July 3, 2014 2:12 pm

World Cup cheer for Dilma Rousseff premature as Brazil poll looms

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This frame grab from Cadena Nacional shows Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff addressing the nation on radio and TV on June 10, 2014 in support of the FIFA World Cup Brazil 2014 which will start next June 12. AFP PHOTO/Cadena Nacional--/AFP/Getty Images©AFP

It is an unlikely line-up of speakers: a metro employee, students with matching dreadlocks, a woman from a nearby slum and a Roman Catholic priest.

But all of them have come to São Paulo’s central square to call for the release of friends and relatives detained by police, denouncing what they say is a violent crackdown on protesters during the World Cup.

“The last time I saw this square surrounded by police was in the dictatorship,” shouts the priest, Father Lancellotti, to an applauding crowd of about 500. They are watched by up to 100 armed riot police and the elite Batalhão de Choque (literally, “shock battalion”) who are ready to pounce from a van.

It is a rare moment of gloom in what has so far been a three-week-long party for the World Cup’s host nation as Brazilians have cheered on their national team.

The tournament has been hailed as a success inside and outside Brazil. Meanwhile, fears of a return of the mass street protests that overshadowed the Confederations Cup last year have appeared overblown.

“Everyone thought the World Cup would be a failure but it’s proving to be a success and the population should be happy with this,” Guido Mantega, Brazil’s finance minister said, predicting consumer confidence should start to improve as a result.

However, analysts say the government is premature in its assumption that the tournament’s good cheer will translate into better economic indicators or even votes ahead of presidential elections in October. They argue that while fewer Brazilians have protested than expected, this is partly due to the threat of violence by police and other protesters, and “protest fatigue”, rather than a shift in opinion over key issues such as poor public services and the event’s R$25.8bn (US$11.6bn) price tag.

“The scenario that the World Cup would trigger another fall in the popularity of [President] Dilma [Rousseff] is now unlikely . . . but it does not mean the World Cup will make it any easier for her to win the election,” says Rafael Cortez, a political scientist at Tendências, a São Paulo-based consultancy.

He estimates that, based on analysis of polls and other factors, Ms Rousseff and her centre-left Workers’ party (PT) still only have a 55 per cent chance of victory in October, making this year’s election the most hotly disputed in Brazil for 15 years.

Giuseppe Cocco, a professor at Rio de Janeiro’s Federal University, argues that the police have played a decisive role in curbing the protest movement in Brazil. “Thousands and thousands of police and military police have been put on the streets, which has inhibited protesters,” he says.

This week, Human Rights Watch called on the government to investigate claims that police planted evidence on two protesters. Other activists say they have been detained for questioning ahead of planned demonstrations.

The military police has countered that it will “always act in demonstrations to protect people, especially protesters, as well as public and private property”.

However, even with fewer police on the streets after the World Cup, there is unlikely to be a repeat of last year’s mass protests in the lead-up to the elections, says Mr Cortez. Many Brazilians have been put off by the radicalisation of the protesters themselves. Others have simply tired of the disruption to their lives.

“Movements that occur via social media can be mobilised rapidly but on the other hand, they tend to be very volatile, and without any formal organisation they are hard to sustain,” Mr Cortez says.

The challenge for Brazil’s main opposition leaders – Aécio Neves, from the pro-business PSDB party, and Eduardo Campos from the PSB party – is how to provide this organisation and capitalise on public anger over everything from poor hospitals to corruption. But with unemployment at near-record lows and real income levels still high, it will not be easy to prise voters away from the PT, says João Augusto de Castro Neves at Eurasia Group, the risk consultancy.

“While middle-class discontent is still lingering and poses an increasing risk of voter fatigue with the PT, the bottom line is that Rousseff’s and the PT’s standing with their political base of support is unlikely to shift in earnest before October,” he says.

Jefte Rodrigues Nascimento, a teacher, is typical of many impassioned protesters watching Father Lancellotti. When it comes to the question of which candidate he will choose during the obligatory vote in October, he is suddenly lost for inspiration.

“Most of us will probably just spoil our vote or continue to pin our hopes on the PT – there is no one else.”

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