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Dilma And The Risks Of A World Cup Backlash

President Dilma Rousseff's once widespread popularity is sinking. But if Brazilian protests reignite when the World Cup begins, it could have major consequences on her October reelection bid.

Dilma Rousseff with the 2013 Confederations Cup
Dilma Rousseff with the 2013 Confederations Cup
Franco Norero

SAO PAULO — Let's not forget that Dilma Rousseff won the Brazilian presidential elections of 2010 with some 56 million votes, or 56% of ballots cast in the second round of voting.

She did have the advantage of competing against José Serra of the Social Democratic Party of Brazil (PSDB), a candidate already defeated in preceding presidential elections, by Dilma's predecessor Luis Inácio Lula da Silva of the Workers Party (PT).

Rousseff triumphed in the north, winning more than 70% of votes, and won almost 80% of votes in some states — like Pernambuco, Bahia, Ceará or Piauí — where she could count on the backing of the former president José Sarney's political family, the PMDB (Party of the Democratic Movement of Brazil).

In Rio de Janeiro, the country's cultural center, Dilma was fortunate four years ago that the good governance of the PMDB Governor Sergio Cabral had secured the city's Olympic bid for 2016, in addition to backing Brazil's candidacy for the soccer World Cup.

All very nice ... unlike the panorama Dilma faces today, ahead of October's presidential elections.

This time, the president will not be running against a defeated candidate. Moreover, bad administration by some PT officials in strategic urban centers like Sao Paulo — where the mayor Fernando Haddad's approval ratings have plumetted — will make it much more difficult for Dilma to reach that 50% threshold in October. Other scandals, for example over appalling prison conditions in the state of Maranhao, governed by the PMDB's Roseana Sarney, will complicate Dilma's hopes of repeating her runaway success of 2010.

Add to this Brazilians' memories of the angry protests of last June and July, which dragged down Dilma's approval ratings from 71% to 45% just three days before last year's Confederations Cup soccer tournament — showing just how vulnerable the incumbent will be.

Sinking polls

Indeed, with the World Cup just two months away and the government steadily losing popularity since last summer — going from 43% to a paltry 36% according to the last CNI/Ibope poll — we may even consider whether Dilma's entire political future might be riding on how the World Cup plays out.

No, this is not about the popular Brazilian team's performance on the field, but whether the soccer-related protests of last summer will resurface in June. That would come on the heels of recent criticisms of Dilma's entire economic management (rising inflation rates, increasing unemployment concerns) and corruption cases (in Petrobras for example).

Economist and sociologist René Berardi believes that protests during the World Cup would effectively open a public space where Brazilians could debate whether or not they favor the continuation of the Rousseff government.

Assuming the same political and macroeconomic trajectory continues, it would not be bold to imagine Dilma's continued drop in popularity — even to the dangerously low level of 30% approval. Berardi believes that would make it very difficult for her to win in the Oct. 5 first round of presidential elections.

Who could benefit politically from World Crup protests and Dilma's decline? Berardi believes that among the possible hopefuls, the Social Democratic Senator Aécio Neves would not gain any favor from protests as his party is already in a precarious position in terms of voting intentions — especially in Sao Paulo where the party is hurting from alleged ties to corruption scandals. The state is currently administered by Geraldo Alckmin, though corruption cases have stained both this and preceding PSDB state governments.

Berardi believes that of the two Socialist Party hopefuls, the Governor of Pernambuco Eduardo Campos and former senator Marina Silva, that only Silva — Brazil's prominent Green politician — could benefit from Dilma's further fall from grace, for her high approval ratings and social credibility.

With the right spark, the 2014 World Cup might easily morph from a friendly international sporting event into a political firestorm for Brazil that could sweep through the nation's streets. Even so, Dilma would probably still be favored to win in October, but most probably in a second round, with none of the landslide of four years ago.

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