Who is protesting in Brazil?

The current developments in Brazil have caught all by surprise. Yearly increases in bus fares, notoriously bad public transportation, inflation and slow economic growth (weirdly combined with low unemployment rates) have been looming for some time now. The Free Fare Movement (MPL) has been actively voicing its demands for better public transportation since at least 2006 and other similar organizations and movements have also been mobilizing for better public services. In this context, therefore, it would not be accurate to state that the “the Giant is awake” on the streets (“o Gigante acordou”). Yet, it would also be cynical to say that the current mobilization is not unprecedented – at least since redemocratization.

The nature of the unfolding events, affected by almost daily incidents and bipolar swings in public opinion and in an editorialized media, makes it hard for most of us to answer simple questions: Who are these protesters? What do they want? Social media outlets, in particular Facebook, have been primary sources of information for protesters over the past few weeks. However, social media also works to bias our opinions on the basis of our own personal experiences and social groups: after all, birds of a feather tend to flock together, as research on social network has shown (McPherson, et. al, 2001).  In summary, it has been difficult to see the forest for the trees.

On Sunday, June 23rd, Ibope, a well-know survey company in Brazil, released the first (to my knowledge) systematic collection of data on the characteristics of the protesters. This data is illuminating and, importantly, allows us to answer further questions: how different are these protesters from the “average” Brazilian? Are these protesters different than those individuals who usually engage in politics?

The plots below show a comparison of the demographic profile of protesters and the broader Brazilian population. Protesters are much younger, and, as expected, students are over-represented compared to the population. Also, those who mobilize are clearly better off compared to the rest of the population: the discrepancies between income and education distributions of the protesters and the population are remarkable. For instance, about 10% of the population has a higher education degree, whereas about 43% of the protesters have at least a college degree.

age education



These differences might be due in part to the sampling process: Ibope surveyed protesters on Thursday, June 20th, a point at which the protests had already started to encompass a wider swath of society, distinct from the left-leaning individuals that mobilized early (who would be, presumably, less well-off than the protesters on June 20th).

There are other possible explanations: it is not uncommon for those who engage in political activity, in particular mass-based political action, to be better off than those who do not. This hypothesis has taken many shapes and forms and it is commonly referred to in political science literature as the socioeconomic status (SES) model and there has been systematic evidence supporting it in various places, including Brazil (Verba, 1995; Norris, 2002; Reis, 2000).  This model is known for not taking into account variation in mobilization over time, events that trigger mobilization, and the power of organizations, which are patently important in times of nation-wide mobilizations, but, despite all these pitfalls, it is interesting to see the predictions made by the SES model supported by these simple analyses.

However, support for this stripped-down version of SES model receives only very modest support even if one turns a blind eye to all methodological issues underlying this quick-and-dirty analysis of the Ibope data. According to the SES model, individual who engage in political activity also tend to be more active in “non-political” organizations. This does not seem to be the case among the protesters surveyed on June 20th in 7 cities in Brazil – they are no more likely to be engaged in non-political associations.

Rather, it was found that protesters are less likely to identify with a political party and less likely to be affiliated with a political party than the population overall. This is not surprising given the likely effect of social desirability bias when answering these questions in protests that block streets to make their dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs heard – whatever this dissatisfaction means in more specific terms is still to be determined.

union party

In summary, students and young people do seem be the largest groups out on the streets, and those who are mobilizing have attended school for longer, and have higher incomes than most of the population. Also, they seem to feel less represented by a political party than most of the population – even though this is a tough comparison given the unstable nature of party “sympathy” in times like these.  Despite this interesting protester profile, however, we still do not have answers to all of our questions.

Are these protesters very different from the early joiners whose protests mostly focused on reducing bus fares? It is hard to say, even though the type of demand and the way in which they mobilized (mostly through civil society organizations) seems to indicate as much.

Protests continue to shake the country: mayors from all over the country have backed down on the increase of bus fares and are starting to rethink their public transportation contracts and policies, governors have started to become less supportive of police repression (at least publically), the federal government is starting to play a more active role in pushing laws and reforms, and the Congress is rushing to discuss and vote on some of the issues raised by protesters (such as committing all oil royalties to spending on education and health and repelling a controversial constitutional amendment on the investigative powers of the Public Ministry). Protesters are still shaking the trees, but the characteristics of the protesters will help determine on which side the fruit will fall.

[I used data from PNAD 2011 to make the plots about the demographic characteristics of the Brazilian population and I used the population from the states in which Ibope surveyed protesters. For the plots about questions on representation and population, I used data from ESEB 2010. Both of these datasets can be found in Centro de Estudos da Metrópole and Consórcio de Informações Sociais.]

São Paulo Demonstrations: It’s Not About 20 Cents, Stupid!

(Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by Raphael Neves, PhD candidate at the Politics department at the New School for Social Research, and assistant professor of politics at the University of São Paulo)

São Paulo, the largest city in the Southern hemisphere and Brazil’s financial center, is located thousands of miles away from Istanbul but its 11.3 million inhabitants still know what it feels like to be in Taksim Square. This month, both bus and subway fares
increased by 20 cents of real – the equivalent of 9 cents, USD. Protesters took to the streets following the raise, leading to several clashes with the police. Authorities
claim the increase was below the inflation rate (6.50% in the last 12 months). The mayor, Fernando Haddad, a philosophy professor and the former minister of education under Lula, had stated during his election campaign last year that the city would have to raise the already subsidized fares, frozen since 2011. Brazil has received some of the best combined democracy, economic growth and income distribution scores among the BRICS. So why are people complaining? face_protest The demonstrations have been organized by the Free Fare Movement, which promotes free public transportation for all (a demand the mayor says would cost almost 3 billion USD/year). As the event page of one of the protests on Facebook shows, the demands range from the decrease in public transportation fares to better salaries for teachers; from increased freedom on the Internet, to objections of the construction of soccer stadiums for the next World Cup. Furthermore, the São Paulo state police, commanded by governor Geraldo Alckmin, has overreacted and stepped out of the law. Countless people were arrested for bringing vinegar to the demonstrations. According to police officers, vinegar may be used to produce a bomb. In fact, demonstrators say, it alleviates the effects of tear gas. As a result, protesters have embraced a campaign to “legalize” vinegar. They’ve made Guy Fawkes masks their symbol and “V for Vinegar” has become an immediate hit on social networks. Mockery and creativity are central in these protests as
they’ve helped keep people mobilized. Even when they are forced to split up by the police, they keep connected online.

As the construction of a shopping mall at Taksim square became the last straw for protesters in Turkey, in Brazil, the 20 cents increase has catalyzed dissatisfaction. The perplexed may wonder whether ten years of Workers’ Party rule – Lula’s first term inauguration was in 2003, Dilma, his successor, in 2011 – have contributed to
fight inequality. The answer is yes. However, and here we may have a sharp distinction between Turkey and Brazil, the protests are not directed only towards the government. They are much more dispersed and fragmented. On the one hand, a large part of the population has been integrated into the economic market and consumption levels have never been so high. On the other hand, this possibly made people more aware of other problems way beyond material needs. A minimum wage worker may now choose which cell phone or TV she or he is going to buy, but one is unable to have dominion over basic
aspects of everyday life. In São Paulo, where rent is as expensive as in New York, someone who lives in a poorer area will spend at least two hours in an extremely crowded bus or train to get to work. To lose control over one’s own time and space is enough reason to revolt, isn’t it?

"São Paulo will shut down if the fare doesn't go down!"

“São Paulo will shut down if the fare doesn’t go down!”

All in all, the political system has not been capable of processing this generalized and
fragmented dissatisfaction. The increasing scale of the demonstrations is probably due to their rejection of any sort of party commitment. Of course, the risk of such detachment between civil society and political institutions is to give even more autonomy to bureaucratic structures that administer Brazilians’ lives. In this sense, mobilization may lead to political change, although the result is not necessarily more “progressive” – think,
for instance, of Indignados in Spain, a movement that demanded a radical change of the political system but was followed by the election of Mariano Rajoy. The challenge Brazil
faces is to make democracy more visible; to go beyond the right to cast a ballot in order to empower citizens to exercise effective control over all realms of their lives. These 20 cents are worth a change.
Raphael on twitter: @politikaetc