OPINION: Protests bring democracy back to masses

FOR more than two weeks, hundreds of thousands of people have been protesting in more than 100 cities across Brazil amid incidents of police brutality and increasing governmental crisis. What is happening to one of the global economic success stories of the 21st century?

"Politics as normal" is exhausted. There is a crisis of representative politics in which ordinary Brazilians are no longer content for politicians to speak, think and act for them. They are taking democracy back, and in the process developing practices of democracy in which people learn to govern themselves and their communities.

The immediate spark of the protests was an increase in public transport costs in Sao Paulo. However, this was only the tip of the iceberg, beneath which lay much more deep-seated concerns about widespread corruption of politicians, parties and the media.

The last three governments have been from the Workers' Party (PT), a labour-based party that emerged from popular democratisation and union struggles of the late 1970s and 1980s. In the 2002 presidential election, they ran on a platform that promised to prioritise people's needs for jobs, housing and education.

Yet the history of the PT governments is one in which despite rhetoric of popular participation and inclusion, they have continued the free market economic strategy of their predecessors.

This has meant an export-oriented economic strategy that favours multinational corporations. The government governs more in partnership with international unaccountable interests and national elites than with its population.

This has had economic, social and ecological consequences that lie at the heart of the fire behind the current protests.

There has been a rapid growth in some of the poorest regions of Brazil of large-scale agricultural business in mono-cultures such as soya and sugar cane and in various mining sectors from iron ore and gold to diamonds and oil.

While providing super profits for multinational corporations such investment has had severe social and ecological impacts. Peasants and communities have been thrown off their land. Ways of life, biodiversity and ecosystems have been destroyed.

Additionally, while multinationals have received extensive tax breaks, investment incentives and privileged access to policy makers, public services have deteriorated. Local and regional education services are underfunded and teachers overworked. The public health service suffered similarly and public sector transport has been left to deteriorate.

To add insult to injury, while the government claims that it is unable to direct more money to public services, it has spent millions in preparation for next year's football World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

Despite a nation that is renowned for its love of football, tens of thousands have been protesting outside the newly built stadiums. They are threatening to block entry to the events in disgust at the government's priorities.

With the election of the Workers' Party, many ordinary Brazilians were full of hope that "politics as normal" would change and a people long excluded from power, services and participation would be valued and included. Today's protests signal their dashed hopes.

However, in the contours of protest are renewed signs of hope. People have decided to take politics back into their own hands and organise in their streets and communities. The crisis in representation is not therefore a crisis in democracy but the dawn of a new horizon of possibility for democracy in Brazil, and potentially beyond.

Sara C.Motta is senior lecturer in politics at the University of Newcastle.


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