Can Brazil's Dilma Rousseff avoid her own World Cup-like meltdown?

Often touted as one of the most powerful women in the world, Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff suddenly finds herself atop a souring economy and electorate with elections only months away. The dramatic way Brazil crashed out of the World Cup hasn't helped, Robert Muggah writes from Rio.

Presidential elections in October, but once vibrant economy not showing signs of recovery

How rough can it be? Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff is comforted by her predecessor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva at the national convention of their Workers' Party in June 2014, as Rousseff was confirmed as the party's presidential candidate for October. (Joedson Alves / Reuters)

What a difference a year makes. In early 2013, Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff was enjoying what appeared to be an unassailable lead in the opinion polls.

Touted as one of the most powerful women in the world, she was expected to easily win a second term in the 2014 elections.

Yet during the opening game of the World Cup this past month, the global television audience of roughly one billion people witnessed her being publicly booed by Brazilian fans.

More shockingly, mid-way through Brazil´s humiliating 7-1 loss to Germany in the semi-finals last week, the crowd broke into a rousing, crude F-word chorus of what it thought of her.

Suddenly, Brazil's once formidable leader now looks vulnerable. Pollsters have started nervously re-running their numbers.

It wasn't supposed to be this way, of course. Hosting the World Cup seemed like a good idea when Brazil's former president, the ultra-popular Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva, won the bid in 2007.

Times were good then for this football-mad nation of roughly 200 million people, and the cup offered a chance to showcase a modernizing Brazil on the world stage.

A prominent member of the newly established BRIC club of emerging economies, along with Russia, India and China, Brazil was one of the world's top performers.

Tens of millions of people were being pulled out of poverty and joining a burgeoning middle class, and the rich were also doing well: Brazil was ranked with having the fifth largest numbers of billionaires in the world.

The administration's stock was high and Lula's leftist Workers' Party, which Rousseff inherited, looked to have a lock on power, which hosting the World Cup — and especially winning it — would only advance.

After all, as the country's former president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, had famously argued, Brazil's 1994 World Cup victory propelled the popular economic liberalization program that he oversaw.

Reality knocks

Still, there is little evidence of a tight correlation between World Cup outcomes and electoral success. In 2002, Cardoso's handpicked successor was beaten by Lula in spite of Brazil winning the soccer championship that year.

This time out, the enthusiasm around hosting the World Cup began fading around the time the economy started to tank. After year-over-year growth rates of between five and seven per cent for much of the past decade, the economy slowed to 2.5 per cent in 2013 and currently hovers around one.

Faced with rising inflation, over a million Brazilians took to the streets in June and July 2013 to protest the poor state of public services and the spiralling cost of living (initially sparked by the equivalent of a 10 cent rise in bus fares).

They also lashed out at flagrant corruption, out-of-control crime and, ominously, the billions being spent on upgrading 12 football stadiums.

Brazilian demonstrators, largely students and groups representing homeless workers, line up against riot police in one of many regional protests, this one in Sao Paulo, in the run-up to the World Cup in June. (Chico Ferreira / Reuters)

Today, Brazilians disagree about whether the World Cup result will fundamentally affect the outcome of the presidential elections in October. Even Rousseff's most ardent critics concede that the event went smoothly and without any serious setbacks for tourists.

But there are genuine concerns about whether the huge expenditure — estimated at more than $11 billion — was worth it.

According to sociologist Claudio Beato, the government "built overpriced stadiums, roads and viaducts, which will eventually turn to scrap … [yet] we still have major gaps in infrastructure."

He goes on that "in spite of seven years to prepare for improving public security for the games, virtually nothing was accomplished. Instead, Dilma presided over record homicide rates and unsustainable turbo-policing."

The big monthly

Putting the games aside, the fact is that Rousseff's ratings were falling well before Brazil scored an own-goal during the opening match of the World Cup.

While not as erratic as mid-2013 when support fell by 27 percentage points, she is currently polling at around 38 per cent in a country where voting is obligatory.

Meanwhile, her closest competitor, Aecio Neves from the right-leaning PSDB Party, has improved his appeal from 10 per cent last year to around 20 per cent today, and has been making gains in crucial states.

Brazil's soccer fans were shocked and weepy over their team's stunning 7-1 loss to Germany in the semi-finals. The question in the months ahead: Will they take their frustrations out at the polls? (Reuters)

Barring another catastrophe, President Dilma, as she is widely known here, is expected to win re-election in October. But the inevitability of the contest is now an open question.

There is little doubt that the dramatic way Brazil crashed out of the World Cup is shaking things up. After soaring talk in the early going of this being "the Cup of Cups," for most Brazilians the fantasy has ended.

And as the excitement fades, Brazilians are reminded once more of the country's sky-high cost of living, its stumbling economy and the litany of scandals.

One of them is the so-called Mensalão (or big monthly), which involves illegal payments by the ruling Workers' Party to coalition members in order to keep them in line.

The big monthly was only recently eclipsed by the announcement of criminal investigations into the state oil company, Petrobas, accused of concealing millions in illicit pay-offs and of a botched acquisition of an oil refinery in the U.S.

The company's market value has shrunk from $300 billion in 2008 to less than $76 billion today, and its stagnation and indebtedness has come to symbolize the wider malaise of the Brazilian economy.

The World Cup will undoubtedly be a factor in the upcoming presidential elections, but probably not the decisive one.

Although some analysts have been predicting a resumption of mass protests in the wake of the early exit for Brazil, these have yet to materialize.

Still, Brazil's economic problems are real and unsettling international investors, and consumer and business confidence has plummeted to record lows in the past few months.

Meanwhile, in spite of a dip in her ratings, the president still counts on the support of 50 million Brazilians who benefit from the Bolsa Familia, the administration´s flagship poverty reduction program.

The opposition candidates are finding it difficult to generate political advantage by capitalizing on the current national mood, but are sure to ratchet-up their efforts as the big match of a presidential election heats up. 


Robert Muggah

Latin America

A political economist, Robert Muggah runs the Igarapé Institute, a leading foreign policy think tank based in Brazil, Latin America's largest country. He also oversees research at the SecDev Foundation, a cyber research group based in Ottawa.


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