With the wisdom of hindsight, it is tempting to say the recent nationwide protests that have stunned Brazil were in the making for some time. After all, the economy has struggled to grow for the most part of a year; the Brazilian real has weakened considerably, thanks to government attempts to woo foreign investment; the resultant inflation has pushed prices beyond the reach of the average consumer. But the sheer scale and intensity of anti-government protests — which extended to 100 cities, subsuming Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo by their rage — have taken both officials and pundits alike by surprise. When the Free Pass Movement took to Brazil’s streets last month, as it had for several years to protest hikes in transportation fare, ordinary citizens joined the chorus. The movement quickly gathered momentum, reaching a crescendo on Thursday when a million protesters gathered across the country. The ‘20-centavos’ hike in fares, which the government subsequently rolled back, was merely a figurative front for Brazilians to express their larger grievances.
Although Brazil under President Dilma Roussef and her predecessor, Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, has implemented progressive social programmes over the past decade, these have not managed to redress the pervasive inequalities that exist. Urban infrastructure remains poor, a reality made more jarring by the fact that billions of dollars are being spent on stadiums and arenas for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics which Brazil will host. The ‘Minha Casa, Minha Vida’ housing programme is intended to redress the imbalance but allegations of corruption have taken some of the sheen off the effort. Matters have not been helped by the attempt to strip the Ministério Público — the Brazilian equivalent of an independent Lokpal — of prosecutorial powers via the proposed PEC 37 amendment to the Constitution. That this proposal comes in the wake of prosecutors investigating senior politicians and officials for their alleged misappropriation of public funds makes the motives of those pushing for the change highly suspect. For President Rousseff, these protests are a wake-up call; unlike her Turkish counterparts, she has done well to announce a series of concessions. The protestors want a deepening of democracy and a strengthening of the social programmes that the ruling Workers Party is officially committed to. Amendments like PEC 37 have no place in a constitutional republic. Ms Rousseff should act swiftly and impartially against all those accused of corruption, while goading the National Congress to legislate against impunity and tackle corruption by public servants. Nothing else can satisfy the demands of Brazil's people.