Brazilians seem to be looking over their shoulders more than they did in the past. And the country is not only losing faith in its institutions, but citizens have also become less confident in one another. That’s what a series of surveys carried out since 2009 by Ibope Inteligência, a polling institute, shows us. Nearly all institutions have lost prestige – not exactly the best scenario before heading into a crucial election.
The deterioration of Brazilian institutions is nothing new. Last year, for instance, only 32 percent of Brazilians agreed with the statement “democracy may have problems but it is the best system of government,” which made Brazil the Latin American country with the lowest rates of satisfaction with its current democracy.
Saying that Brazilians don’t trust democratic institutions doesn’t mean that they don’t want democracy. “For several years, the research we have conducted at USP shows that more than 70 percent of Brazilians want democratic governments. What those surveys show is a deep disenchantment with how the institutions work,” says José Alváro Moisés, a professor at the University of São Paulo.
But Ibope Inteligência’s latest findings bring some news.
Even the Armed Forces, which had gained prestige over the past three years, are now trusted less. They have made their way into the presidential cabinet and are calling the shots in Rio de Janeiro’s federal security intervention. Also, the president called upon military troops to repress demonstrations last year. However, the intervention in Rio has brought few positive results, and associating with the least-liked president in Brazilian democratic history took a toll on society’s appreciation for the military.
Protests of June 2013
June 2013 was an inflection point. Five years ago, a group of students took to the streets to protest rising bus ticket prices in São Paulo. The demonstration was violently repressed by the state police, which sparked a nationwide wave of protests (some of which ended in violence) against everything: the upcoming 2014 World Cup, corruption, political parties, and sometimes government itself.
The “Journeys of June,” as the wave became known in Brazil, was only possible because people who disagreed with each other united to make a collective cry against Brazil’s crisis of representation. It’s hard to imagine those forces uniting again, as political polarization has enhanced in the country.
While the wave of protests didn’t bring about political change – the establishment instead entrenched itself with political reforms to hold on to power – it opened the wounds of a deeply fractured country. That’s when Brazilians began to trust less and less in each other, when WhatsApp Messenger groups became rings for political proselytism, and when bots turned social media into a battlefield.
But 2013 was a symptom rather than the cause. Political polarization would hardly have reached the current levels of hostility if Brazil didn’t first suffer a chronic crisis of representation.
Brazil restored its democracy in 1985, following 21 years of military dictatorship. Since then, the country has directly elected four presidents, half of whom have been impeached. It doesn’t matter which side of the aisle you are on, that simply doesn’t spell a well-functioning political system. While Fernando Collor’s and Dilma Rousseff’s impeachments followed the Constitution, such things simply don’t occur in healthy democracies.
Besides, Brazil has 31 parties in Congress. The biggest of them, the Workers’ Party, holds less than 12 percent of seats. Coalitions are vital for any president, and corruption seems to be the rule in partisan relationships.
How will this crisis of trust affect the 2018 election?
The establishment has been highly efficient in suppressing any kind of political renewal. New electoral rules make it difficult for new parties to have access to television and radio ads or to electoral funding – thus favoring the status quo.
It is difficult to measure the impact of Brazilians’ mistrust for institutions and parties in an election that will bring so few options for renewal – but there are a few signs. One of them is the rise of self-proclaimed “outsiders” (in the lack of true outsiders) such as Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right presidential candidate who leads all opinion polls which do not include former President Lula. But a great number of voters still don’t know who to vote for – or if they will vote at all, even though voting is mandatory in Brazil.
Data from Google Trends shows an increase in searches for the term “how to spoil a vote.”
The worst part of it is: the election will hardly serve to make the atmosphere any better.