Protests, young activists and political engagement in Brazil: Alive and kicking

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Brazilians take the streets in June 2013

If one had to define the most important - and perhaps most unexpected - international development of the second decade of the 21st century, most observers would point to mass protests around the world. Yet interestingly enough, there is still no consensus about the meaning of protests from São Paulo to Istanbul and Cairo to Madrid. Do they symbolize the dawn of a new type of democracy that involves the middle classes increasingly dissatisfied with public services and willing to engage more directly? Were they merely a fad unlikely to make its mark in the history books? Or, were they a sign that democracy as we know it is in decline? 

In the same way, we still know little about whether or how protests in different parts of the world were connected. Did a wave of protests sweep the world, or was the relatively high frequency a mere coincidence? Did protests in the Global South differ from those in the North?  What do they mean for the future of democracy?

While realist scholars may disagree, these questions matter greatly to international affairs, particularly as a non-democratic country is about to turn into the world's leading economy, and as the polarization between autocratic Russia and the West is rising.

"The vote is only one way of doing politics", says a young Brazilian interviewed for a new study entitled "The Brazilian Dream of Politics" (in Portuguese) that heard thousands of Brazilians aged between 18 and 32 to understand what they think about the 2013 protests and their political engagement. The analysis not only celebrates the protests as a reaffirmation and step to strengthen democratic civil society culture in Brazil, a country that became democratic three decades ago. It also points out that they made visible a group of politically active youth that quietly works -- often on the local level -- to transform the country. Disagreeing with those who saw the protests at a sign of a democratic malaise, the authors believe that the protests also had an empowering effect on many young Brazilians who had shown little interest in politics and social engagement before. The central message of the analysis is that the young generation in Brazil is far more politically active than meets the eye.

Yet the young often seem to reject traditional political structures, opting for alternative ways to make their voices heard. The study cites an impressive list of civil society-led initiatives, such as a "horizontal popular assembly" organized in Belo Horizonte that takes place once per week since last year. It classifies the young according to the degree of their political engagement, and focuses on the so-called "political hackers", a group of socially active citizens, ranging from gay rights activists, lawyers who provide free legal advice to those apprehended by the police during protests to those who denounce environmental degradation through graffiti art and the organizers of a "hacker bus" that teaches school children how to write legislative projects and send them to lawmakers. Many of the activists portrayed are located in the periphery of urban centers. 

Indeed, what is perhaps most fascinating about the study's results is how little the young seem to believe in the traditional political system alone. Even of the youth the authors describe as "political hackers", 76% do not feel represented by lawmakers and never considered joining a political party, stressing that they do not regard parties as adequate platforms to advance their causes such as social inclusion, the environment, police violence or education. Yet even while feeling abandoned by the political system, the study argues that the hackers still strengthen politics, for example by inventing app that tracks an assemblyman's voting record, his tax declarations, or who donated for his campaign - a phenomenon they call "democratic cells". In that sense, instead of seeking to overthrow the political system, the majority of activists presented in the study -- many of whom joined the protests last year--  want to improve the quality of democracy by seeking to establish dialogue with the government.

A certain paradox remains: Brazil's most recent presidential elections saw a victory of the country's established parties, while alternatives -- such as Marina's "third way" -- foundered. Indeed, compared to other democracies such as Italy and Germany, Brazilians did not elect any protest party into parliament, and few successful candidates in Brazil associated themselves to the 2013 protests movement.

Still, even the strong vote for established parties cannot hide a strong sense of frustration among many Brazilians with the way politics works. And yet, the study's overall message is positive: a good part of Brazil's young generation is engaged, highly innovative and optimistic -- and the 2013 could thus be seen as an expression of both discontent and hope. While political parties must learn to better engage with those who do not feel represented, the results are good news not only for Brazil, but also for democracy on a global level.

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Photo credit: Mauricio Lima for The New York Times