Earlier this month, the streets of Brazil’s major cities filled with protestors. Timed to the 30-year anniversary of the end of military rule in 1985, the March 15 protests were probably the largest since Brazil became a democracy and were certainly larger than the widely reported demonstrations of June 2013. Yet real numbers are hard to come by. Protests were clearly biggest in the city of São Paulo, but estimates of the size of the crowd gathered there range from 210,000 (Instituto Datafolha, which is linked to the Folha de São Paulo newspaper) to over a million (the state-controlled military police). If the lower estimate is correct, some hundreds of thousands of people came out onto the streets across the country. If the higher estimate is right, the total would be around 1.7 million people.

The size matters; those who marched had a harsh message for President Dilma Rousseff, now ten weeks into her second term of office. Many called for her impeachment, evoking memories of the million or so who, in 1992, successfully marched for the impeachment of President Fernando Collor de Mello. Many commentators, therefore, take the number of protesters as a measure of how long Rousseff has left in office.

Although demands for Rousseff’s impeachment made headlines around the world, the real story is Brazil’s economic troubles and its ever-growing corruption scandal. Economic growth has flatlined, and inflation and government deficits are rising quickly. In her first term, Rousseff was unsuccessful in stimulating the economy, and she has few new options left except economic austerity. Ironically, meanwhile, Collor is now not only a senator but also among the 34 sitting congressional representatives just placed under formal investigation and possible indictment for corruption. With 16 others, including the treasurer of Rousseff’s governing Workers’ Party (PT), these representatives are accused of taking part in a kickback scheme that skimmed money from the state-controlled oil company Petrobras and redirected it to Rousseff’s 2010 campaign and the personal fortunes of many participants.

Such circumstances have a documented history of ending political careers in Latin America. In the 1990s and 2000s, 15 Latin American presidents (including Collor) were pushed out of office before the end of their term, with half of those facing congressional removal processes along with mass demonstrations and half simply resigning in the face of determined street protests. Corruption and other scandals played a role in nearly all the terminations, and unwelcome economic policies have contributed by undercutting popular support.

These events violated the normal expectation that presidents are elected to fixed terms of office, and populations across the region learned that sustained opposition in the streets can quickly change the political fortunes of their powerful national executives. Even so, nearly all of the removals led to continued democratic rule—vice presidents and others in the constitutional line of succession stepped in as replacements. Democracy is alive and well in Latin America, even if the methods for changing governments are sometimes unorthodox. These regional experiences provide a broader framework for considering what is likely to happen in Brazil.

First, almost all the Latin American presidents who were successfully removed were personally implicated in corruption or other scandals. So far, the corruption scandals in Brazil have not been decisively tied to Rousseff herself, although they are reaching very close to her. As long as her record remains clean, she is somewhat sheltered from removal. If she is accused, though, it will greatly increase her vulnerability.

Second, when large crowds demand impeachment, other politicians can either fan or tamp the flames. The Brazilian opposition PSDB party and Aécio Neves, PSDB’s candidate in the last presidential election, did encourage protests against Rousseff’s government, but they have mostly refrained from calling for impeachment. Institutionally, impeachment would have to travel through the lower house of Congress, the Chamber of Deputies. That body is led by Eduardo Cunha, who is hostile to Rousseff even though his PMDB party is part of her governing coalition. Cunha, one of the sitting legislators under investigation for corruption, said last week that he would sit on any requests for impeachment on the grounds that the president was elected and other solutions needed to be found for the obvious governing challenges. Rousseff’s very recent re-election—as the news of the corruption scandal was breaking—means that the protests would have to be sustained over time and become both bigger and socially broader before politicians risked trying to remove her.

Further, governors of many different parties control Brazil’s local police forces, and all of them have avoided the kinds of police crackdowns on peaceful protesters that set off demonstrators in 2013 and elsewhere in Latin America. The impeachment of Collor was one of the only previous removals in the region that did not feature violence by protesters and the security forces policing them, with harsh policing usually driving the cycle. Finally, Rousseff herself has responded to the protests by emphasizing the right to protest in a democracy and by promising concrete policy responses, still mostly undefined. So, as a group, politicians in Brazil have worked to calm rather than inflame the situation.

Although Rousseff’s presidency appears likely to survive an impeachment challenge, her list of problems to tackle is daunting. A DataFolha poll taken in the two days after Sunday’s protests showed that Rousseff’s approval rating dropped from 23 percent to 13 percent over the last six weeks. The proportion of those ranking her presidency as bad or terrible has risen to 62 percent. These ratings, just a few months after she narrowly won re-election, reflect declines across all social categories, including those that form her electoral base. Her anemic support was also seen in the smaller (estimated at 28,000 to 120,000) demonstrations by unions and social movements who turned out on March 13 to show their support for her. In any event, even those groups paired their support for Rousseff with numerous demands for political and economic changes. Since taking office, Rousseff has moved to implement austerity policies, which she had brushed aside during her campaign, contributing to her weak support even among those who voted for her in October and November.

Even without protests or poor polling, Rousseff would have struggled to revive an economy that was already nearing stagnation even as inflation picked up at the end of her first term. Good employment numbers and government income programs helped win her a second term, but they are likely to be endangered by the coming austerity plans. Poverty and inequality rates are already ticking up after a decade of declines. The ever-widening corruption scandal has weakened not just Petrobras but the large construction companies that are central in Brazil’s economy and investment plans, and may yet go further. Key political and economic players are under investigation and are likely to be distracted from the business of running the country. All of these developments could generate even more protests and weaker polling support. Thus Rousseff seems likely to remain in office—but one might reasonably wonder why anyone would want to be at the helm in Brazil for what will be a number of bumpy years.

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  • KATHRYN HOCHSTETLER is CIGI Chair of Governance in the Americas in the Balsillie School of International Affairs and Professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo.
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