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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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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