"Pixuleco," an inflatable doll of Brazil's former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, floats above a protest against Dilma Rousseff in Sao Paulo, Brazil, March 13, 2016.
Paulo Whitaker / Reuters

Brazil is anything but calm. Shortly after the end of the summer Olympics, the Senate impeached President Dilma Rousseff and removed her from office. This came about after a corruption probe revealed widespread bribery among the political elite. On top of the political turmoil, the country’s economy is predicted to shrink 3.3 percent this year after a 3.8 percent contraction in 2015, already Brazil’s worst recession on record. But the moment the country’s political order actually began to unravel was in 2013, when millions of people across the country took to the streets with a range of demands from affordable public transportation to fixes to the government bureaucracy. The system shock of these “June Journeys” served as a catalyst in pushing the country in opposite directions—left and right.

Two young protestors from Rio de Janeiro, Mayara Donaria and Gustavo Mota, were among those who gathered in what were considered Brazil’s largest protests in 20 years. Donaria is a leftist student from the low-income Rio favela of Maré and marched with friends who were involved in social justice campaigns, principally against police violence. Mota, who leans right, runs a graphic design startup in the condo-packed beachside Rio neighborhood of Barra and has called for less government regulation on businesses.

The two don’t know each other, but they both campaigned vigorously in the lead-up to Rio's municipal elections this month—which have served as a referendum on pro-corporate politicians in the city—but at opposite ends of Brazil’s dizzying political spectrum. Donaria wanted safer communities and for those living in the favelas to be directly involved in crafting public policy, and Mota campaigned for a leaner city budget. These two young Brazilians, who once marched the same streets together, were now at the opposite poles of a divisive struggle over the future of their country. In fact, it was Brazilians like them, operating outside of the traditional political unions and parties, whose new demands on power put into question the compromises that had defined Brazil in previous years.

In 2013, the Workers’ Party (PT) had presided over a commodities-driven economic boom that brought an estimated 30 million Brazilians out of poverty. But growth had begun to slow and consumer prices and fees for public transportation rose. As citizens felt their wallets lighten, they watched as billions of state funds went toward building soccer stadiums instead of schools or other much-needed public infrastructure. Online, Brazilians exchanged articles about local politics and the global street mobilizations of recent years, from Occupy Wall Street to Turkey’s Gezi Park. When police beat back a protest against a bus fare increase, Brazilians responded by pouring out in the millions.

“I learned lots about organizing during that time from people who had been part of social movements,” said Donaria, a 20-year-old event organizer for arts and culture initiatives. She has become an advocate for favela residents. She’s sought to raise awareness of the continued casualty-heavy police operations in Maré by organizing flash mobs at plazas and holding workshops in public schools. Mota, 34, who serves as a mentor to new entrepreneurs, has centered his agenda around rooting out corruption. He has befriended activists from the business community who believe that the ongoing investigations of bribery at the top levels of government should be an absolute priority.

Despite their diverse views, those like Donaria and Mota are united by their feeling that the government had failed them. Pablo Ortellado, a scholar at the University of São Paulo, explained, “One demand shared by many of the diverse 2013 protesters was that the government do better at guaranteeing basic services for citizens.”

But instead of dialoguing with demonstrators, the Brazilian government has responded most often with arrests, tear gas, and rubber bullets. Donaria eventually joined a network of young favela activists from across the city who were engaged in citizen journalism with a focus on human rights. Mota’s cohort of anticorruption activists supported a crusading group of prosecutors who, through the Operation Car Wash probe, confirmed many Brazilians’ suspicions of sweetheart deals between favored companies and high-level government operatives. Individuals, such as ex-oil executive Pedro Barusco and ex-Workers’ Party minister José Dirceu, were jailed for pocketing millions.

Rousseff’s 2014 reelection battle saw the platforms of both her left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) and its main opposition, the center-right Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), marching ever more toward the center, while grassroots activism moved farther to the left and right. Organizers on the left focused on housing rights, police violence, and the quality of public education. Organizers on the right called for privatization of state-owned companies, criticized the country’s ballooning fiscal deficit, and fought for Rousseff’s impeachment. Shortly after her win, members of the newly formed right-wing Free Brazil Movement recruited an attorney, who, with payment from the PSDB, drew up impeachment charges based on budgetary manipulation that both Rousseff and her predecessors had committed.

The success of these activists underscores the force of Brazil’s growing and consolidating right. In recent years, a vocal group of young Brazilians have joined ideological ranks formerly confined to a small handful of right-wing research centers, with many newcomers recruited by international free-market organizations such as Students for Liberty and the Atlas Network, both of which have received funding from U.S. conservative groups like the Charles Koch Foundation.

According to Bernardo Santoro, director of Brazil’s far-right think tank Instituto Liberal, an effort to Americanize the Brazilian right is under way, by people uniting religious conservatism with “minimal state” economics, two ideas that have not always aligned in Brazil. Evangelical politicians who allied with the Workers’ Party in the past were successfully courted by the right during the impeachment process. Santoro supports the conservative Social Christian Party (PSC) and spent this election season helping it develop a right-wing economic platform.

Rodrigo Constantino, a widely read right-wing commentator who admires the late Andrew Breitbart, champions the “unification of Brazil’s right,” which, during pro-impeachment rallies, brought out old-timers who called for “traditional family values” and a return to military rule.

Brazil's suspended President Dilma Rousseff reads a letter to the country in Alvorada Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, August 16, 2016.
Adriano Machado / Reuters

The most public faces of Brazil’s rising right have been youth leaders whose messaging has focused on connecting high unemployment—it is currently at 11.8 percent—with wasteful spending and corruption in the PT.

“For too long, economic liberalism was an old man in a suit and tie talking. Totally inaccessible,” said Kim Kataguiri, 20, who rose to fame as a YouTube personality around the time he helped found the Free Brazil Movement. For inspiration, Kataguiri looks, ironically, to Spain’s Podemos, a left-wing populist party led by the charismatic political scientist Pablo Iglesias. Although their ideologies differ sharply, Kataguiri admires that Podemos “allows people to feel like they are protagonists.” This February, he helped organize a hashtag campaign called This Impeachment Is Mine, which helped mobilize street demonstrators against Rousseff.

Both left and right anti-establishment campaigns, which dominated in the lead-up to the October municipal elections, loosened, more than ever, the traditional parties’ control of the political narrative in Brazil. Mota ran for city council as a member of Brazil’s first ever libertarian party, Partido Novo, or New Party, which was founded by a prominent banker and which aims to port business management principles to politics. Meanwhile, Donaria campaigned with the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), a party to the left of the PT that focuses on grassroots organizing and consultation with its base to determine its platform.

The PSOL and Novo are standouts in Brazil’s sea of shape-shifting parties, where platforms often change with the political winds. In the first round of municipal elections on October 2, both parties saw their number of supporters grow. Novo, in its first election, won assembly seats in four cities. The 11-year-old PSOL won assembly seats in 32 cities; in Rio, its candidate, Marcelo Freixo, made it to the mayoral runoff, which will be held on October 30th, by defeating an opponent who was allowed 19 times more television advertising due to regulations that favor large party coalitions.

Brazilian voters broke with the status quo not only in their choice of candidates but also with the routes they took to make those choices. Rather than voting based on traditional party lines, tens of thousandsused online platforms such as They Represent Me, Vote for a Feminist, and the Activist Caucus to find out which candidate they aligned with. Indeed, one of the popular slogans during the 2013 protests was “You don’t represent us.”

Buoyed by such initiatives, a black left-wing feminist named Talíria Petrone, who occupied city hall as a protester in 2013, nabbed the highest number of votes in this year’s crowded city council election in Niteroi, which is adjacent to Rio. She is unconventional because 90 percent of her new colleagues are white men. The right-wing Free Brazil Movement promoted a set of candidates from across a number of conservative parties who pledged to encourage privatization in education and health care and to be fiscally responsible; among their ranks, they saw the election of one mayor and seven city council members nationwide.

Plenty of informal groups met, too, to discuss how to vote in a post-impeachment era as revelations from Operation Car Wash laid bare the corruption of parties such as the PT and the PMDB, whose chair, Michel Temer, is now Brazil’s president. The week before the election, Mauro Rochlin, an economics professor at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, a top-ranking private university, and his son Ian hosted two dozen friends and colleagues on the back porch of their home in Rio’s upscale Gávea neighborhood.

“I never used to do things like this,” Mauro Rochlin said to the crowd, “but we’re in an unusual time.” Mota was one of four candidates from four different parties who had come to present their platforms. He spoke about the startups that he’d helped incubate in rich and poor neighborhoods across the city and the difficulties of doing so, given the red tape.

Despite the impending arrival to city halls across the nation of representatives who arose from the grassroots movements of the last few years, Brazil’s mainstream political machine still dominates. In São Paulo, the strategists of PSDB successfully rebranded a longtime actor on the political scene, João Doria, as an outsider. His stint on the Brazilian version of the television show “The Apprentice” and businessman profile earned him comparisons with Donald Trump. In Rio, Freixo’s runoff opponent is the Brazilian Republican Party’s (PRB) Marcelo Crivella, an evangelical bishop who, for a time, refused to debate, hid his schedule of public appearances, and may still win. “New initiatives in this election have brought coherence and moral authority,” Camila Rocha, a researcher at the University of São Paulo’s political science department, said. “But the party machines still have power.”

Nowhere is this clearer than in Brazil’s federal congress. Under the leadership of Temer, who has a 14 percent approval rating, the solutions to salvage the economy constitute a rightward turn, targeting the country’s fiscal deficit before addressing its productivity gap or uneven tax structure. The government is currently fast-tracking a dramatic 20-year spending freeze that would override constitutional requirements for investments in heath and education, which has caused nationwide protests. In August, a Temer minister discarded a longtime agenda item of the Brazilian left—a pact to reduce homicides in the country, which has a murder rate of 32.4 out of every 100,000 people, the 11th highest in the world.

“A massive challenge is a lack of public understanding about the measures that are being proposed right now,” Ortellado said. Many of the lawmakers who impeached Rousseff, decrying her economic mismanagement, voted to block austerity when she tried to implement it in 2015. As news organizations in Brazil are bleeding staffers and fielding accusations of bias, civil society and new journalism initiatives are attempting to piece together a factual, historically situated debate about economic policy. Sites such as Pública, Lupa, and Aos Fatos have revealed inconsistencies from politicians across the spectrum in Rio’s and São Paulo’s municipal elections.

Donaria, who is campaigning for Freixo, remains upbeat. “To me, we’ve already won,” she said. “I’ve become connected to politics and the city in a way that’s not going to end after this campaign.”

Mota agrees. The entire country has gone through a political awakening of sorts. “Now, people know the names of Supreme Court justices like they used to know players on Brazil’s national soccer team,” he said. “They’ve stepped into the game, and it’s a step forward.”

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  • CATHERINE OSBORN is a Brazil-based journalist. Reporting for this story was supported by the GroundTruth Project.
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