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Brazilian economy wavers, Rousseff’s popularity sinks

© Wenderson Araujo, AFP | Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff holds a press conference in Brasilia on February 9, 2015

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2015-03-09

Dilma Rousseff battled back from faltering approval ratings at the end of last year to win a second term as Brazil’s president in October. But 2015 appears to be stacked with more challenges for the leader of Latin America’s largest economy.

Rousseff’s approval rating has fallen by around 20 percentage points since the beginning of the year as the country struggles with a stagnant economy, rising inflation, and a major corruption scandal at the state-run oil company.

“After the elections Brazilians were dealt a reality check,” said Alessandro Janoni, research director at the Brazilian opinion polling firm Datafolha. “Since the beginning of this year people have seen prices rise steadily and have mainly placed the blame on Rousseff.”

Forty-two percent of Brazilians thought the left-wing president was doing a “good” or “excellent” job when she narrowly defeated conservative candidate Aécio Neves in a runoff poll on October 26. That figure remained unchanged in December 2014, but plummeted to 23 percent in February 2015, according to Datafolha.

Rousseff’s image has not just taken a hit in the more prosperous south, where Neves garnered most of his votes in last year’s election. Her support has seen its biggest drop-off in northeastern Brazil, considered the mainstay for Rouseff’s Worker’s Party (PT).

In December, 53 percent of northeastern residents thought Rousseff was doing good or excellent work running the country. By February, only 29 percent of people in the region still held that opinion. “It was the biggest surprise of our poll,” Datafolha’s Janoni told FRANCE 24 by telephone from Sao Paulo.

Not in the carnival mood

After years of runaway growth, even through the great recession of 2008, Brazil’s economy tripped last year. The country returned to meek growth in the third quarter of 2014 after a short recession, but ordinary people are not feeling relieved.

The national statistical institute IBGE said Friday that prices rose 1.22 percent in February, bringing inflation well above the government's target ceiling of 6.5 percent.

Pierre*, who works in the travel industry in the southern city of Porto Alegre, said his electricity bill had jumped by 22 percent this year, and his company-subsidized health insurance plan by 20 percent. Meanwhile, basic services, from public transport to medical care were stuck in a rut.

“I’m really worried about Brazil’s economy,” Pierre, who has dual French-Brazilian citizenship, but who has been living in the South American country for the past 17 years told FRANCE 24. “I’m thinking of moving back to France, even if I know France is not doing great either.”

Datafolha’s research reveals that Pierre’s gloomy outlook has become widespread among Brazilians. The number of Brazilians who expect inflation to continue growing has gone up by 27 percent in the past three months. The polling firm also found that almost two out of three people now think unemployment will rise.

A day for protests

Pessimism is mixing with frustration over political corruption. As many of 46 lawmakers will potentially be investigated for alleged involvement in a huge kickback scheme at the national oil company Petrobras.

“Billions were stolen,” Pierre said of allegations that Petrobras profits were funnelled to members of Rousseff’s PT and its allies. “This money could have been used to build hospitals and schools. It’s crazy.”

Pierre said he would join fellow Brazilians calling for Rousseff’s impeachment in mass rallies on March 15.

As many as 37 separate Facebook pages urging citizens to take their anger into the streets have been created in recent days, the website globo.com reported. Many of those event pages appear to be hosted by Rousseff’s right-wing opponents, but are resonating with many ordinary Brazilians.

Pierre said he didn’t expect Rousseff to actually step down, but thought it was important to show discontent. “I want to tell her ‘enough is enough’. I didn’t vote for her, but she is the president now and I want her to do her job,” he blustered.

Repeat of 2013 protests?

According to Carlos Mussi, a regional director of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, a UN agency, the country will have to wait before it sees sunnier days. He did not rule out a new recession in the short term.

“The government has made economic adjustments, but last year’s troubles are not over. What we are seeing is nothing new, rather a continuation,” Mussi said by telephone from the capital of Brasilia. “It is a very difficult year to make predictions. It is a period of transition, in which reforms will start producing effects, hopefully with the least amount of damage to growth.”

A slowing economy and discontent over massive investments for the Brazil World Cup fuelled unprecedented nationwide protests in 2013, many of which spiralled into violence. So can the world expect similar unrest as Rio de Janeiro prepares to host next year’s Olympics amid a stalled economy and the Petrobras scandal?

Marches on the same scale are unlikely, according to the polling firm's Janoni, who said protests, if they happened, would probably be limited to Rio and the city of Sao Paulo.

“It will all depend on the economic climate. Rousseff could pull off a sudden economic success. There could be a recovery,” Janoni said. “Even big scandals in the past have seemed unimportant to Brazilians when the economy was on the upswing.”

*Name has been changed on the request of the person interviewed.

Date created : 2015-03-06

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