote every few years to exercise their democratic right — they must fight for that right not to be ignored. In the article, “Brazil’s Workers party vows to hang on to power despite impeachment vote”, Jonathan Watts quotes one of the citizens that he interviewed as providing a call to action, and saying:

“‘The Workers party calls on all men and women committed to democracy to remain mobilised and occupy the streets against this fraudulent impeachment,’ said Rui Falcão, the party’s national president.”

In the end, in this battle of the people of Brazil vs. their corrupt government, there can only be one victor. Citizens may have the right to protest what they don’t like and don’t believe in, but their government has the authoritative, institutional advantage over them. A fitting but unlikely comparison to this can be found in Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s defining work, Venus in Furs, a novella on the skewed power dynamics between a man and a woman. In Brazil’s governmental system and its people’s attempts at political mobilization, as well as in the struggles between the sexes, one thing remains true:

“And you know this better than I; whichever of the two fails to subjugate will soon feel the feet of the other on his neck…”

— Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Venus in Furs