Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff wrapped up a four-day visit to the US this week with a ride in a driverless car at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California.

A clearly exhilarated Ms Rousseff described the experience as “extremely cool”. Unfortunately for the president, less cool were her approval ratings back home. So out of control were they that it almost seemed there was no driver — human or machine — that could set them back on course.

Ms Rousseff`s government is the most unpopular since Brazilian democracy emerged from the dictatorship era in 1986. A staggering 68 per cent of Brazilians believe her government is bad or terrible, up from 27 per cent in December, according to a CNI-Ibope poll.

Only former President José Sarney, who took the job after Tancredo Neves, Brazil’s first elected president of the modern era, died before he could take office, has come close to scoring this badly, with 64 per cent.

Ms Rouseff’s extreme unpopularity does not seem entirely deserved given that other Brazilian presidents have presided over worse periods but have maintained better numbers in the polls.

Latin America’s largest economy is heading into a recession and the unemployment rate has shot up. At 6.75 per cent in May, joblessness is nearing Argentine levels but is certainly not yet as bad as Greece or elsewhere in southern Europe.

Brazilian commentators speak freely of the “crisis” but the country is not experiencing the sort of turmoil that used to characterise its downturns. There is no balance of payments crisis, for instance. Brazil still has among the highest foreign exchange reserves in the world.

Nor is Ms Rousseff seizing the deposits of Brazilian bank customers, as Fernando Collor, the only modern Brazilian president to be impeached, did in the early 1990s. In spite of that, his approval ratings in the same CNI-Ibope poll never fell as far as Ms Rousseff’s.

So what has changed? There are many reasons for voters to fall out with the left-leaning president and her Workers’ Party, or PT, which is in its 13th year in power.

Ms Rousseff won the closely fought election campaign in October against the centrist opposition PSDB party by flatly denying anything was wrong with the Brazilian economy, in spite of rising inflation and budget deficits.

Only a few months later, however, she in effect admitted that the economy had gone seriously awry when she appointed Joaquim Levy, an orthodox finance minister. He launched an austerity programme aimed at reining in years of fiscal largesse under her previous government and that of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Ms Rousseff’s predecessor.

The former president is not helping her cause. Mr Lula da Silva, who served two terms between 2003 and 2010, is trying to distance himself from Ms Rousseff, his anointed successor, as he prepares to make a comeback in 2018.

In comments to religious leaders last month, he said that Ms Rousseff and the PT were in the “volume morto” in the opinion polls — literally the dregs.

A vast scandal at state-owned oil company Petrobras is further damaging Ms Rousseff’s reputation. She was in charge of the company when much of the wrongdoing, which includes bribes to the ruling coalition, took place.

But perhaps the main reason voters are so angry with her is that their expectations are so much higher.

After two decades of stability and 10 years of relatively high growth, Brazilians now have a lot more to lose from bad government than they had in the past.

Government incompetence is also harder to conceal than in the past. The internet, smartphones and social media have given voters access to information.

With her approval ratings so low, Ms Rousseff is vulnerable to impeachment, particularly if the numerous corruption investigations into Petrobras turn up anything linking her directly to the wrongdoing. Her only hope is that Mr Levy’s fiscal adjustment will stabilise the sinking economy and buy her time to restore growth.

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