Pro-government demos give Bolsonaro some breathing room

. May 27, 2019
paulista pro-jair bolsonaro Paulista Avenue

In 156 cities across all states, over 100,000 people took to the streets to defend Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s far-right president. According to a survey carried out by professors Luiza Aguiar, Pablo Ortellado, and Márcio Moretto on São Paulo’s Paulista Avenue, among the principal demands put forward by demonstrators included support for the government’s pension reform bill, mentioned by 75 percent of attendants.

</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">However, radical agendas also found space to flourish. Six percent of respondents cited the shutdown of Congress and the Supreme Court as their reason for spending a sunny Sunday holding placards, dressed in yellow and green, and shouting in favor of the president. We also witnessed some of the same anti-feminist, </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">anti-Workers&#8217; Party</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> rhetoric that propelled Mr. Bolsonaro from <a href="">Congress backbencher</a> to President of Brazil. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">However, while those agendas helped galvanize a part of the crowd, they also kept other conservative groups away. The most prominent example being the Free Brazil Movement (MBL), dubbed &#8220;traitors&#8221; by many of Sunday&#8217;s speakers.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The pro-government movement comes almost two weeks after students and teachers took to the street to protest budget cuts in the Education Ministry. While Sunday&#8217;s protests drew smaller crowds in fewer cities, they were still undeniably large in São Paulo, Brasília, and Rio de Janeiro—the three main political centers of the country. This also gave pro-Bolsonaro demonstrators a huge gain in media exposure and reach.</span></p> <h2>Who won the streets?</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Any assessment of a movement that was neither a hit nor miss is firmly in the eye of the beholder. Depending on the political leanings of your interlocutor, you could get completely different accounts. Those on the left ridiculed the protests, calling them an utter flop, while conservatives spent the day talking about the &#8220;spontaneity&#8221; of these &#8220;massive&#8221; demonstrations. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In reality, though, it doesn&#8217;t matter &#8220;who won.&#8221; What matters is how </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">Congress</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> interprets the pro-Bolsonaro protests.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The true effects of the demonstrations will be felt tomorrow, when lawmakers return to Brasília.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The trigger for Sunday&#8217;s demos was the tug-of-war between the Executive and Legislative branches of government. The president&#8217;s backers specifically went after the &#8220;Big Center,&#8221; a group of center-right parties which holds a majority in the House and has a reputation for horse trading. Since taking office, Mr. Bolsonaro has refused to negotiate with them, unlike all of his predecessors. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The new president insists on calling himself a representative of a &#8220;new way&#8221; of doing politics. He preferred to talk to issue-based caucuses, such as groups of representatives in favor of landowners, or evangelicals. But in doing so, Mr. Bolsonaro refused to talk to small and medium-sized parties of the Big Center—which always tip the scales in congressional votes. As a result, the government&#8217;s agenda has stalled.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">His decades as a backbencher haven&#8217;t taught the president much about political craft. Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s usual demeanor—screaming and insulting his colleagues—will do him little favors as the head of the government.</span></p> <h2>The war of narratives</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Mr. Bolsonaro will use his propaganda machine—made up of fervent supporters and social media bots—to claim Sunday as a personal victory. On Twitter, the pro-Bolsonaro demonstration generated more engagement than those of May 15, but produced fewer posts (1.4 million v. 1.6 million). </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">How many of these posts and subsequent engagement were the result of bots is unknown.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">On May 30, students and teachers are set to hold a second round of demonstrations against Mr. Bolsonaro. These marches will be key to show whether the opposition remains mobilized, or if May 15 was just a fluke. Even if &#8220;his&#8221; demonstrations were smaller, Mr. Bolsonaro did manage to show strength, and only the continuous mobilization of the opposition will be able to put this administration in real danger. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">An isolated demonstration does not seem enough to cause real damage to a government that has so far been its own worst enemy.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">As journalist Leonardo Sakamoto </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">pointed out</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">, the pro-Bolsonaro protests served to consolidate his political identity: &#8220;Little participation of young people (average age of 45), family income above BRL 5,000 and [participants with] university degrees.”</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">If we can extrapolate the results of the survey in São Paulo to other regions, we can see that an important part of the young electorate preferred to stay at home—which can be partially explained by MBL&#8217;s absence. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The supporters who took to the streets have been able to resist almost half a year of a government that can only be defined as a failure. Faced with this sad reality, they sought salvation on the streets.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Whether demonstrations will actually save him or not will depend on the upcoming chapters.

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Raphael Tsavkko Garcia

Journalist and researcher at the Ph.D. program in Human Rights of University of Deusto, Spain.

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