United: students, business people, trade unionists, professionals and families have joined demonstrations in 80 cities throughout the country

Through decades of military dictatorship, hyperinflation and economic crises, football has always been a uniting force in Brazil. But the “bus fare” protests sweeping through the country this week have strained even football’s ability to knit the country together.

It would have been almost unthinkable just two weeks ago that Brazilians would publicly deride Pelé, regarded by his countrymen as a national hero and the greatest player in the sport’s history. But his statement that people should “forget all of this mayhem that’s happening in Brazil, all of these protests” was greeted with accusations that the 73-year-old “King of Football” was out of touch with his countrymen.

The scorn with which so many Brazilians greeted the remark was just one sign of the depth of national support for the street protests that have spread though more than 80 cities, from the Amazon in the north to Porto Alegre in the south.

So fast and unexpected has been the emergence of the biggest street protest movement in Brazil since the impeachment of President Fernando Collor in 1992, and so diffuse are its demands, that it has caught the nation’s politicians flat-footed.

What started 10 days ago as a protest against a minor increase in public transport fares in São Paulo has grown into a mass cry of national frustration. They are railing against everything from corruption and overspending on the 2014 football World Cup to attempts by evangelists in Congress to pass a bill to “cure” homosexuality.

Organised through social media, no political party knows yet how to engage with the movement, let alone harness its startling energy.

“The political class has been left out and they don’t know how to deal with it,” says Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

But what is clear is that the protests have shaken up what looked like a shoo-in election next year for a second term in office for President Dilma Rousseff. They are also calling into question the legacy of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, her predecessor, and the rich narrative he sought to weave of a glossy new Brazil that has never been fairer or more just. While much has changed in Brazil, the protests highlight those things that have not – repressive and outdated policing, an inefficient state and an often corrupt and ineffective political class.

For investors, the demonstrations add to uncertainty about an economy that was once possibly the most promising of the Brics group of emerging nations but that is now struggling with sluggish growth, inflation and a worrying loss of competitiveness.

“The protests are pretty bad timing because of the negative publicity they are generating at a time when we are already seeing additional scrutiny of Brazil at the corporate level,” says Clinton Carter of Frontier Strategy Group, an advisory group that works with multinationals.

The first time most Brazilians heard of the demonstrations was a few weeks ago when student groups, led by one called the MPL, or free fare movement, protested in São Paulo and other cities against a 20-centavo hike in bus and metro fares to R$3.20 ($1.42). At first, the rallies annoyed the city’s harried commuters. But the following week police put down the protests with such force that they revived memories of Brazil’s dictatorship, which ended in 1984. Public opinion turned against the police and their political masters.

On Monday, hundreds of thousands of people appeared on the streets of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and other cities to protest. They were not only students but also architects, businessmen, trade unionists, workers and families. The protests continued through the week. On Thursday night, an estimated 1m people staged mostly peaceful protests across the country, from the capital cities to interior towns.

“This has come from society,” says Humberto Dantas, a political scientist at Insper in São Paulo.

The protests, in the wake of the Arab spring and demonstrations in Turkey, are not yet aimed at unseating Ms Rousseff. Although her popularity had fallen before the demonstrations began, she still enjoys strong support. But her standing and that of her ruling Workers’ party, or PT, has come under pressure over public expenditure on mega-events such as the World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, and a corruption scandal known as the Mensalão, or big monthly payment, in which senior party cadres were sentenced to jail last year for vote-buying in Congress, although they remain free pending appeals.

“I am against corruption and I think we need better heath and education facilities too,” says Henrique Alvares, a 21-year-old student demonstrating on Avenida Paulista, São Paulo’s main thoroughfare, on Thursday night. A student at a technical college, he comes from the city’s periphery. “We want quality above all else, why don’t we deserve that?”

The sheer grind of life in Brazil’s metropolises, such as São Paulo, whose 20m people are served by a tiny metro system, overcrowded buses and hopelessly congested roads, means there is plenty to complain about. They must also contend with street muggings while politicians and the rich hover above them in helicopters.

Maria Cândido, a cleaner who works in central São Paulo earning the minimum salary of R$678 a month, would like to participate in the protests. But she has to commute a total of five hours daily. “The traffic is bad every day. The buses are always full. It’s absurd. If you are going to increase ticket prices you could also improve the service,” she says.

Members of PT argue the party is a victim of its own success. In more than a decade of PT rule, 40m people have risen to the lower middle class, millions more are studying at tertiary institutions while unemployment has fallen to record lows. The former poor are turning their attention beyond mere survival to quality of life.

“These people view their ascension as the exclusive product of their own hard work. They are not conscious it is the fruit of policies taken by the government as well,” says Rui Falcão, president of the PT.

Tensions are complicated by regional and class differences. People in São Paulo, the richest state, feel they pay too much tax and do not see the benefits. There is greater competition between the new and traditional middle classes for space at universities, on the crowded roads and even on flights.

“The upper middle class feel like they are stagnating compared with other social classes in Brazil. They pay a lot of taxes but don’t get the services,” says Timothy Power, director of Brazilian studies at Oxford university.

Much of the blame, however, must rest with the PT’s economic model of pumping up consumer demand through social welfare benefits, wage increases and access to credit while neglecting to improve infrastructure. The government of Ms Rousseff, for instance, has granted numerous incentives to buy cars even though the nation’s cities are suffering from chronic congestion. Such imbalances are affecting business confidence.

Mr Carter says a survey of multinational clients on whether they would prioritise Brazil in their investment decisions shows that the number has dropped to 43 per cent from 63 per cent last September. “It pretty clearly illustrated how sentiment can shift quickly on a market,” he says.

Ms Rousseff, who cancelled a trip to Japan and held emergency talks with her cabinet, has so far responded to the protests by expressing support for them. Brazil’s complex federal system means that it is difficult for protesters to pin their concerns about public transport or even police brutality on her; these are issues controlled by the states and municipalities.

Political observers feel that the sheer power of the street is what Ms Rousseff and the PT fear the most. After all it was the PT that used street protests to oppose the military regime and win office. In government, however, it lost its taste for mass demonstrations, leaving a vacuum that students are now filling.

The challenge for Ms Rousseff and the PT now is to regain the political agenda before someone else, such as Marina Silva, an independent “green” politician and presidential hopeful, or rival presidential contenders Eduardo Campos and Aécio Neves, try to win over the protest movement.

“Dilma has got to go on television and begin to talk turkey about what she and her government is going to do, if not now then particularly after the election next year,” says Riordan Roett of Johns Hopkins University.

It is anyone’s guess how long the students will be able to maintain public support, amid scenes of looting this week alongside the main protests.

“To sustain this thing, obviously the risk is you will mobilise the wrong crowd, you will see more looting and lose legitimacy,” says Mr Sotero of the Wilson Center.

Yet even if the movement recedes for now, thanks to social networks it can easily and quickly reappear. As Ms Rousseff said on Tuesday, Brazil – from its students to its workers to its football stars – has “awakened”. So too now must its politicians.

With additional reporting by Thalita Carrico in São Paulo

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