Why should people protest? Are protests valid if demonstrators are largely white and middle class? Were all of today's protestors middle class? Are protests legitimate if their demands are unreasonable? Are protests useful if they lack a coherent, central demand? What constitutes a legal reason for impeachment? What does a civil political debate look like? Is asking for an impeachment process unreasonable? Is it okay to criticize a political party you consider yourself part of? Why are people calling for a return to the dictatorship? Are opposition supporters just being sore losers?
Even the crowd counts showed evidence of conflicting visions of today's events. Crowd estimates varied within cities; São Paulo numbers ranged from 210,000 to 1 million, for example. But overall, it's estimated that hundreds of thousands turned out nationwide. Totals range between 1 and 2 million.
Some protestors spoke out against corruption, and some demanded the president's impeachment. A minority went so far as to ask for military intervention and the dismantling of government institutions. Meanwhile, today marked the 30-year anniversary of the end of Brazil's military dictatorship.
The protests came during an increasingly tense political atmosphere in the wake of one of the country's closest presidential elections last October. But it's also the result of mounting tensions of more than a decade of leadership by the Workers' Party, along with an ever-evolving corruption scandal, a weakened economy and a stagnant quality of life.
The demonstrations were marked by the increasingly bitter and vitriolic political dialogue in the country, with some PT loyalists accusing protestors of being golpistas, in favor of overthrowing the government, and accusations against the PT of communism by some on the right.
There were also signs of cognitive dissonance: those marching in favor of military intervention (who wouldn't have the freedom to protest under authoritarianism), and those using Brazilian Soccer Federation jerseys to protest against corruption.
But all in all, what do the day's events indicate?
First, on the positive side, I think it's a sign that Brazilian democracy is alive and well 30 years in. Demonstrations on this scale are significant in a country like Brazil, which doesn't see huge protests on a regular basis like some of its neighbors. And while it's disturbing and even laughable to see people asking for military intervention, the fact that people can even say things like that publicly stems from their ability to exercise to free speech. The big turnout could also be seen as a response to complaints about "slacktivism" and sticking to social media to express political dissent.
It's also good to see people making demands of their leaders, even if they are vague demands. After the protests, two government ministers went on TV to recognize the day's events and to announce upcoming anti-corruption measures. One would expect people to make demands given the president's approval rating, measured at around 23 percent in February by Datafolha. In other words, the opposition may be shouting loudest, but not many people are happy with the president on either side of the aisle.
On the other hand, political literacy is lacking. It's not clear that all pro-impeachment protestors understand the process involved about who would actually take over in the event of an impeachment. One foreigner reporter found that to be the case:
Only one of the dozen protesters I interviewed understood the legal basis for impeachment. The rest just knew they were fed up with…— Alex Cuadros (@AlexCuadros) March 15, 2015
- me: "If Dilma is impeached, do you think Michel Temer will be better?" - protester: "You mean he wouldn't be impeached along with her?"— Alex Cuadros (@AlexCuadros) March 15, 2015
Plus, the fact that impeachment has emerged as a rallying cry for the right indicates a lack of ideas and proposals to make immediate changes in governance.
Acho ótimo que haja protestos de todos os lados no Brasil. O acesso ao protesto nós conseguimos. O desafio agora é a qualidade. Urgente.— Mauricio Savarese (@MSavarese) March 15, 2015
On the flip side, those who accuse impeachment supporters of being coup-supporters show a lack of understanding or positioning about the constitutional legality of impeachment. In fact, impeachment has happened before, to President Fernando Collor de Mello in the 1990s.
Debates over today's protests were also indicative of the level of political dialogue that has been going on since last year. People have lost friends and squabbled with family members over politics in these debates, and these demonstrations provided a new forum for political arguments.
The big take-away for me is that some are still unhappy with the status quo, even more so than in 2013. It's not just about being upset about the election, or about the value of the real, or about being sick of the PT. It's about being dissatisfied with the country's direction. And the truth is that the president isn't just facing critics on the right: she's facing them on the left, too.
This, like it or not, is what democracy is all about. There's a lot of debate and disagreements, and sometimes they're really bitter. But it also means you can express your views freely, no matter how logical or unreasonable they may be. The next step is coming up with solutions in addition to complaints.