The march of the ides of March/The president’s inadequate response to massive demonstrations against her

Protests in Brazil

The march of the ides of March

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The president’s inadequate response to massive demonstrations against her

Mar 16th 2015 | SÃO PAULO

The Economist

DILMA ROUSSEFF, Brazil’s president, was expecting the anti-government protests scheduled for March 15th to be big. She convened a meeting of a crisis group at her official residence to monitor them. But no one, including the organisers, dreamt they would be as massive as they turned out to be. Police in São Paulo estimated the size of the crowd on Avenida Paulista, the preferred venue for such gatherings, at more than 1m; Datafolha, a pollster, guessed 210,000. Either way, it was the biggest political demonstration in the country’s biggest city since the diretas já (“elections now”) movement, which helped end military rule in 1985. It took your correspondent no less than 15 minutes to elbow his way from one side of the avenue to the other, a distance of no more than 50 metres.

Labour unions, which had organized (much smaller) pro-Dilma demonstrations a few days earlier, dismissed the protesters as privileged white people. Many were not. “I am black, poor and want Dilma out,” declared one demonstrator from one of the seven mobile stages along Avenida Paulista. Many wore the national football team’s yellow-and-green jerseys. Opposition politicians wisely stayed away. They realised that their presence would obscure the bottom-up message and reinforce the government’s claim that behind the protests were sore losers of last October’s elections, won by Ms Rousseff and her left-wing Workers’ Party (PT).

Overall, police counted nearly 2m people in dozens of cities across all 27 states. That is significantly more than the number who took to the streets on any single day in June 2013, the last time Brazilians vented their anger at venal and ineffectual politicians. Small groups huddled in the chill outside Brazilian embassies in places like London and New York.

The grievances of 2013 were diffuse. Today’s are directed squarely at Ms Rousseff and the PT. Some protestors clamoured for her impeachment over a multi-billion-dollar bribery scandal at Petrobras, the state-controlled oil giant; others simply wished to show that they are fed up with sleaze and years of economic mismanagement, which have pushed up inflation and are likely to cause a recession this year. A vocal fringe called for military intervention—but was shouted down by the cheerfully democratic multitudes.

Impeachment remains a remote possibility. Under the law, a serving president can only be removed for misdeeds committed during his or her current term of office. The focus of the Petrobras investigations is alleged bribery that took place well before Ms Rousseff began her second term, on January 1st. Besides, she has not been personally implicated. Nor will she resign, as most demonstrators would like her to. But she cannot ignore their indignation.

The government’s initial reaction, however, was pretty much to do just that. As the protesters headed home, Ms Rousseff sent José Eduardo Cardozo, her justice minister, and Miguel Rossetto, her envoy to social movements, to speak to the press in the capital, Brasília. Both praised the protests’ non-violence (and admonished the few coup-mongers) and promised “dialogue” with Brazilians who opposed Ms Rousseff’s re-election. A package of anti-corruption measures is to be announced in “the coming days”. Both spoke of the need for political reform. But Ms Rousseff made similar pledges in June 2013, to little effect.

What the marchers really want—other than “Dilma out”—is some contrition from the president for her economic mistakes and her party’s tolerance of graft. Instead, the ministers offered tired rhetoric. Mr Rossetto blamed the weak economy on global conditions, without explaining why it has done worse than those of other emerging markets. Mr Cardozo argued that corruption comes from campaign-finance laws that let businesses donate to candidates. That has been an obsession of the PT but not of most Brazilians. Most important, Ms Rousseff herself remained silent. As Joaquim Barbosa, a popular former chief justice of the Supreme Court, tweeted shortly after the press conference, “It was a moment for the head of state to address the nation. Period.”

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