'Perfect storm': Brazil's Bolsonaro faces anger over education freezes

Sao Paulo (AFP) –


Huge protests across Brazil over education spending freezes should serve as a warning to far-right President Jair Bolsonaro who faces a "perfect storm" of political crises, analysts say.

Wednesday's nationwide demonstrations -- the first since Bolsonaro took office on January 1 -- came as the ultraconservative government struggles to get its signature pension reform through Congress, which is seen as crucial to kickstarting growth in Latin America's biggest economy.

Tens of thousands of students, teachers and professors marched in "defense of education" in Brazil's biggest cities after the government said it would suspend 30 percent of discretionary spending for public universities in the second half of this year.

The freezing of post-graduate scholarships for students in science and humanities has also fueled anger.

Bolsonaro hit back at the largely peaceful protesters, calling them "useful idiots manipulated by an expert minority that makes up the heart of federal universities in Brazil."

He also accused leftist militants of stoking the protests.

The government is heading "in the direction of becoming unviable," warned Claudio Couto, a political scientist at the Getulio Vargas Foundation think tank.

"We have a paralyzed economy, more mobilized streets and loss of support in Congress: it is the perfect storm for a presidential fall in Latin America," he said.

"All we need is a scandal involving the government."

Rising unemployment and slowing economic growth, which Bolsonaro had promised in his election campaign to reverse, have contributed to a sharp drop in his popularity in the first few months of his presidency.

On the eve of the protests, economy minister Paulo Guedes reduced the government's forecast for 2019 economic growth to 1.5 percent from 2.2 percent and urged legislators to speed up reforms, warning Brazil was "at the bottom of the well."

Adding to Bolsonaro's woes is growing anger over his decree last week allowing millions of Brazilians to carry loaded weapons in public, which is being challenged in Congress and the Supreme Court.

"The demonstrations weaken the government, which was already weakening with internal fights," said Couto.

"These demonstrations happened because the government provoked society and fueled them."

- Deep divisions -

The crisis over public education has reminded many Brazilians of the existence of a political opposition, which has been largely dormant since Bolsonaro was swept to power last October and ended decades of center-left rule, said Thomaz Favaro, political analyst at Control Risks consultancy.

"The demonstrations should empower the opposition and push it to adopt a more forceful stance against the government," said Favaro.

But Couto said the process would be slow owing to the deep divisions between left-wing parties.

"The government is weak, but the opposition is too," Couto said.

Further demonstrations were likely because Brazil, which returned to democracy in 1985 after more than 20 years of military dictatorship, had "legitimized protests as a tool," said Favaro.

Brazilians launched massive protests in 2016 in support of Congress's removal of left-wing president Dilma Rousseff and in 2013 over price increases for public transport.

Education minister Abraham Weintraub has not ruled out further cuts, telling journalists on Tuesday that "the only certainty in life is death and taxes," O Globo reported.

The right-wing Free Brazil Movement, which played a leading role in the demonstrations against Rousseff, admits the left could benefit from the crisis caused by the government.

"The government became entangled and the left took advantage of... the opportunity to make one of its biggest demonstrations since the impeachment (of Rousseff)," the organization tweeted.