From Greece and Spain, to Brazil and beyond, people are no longer convinced that politics is working for the greater good.
SAO PAULO — Dilma Rousseff's troubles grow by the day. Even talk of impeachment has begun to spread amid ongoing revelations of corruption from her own party in the far-reaching Petrobras scandal, while recent polls suggest that her image has been badly damaged. Almost half of those polled said they found their president “dishonest,” and 54% described her as “deceitful.” Other prominent members of her Workers’ Party are faring no better.
In such a climate of distrust towards politics and politicians, it’s no wonder that a survey published by Folha de S. Paulo"s polling institute Datafolha showed that 71% of Brazilians don’t identify with any party — an all-time high, even topping polls taken during massive protests in the summer of 2013. The public surveys put a bit of science in an emerging bit of popular political astronomy: The world of politics has mutated, gradually turning itself into a galaxy that orbits around its own interests, rather than the common good.
It’s actually embarrassing to write “world of politics” and “common good” in the same sentence. They’ve become antonyms.
But don’t be mistaken, voters’ disaffection and their falling out of love with political parties is not just a Brazilian phenomenon. Nor is it a recent trend.
Latinobarómetro, the best indicator of Latin American attitudes, has been showing ramping mistrust in the continent for several years. In its most recent study (for 2013, published in 2014), an average of below 30% agreed with the statement “the country is governed for the benefit of all.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, the figure for Brazil was well below that: Less than 20% considered that their government was concerned with common good.
Brazil's Dilma Rousseff with former CEO of Petrobras Maria das Graças Silva Foster — Photo: Roberto Stuckert Filho/PR/ZUMA
The same observation can be made outside of Latin America. It’s a global phenomenon. The same day Folha published the polls showing Dilma’s approval ratings in free fall, Spanish newspaper El País featured a study showing that the country’s most popular party was newcomer Podemos.
A voice for outrage
Podemos was born of the so-called indignados (the "outraged"), an anti-austerity, anti-inequality movement that shook the country a few years ago. Spain's traditional parties are affected by an erosion of voter identification similar to what we witness in Brazil. In the last general election, in 2011, the two main parties, the center-right People’s Party and the center-left Socialist Workers’ Party together got 73% of the votes. Not only do the polls show Podemos as the biggest party, but the scores of the two traditional camps put together represent just 46%.
In the United Kingdom, nano parties got 6% of the vote in the 2010 general election. Now, just months away from national elections, they’re at 25% — a surge mostly due to that of eurosceptic party UKIP and the Greens.
For El País columnist Antonio Navalón, the world is witnessing the end of a system. “You can’t understand the successes of Alexis Tsipras in Greece or Podemos and the difficulties faced by Dilma Rousseff in Brazil if you don’t accept that this system is ending,” he writes.
Navalón doesn’t specifically define what system he’s talking about, but it seems obvious it’s the predominant economic model, the one we call neoliberal. It seems all the more revealing that Rousseff’s difficulties coincide with her shift from state interventionism in the economy to the more traditional orthodoxy.
To be honest, I don’t know whether the end of an economic cycle is imminent. Capitalism has after all a formidable capacity to reinvent itself. The worlds of politics on the other hand shows an unbeatable incapacity to do so, particularly unable to become an instrument for the benefit of all and not just a few at the top.
This is where the real danger lies. It leaves a void that opportunists can take advantage of. Brazil knows this only too well.