The 2016 protests that led to the dramatic ousting of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff continued to generate shockwaves long after they were over. In their aftermath, the protesters took three main pathways: participation in institutionalized civil society or political parties, pragmatic activism, and inaction. Protesters’ choice of pathways depended on whether they had mobilized for or against Rousseff and whether they saw the new political context as an opportunity or threat. By channeling their energy through institutionalization and pragmatic activism, protesters were able to influence the political changes that swept the country after the 2016 mobilizations—chief among them being the election of an extreme right-wing politician, Jair Bolsonaro, as the country’s new president in 2018. Brazil is a case where postprotest strategies were relatively effective, at least for one part of the political spectrum.
The Impeachment Campaign
In August 2016, after twenty-two months of large-scale mobilizations that polarized the country and shook its political structures to the core, the Brazilian Senate voted to impeach Rousseff. Loose networks of right-wing civil society organizations led the impeachment campaign, while an equally broad set of actors criticized the initiative and mobilized against the ousting of Rousseff. For almost two years, the country witnessed clashes between these two groups in the streets, on social media platforms, and in the halls of parliament. Between November 2014 and July 2016, more than forty days of demonstrations took place across the country.1 After a year of protests, in December 2015, the lower house of the National Congress began proceedings to impeach the president, based on charges that she improperly used loans from state banks.
The impeachment protest had specific characteristics that set it apart from other instances of mass mobilizations in Brazil. First, there were clear winners and losers among the protesters. In spite of the emergence of a countermovement, which insisted that the impeachment process lacked legitimacy and was tantamount to a coup, the protesters who supported the impeachment achieved their main demand. They pressured legislators to find a legal path to oust President Rousseff and enjoyed overwhelming popular support.2
Second, many participants in the proimpeachment protests did not have strong ties to established social movement organizations or political parties. In fact, in the first few months of protests, Brazil’s political parties did not clearly support the calls for impeachment. This does not mean that protests were entirely spontaneous or leaderless. Protests were articulated by what Ângela Alonso and Ann Mische have named the “patriotic field”: a broad coalition of actors that gathered under the coordinated leadership of a set of conservative and right-wing political organizations, identifying their movement by rallying around the national colors and singing the national anthem.3 These groups were not born overnight; they had been mobilizing since the beginning of the 2000s in opposition to the policies enacted by the center-left coalition led by the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT). A new set of organizations with similar views emerged in the decade before the impeachment.4 Even earlier, beginning in the 1990s, an increasingly organized pool of voters elected enough politicians to build a powerful religious caucus in the National Congress.5 These conservative sectors became increasingly virulent in their attacks on feminism, LGBT rights, and Afro-Brazilian religious diversity.6 These groups and promarket groups came together to support the impeachment, and they were backed by a wide spectrum of individuals who did not have a clear ideology but who criticized the government for a host of corruption scandals and blamed it for the country’s economic crisis.
Finally, the proimpeachment movement was a case of “politics-centered protests”: participants put their critique of the political system at the forefront of their message and challenged electoral results, with antisystem and antiparty rhetoric. The themes that drive such mobilizations influence the pathways available after protests. In this case, protests clearly were tied to the electoral calendar and to debates about electoral alternatives. Some of the organizations that called for the impeachment, such as the Free Brazil Movement (Movimento Brasil Livre), openly defined themselves as political organizations and stimulated their members to run for elections. Through protests, these organizations opened a new path into politics. In their aftermath, several protesters affiliated with new or existing political parties ran for office in the 2018 elections. The impeachment protests thus had a strong impact not only on the ousting of Rousseff but also on the subsequent elections, contributing decisively to the shifts in Brazil’s political tectonic plates long after the streets were empty.
Where Did Protesters Go?
After Rousseff’s impeachment, the protests lost steam. Even when the next president, Michel Temer, was accused of corruption almost as soon as he assumed office, protesters did not mobilize on a large scale. The impeachment of Rousseff functioned as a common rallying cry for both supporters and opponents, but attempts to launch a #foraTemer (#outTemer) campaign did not provide such a common ground. Absence of protest did not mean, however, an absence of activism.
Protesters took three different pathways in the aftermath of Rousseff’s impeachment. The first was the institutionalization pathway. Protesters channeled their political activism toward participation in civil society organizations and political parties. The second was the targeted activism pathway, in which protesters returned home but remained available and willing to remobilize for specific causes. They did not abandon their political activism but rather reacted pragmatically to perceived opportunities and threats. The third pathway was simply inaction, which was related to a growing sense of political impotency and frustration.
Figure 2 presents these three pathways. They are ideal types. But in reality, many protesters took more than one pathway or switched across pathways over time and in response to changes in the political context. Furthermore, as the figure shows, the first two pathways overlap.
Institutionalization: A Traditional Pathway, With New Twists
After protests, many participants who had no previous organizational affiliation decided to join existing civil society organizations or to participate in the creation of new ones. This is a fairly familiar outcome of protests. Protests have long been key moments of recruitment of new members for civil society organizations or arenas for the reinforcement of organizational loyalties. What was relatively new in this instance was that for many proimpeachment protesters who did not have a previous history of party activism, institutionalization entailed joining political parties or founding new ones. Some even ran for office in the 2018 elections. In fact, some of the parliamentarians who received the most votes had become well known to the public through their participation in protests.
For those who joined existing political parties, there were many options. Various parties opened their doors to protesters. The Democratas (Democrats, DEM) and the Partido Social Liberal (Social Liberal Party, PSL) were particular options, but others in the center-right spectrum welcomed the newly minted activists. For instance, Kim Kataguiri was one of the most visible faces of the impeachment campaign, through his activism in the Free Brazil Movement, which had been created three years earlier. When Kataguiri ran for office, affiliated with the DEM party, he received the fourth-highest number of votes for representative of the state of São Paulo in the Chamber of Deputies, totaling more than 400,000 votes. Janaína Paschoal is a lawyer who rose to fame when she presented the demand for the presidential impeachment in the National Congress. Running as a PSL candidate, she was the highest-voted state parliamentarian in the history of the country, securing more than 2 million votes. Both Kataguiri and Paschoal are examples of individuals who had never run for office and who used the popularity they gained during the protests to move into electoral politics.
Given the clear antiparty and antipolitical system rhetoric that dominated the impeachment campaign, as well as the overall decline in trust in political parties and elected representatives in Brazil, this move toward party politics was surprising. The new faces emerging out of the protests used this mistrust, anger, and frustration in their favor, channeling these feelings into successful electoral campaigns that emphasized their personal agendas and actually downplayed the role of political parties. Thus, their inroads into partisan politics did not help strengthen the political party system as such. Because Brazilian law prohibits independent candidates, these figures had to join political parties in order to stand for election.
Other participants of the proimpeachment protests decided to create new options, further fragmenting an already highly divided political party system.7 The clearest example was the New (Novo) party, formally founded during the impeachment campaign in September 2015. This Party presented itself as a new option for right-wing voters who supported promarket policies, a downsizing of the state, and lower taxes. Many of its founding members did not have previous political careers and became politically active during the impeachment protests—and Novo openly supported their campaigns.8 That was the case for Júlia Lucy, a local Novo representative who was elected in 2018 in the capital Brasília. As was the case for many Novo candidates, Lucy had no previous history of activism. Her political baptism had been in the impeachment protests of 2015–2016.9
These individuals became the bearers of popular aspirations for a change in politics. Empowered by the impeachment and the subsequent crisis of the left, they were in a prime position to reap the benefits of Brazilians’ dissatisfaction with mainstream politics. Their success helps to explain the high turnover of politicians in the National Congress, the strengthening of center-right parties, and the election of many representatives who did not have a previous history of party-building activism.10
For protesters who mobilized against the impeachment of Rousseff, the institutionalization pathway was not as important. Many of these protesters were already participants in civil society organizations and political parties. Furthermore, the aftermath of the impeachment deepened the crisis within such center-left organizations, which had been struggling to respond to the corruption scandals of the previous years. The crisis also led to fragmentation within this political camp, which arrived at the 2018 presidential elections deeply divided. Most of these actors’ energy was spent in trying to build resistance against a closing political environment.
Targeted activism is also a well-known pathway: protesters go home but remain politically active. As “serial activists,” they engage in various short-term political causes, but their activism is not sustainable over time. Nor is it channeled through their affiliation with organizations.11 By its very nature, this pathway is less visible and harder to investigate, though it often overlaps with the pathway of institutionalization described above.
Targeted activism campaigns, which focus on short-term actions around a specific cause or event, were common after Rousseff’s impeachment for both supporters and opponents of the impeachment proceedings. The more conservative proimpeachment forces focused on “moral panic” campaigns.12 One of the clearest examples involving at least some of the participants in the protests targeted the Queermuseu (Queer Museum) art exhibition in the southern city of Porto Alegre, which includes a display of 263 works of art by well-known Brazilian painters with a focus on gender identity and expression. Between August and October 2017, a network of conservative civil society organizations, political leaders, religious actors, and bloggers called for the cancellation of this exhibition. The campaign accused the artists and organizers of promoting blasphemy, pedophilia, and bestiality and of attacking Christian values. Furthermore, because funding for this exhibition came from tax exemptions, its opponents accused the promoters of using public money to promulgate morally detrimental ideas. The campaign used a broad repertoire of tactics: protests at the doors of the cultural center, boycotts of its sponsors, and a carefully orchestrated online campaign in which millions of social media users shared videos, memes, and posts. Less than a month after its inauguration, the exhibition was cancelled.
Other targeted activism campaigns sought to influence public policy debates. For instance, in parallel with the Queermuseu campaign, in October 2017, another campaign was launched to influence the National Congress as it discussed a legal framework for mobile transportation apps such as Uber.13 Various YouTube channels and Facebook pages that gained prominence during the impeachment campaign called for people to mobilize against the regulation of these transportation services. This campaign used a similar variety of tactics, including online petitions and strategies for constituencies to put pressure on their parliamentarians through emails and telephone calls.14 The final version of the law, approved in February 2018, included several changes to the initial proposal in line with the campaign’s demands.
Electoral campaigns also rely on this reserve army of targeted activists. In the 2018 elections, much of the anti–Workers Party rhetoric that fueled the impeachment protests was used to promote the successful Bolsonaro presidential candidacy and candidates for other offices throughout the country. In general terms, supporters of Bolsonaro were not affiliated with a political party. In fact, as mentioned above, antipartisan feelings ran very high. Yet Bolsonaro’s supporters became intensively active, online and offline, in campaigning for their candidate and for candidates that supported him.
Opponents of Bolsonaro argued that much of his visibility came from the use of automated technologies that threatened the integrity of the electoral process. In response, when Bolsonaro took office on January 1, 2019, one of his supporters tweeted a taunt: “Go on thinking about robots and underestimating the adversaries. We appreciate it.” In fact, the Bolsonaro camp successfully used a mix of automated strategies and an army of supporters that formed “cyborg networks”—both machine- and human-based.15 For these supporters, many of whom had become politically active during the impeachment protests, elections were an opportunity to continue to exercise influence, and new technologies provided a channel for their voices to be heard.
For those who had rallied around Rousseff, the aftermath of the impeachment was a period of reorganization and resistance. These protesters also engaged in targeted activism, but of a defensive nature, attempting to avoid what they perceived as a process of erosion of rights and setbacks. They launched a series of countercampaigns aimed more at defending existing rights and policies than at expanding them—for instance, the campaigns against censorship (launched in the context of the abovementioned Queermuseu campaign) and against specific public policy changes, such as the proposal to loosen antislavery norms put forward by Temer in 2017. Furthermore, for at least some of these protesters, the most relevant goal after the impeachment was to mobilize against the government’s threat to arrest and imprison former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (popularly known as “Lula”). When Lula was indeed imprisoned in April 2018, the mobilization shifted into organizing a campaign to free him.
In the context of the 2018 presidential elections, one good example of targeted activism was the mobilization around the #elenão (#nothim) campaign, which sought to unite women in opposition to the Bolsonaro candidacy by focusing on women’s rights. This campaign was launched on social media first and later spilled into the streets. It started on Facebook a few weeks before the first round of the presidential elections and quickly recruited 1 million participants. A month later, the campaign organized one of the largest women-rights protests in the history of the country and the first to focus on the opposition to a specific presidential candidate.16
As in the case of institutionalization, the targeted activism pathway is not a new one. The Brazilian experience highlights the impact of social media use on such targeted forms of activism. Social media platforms facilitate collaboration among activists, whether or not they are affiliated with organizations, and enable activists to participate in various short-term activist initiatives simultaneously.17 Such segmented activism builds on different network structures than past collective action. Organizations remain relevant, but looser ties among actors play a greater role than in previous instances of collective action.18
In the aftermath of Rousseff’s impeachment, the first two pathways—institutionalization and targeted activism—were the favored options for those who felt empowered by their ability to achieve important political changes. Political inaction is a more common pathway when protesters feel that their voices remained unheard and their demands unmet, as in the case of those who mobilized against the impeachment. In the immediate aftermath of the impeachment, these activists were unable to maintain previous mobilization levels. Feelings of impotency and outrage dominated activists from this political camp, who felt tired and frustrated after nearly two years of a contentious, polarizing dispute.
In her survey of mostly center-left participants in a previous cycle of protests in Brazil (which happened in June 2013), Marcela Canavarro showed that, during those protests, the predominant feelings were of hope and excitement. However, by 2017—that is, after the impeachment—survey respondents argued that these emotions had changed to being ones of frustration, impotency, sadness, and outrage.19 This explains why a significant number of protesters disengaged after the impeachment. Even as one part of Brazilian civil society became more politically active as a result of the protests, another part withdrew from activism.
The case of Brazil’s 2016 impeachment campaign sheds light on ways in which protest cycles may have long-lasting impacts. It also shows that participation in protests, party activism, and electoral campaigning are not mutually exclusive forms of action. They may complement each other, as protesters leave the streets but remain politically active or even engage in formal politics for the first time.
In Brazil, as in other countries around the world, contemporary protests have been marked by the rise of right-wing actors. The impeachment campaign was both the result of this rise and a driver of right-wing actors’ further empowerment. They were not, however, the only ones in the streets. The protest cycle of 2015–2016 was characterized by massive demonstrations in favor of and against the ousting of Rousseff, in a polarizing clash between right- and left-wing actors that led to important changes in the political system.
The most important pathways that proimpeachment protesters took after the protests were those of institutionalization and targeted activism. Protests effectively opened the way for emerging political leaders, who went on to become highly successful candidates in the 2018 elections. However, the pathway of institutionalization tells us only part of the story. Much of the network of protesters remained latent, becoming active in specific moments and around specific issues.
This trend helps to explain the outcome of the elections: the highly successful performance of various organizations, individuals, and political groups that had helped to organize the impeachment campaign and the defeat of traditional parties and long-standing political leaders.
For the protesters who mobilized against Rousseff’s impeachment, the most popular pathways in its aftermath were either inaction or a defensive type of targeted activism. In the case of the latter, the campaigns they launched aimed at avoiding further losses and setbacks. In the context of the 2018 elections, many who had become disillusioned were active in political campaigns, but others stepped back from political engagement.
After three years, the protesters who took to the streets in favor of the impeachment of Rousseff had accumulated multiple victories in quick succession. It remains to be seen, however, whether they will be able to stay united in the new political context of the Bolsonaro presidency. The coalition between promarket and conservative sectors likely will be shaken by contentious debates over issues like pension reform, security policies, and the religious agenda of the evangelical caucus. For the anti-impeachment camp, the future is also uncertain. This will remain a period of reorganization and resistance, and the ability of the opposition to Bolsonaro to mobilize on the streets and on social media will shape the country’s political future. Three years later, the effects of the protests that led to the impeachment of Rousseff are still being felt in Brazil’s politics.
Marisa von Bülow is a professor of political science at the University of Brasília and is the coordinator of the research group Rethinking Society-State Relations (Resocie). She is the author of several books and articles on civil society, digital activism, and transnational networks.
The author thanks the members of the research group on Rethinking Society-State Relations at the University of Brasília, Marcela Canavarro, Kersty McCourt, Richard Youngs, and the other members of the Carnegie Civic Research Network for their comments on an earlier draft.
1 Tayrine Dias, “‘É uma batalha de narrativas’: os enquadramentos de ação coletiva em torno do impeachment de Dilma Rousseff no Facebook” [“It’s a battle of narratives”: The collective action frameworks surrounding Dilma Rousseff's impeachment on Facebook] (masters’ thesis, University of Brasília, Brazil, 2017).
2 Public opinion polls in March 2018 showed that almost 70 percent of respondents were in favor of impeachment. See, for example, “68% apoiam impeachment de Dilma, diz pesquisa Datafolha” [68% support Dilma impeachment, says Datafolha survey], Globo, March 19, 2016, http://g1.globo.com/politica/noticia/2016/03/68-apoiam-impeachment-de-dilma-diz-pesquisa-datafolha.html.
3 Ângela Alonso and Ann Mische, “Changing Repertoires and Partisan Ambivalence in the New Brazilian Protests,” Bulletin of Latin American Research 36, no. 2 (2016): 144–159.
4 Danniel Gobbi, “Identidade em ambiente virtual: uma análise da rede Estudantes Pela Liberdade” [Identity in a virtual environment: An Analysis of the Students for Liberty network] (masters’ thesis, University of Brasília, Brazil, 2016).
5 Regionaldo Prandi and Renan William dos Santos, “Quem tem medo da bancada evangélica? Posições sobre política e moralidade no eleitorado brasileiro, no Congresso Nacional e na Frente Parlamentar Evangélica” [Who’s afraid of the evangelical bench? Positions on politics and morality in the Brazilian electorate, the National Congress, and the Evangelical Parliamentary Front], Tempo Social 29, no. 2 (2017): 187–214.
6 Naara Luna, “Aborto no Congresso Nacional: o enfrentamento de atores religiosos e feministas em um Estado laico” [Abortion in the National Congress: confronting religious and feminist actors in a secular state], Revista Brasileira de Ciência Política, 14 (2014): 83–109.
7 At the time of the protests, there were thirty-three official political parties in Brazil.
8 Matheus Schardosim Gorges, “A formação de novos partidos e o caso do Partido Novo: o que há de novo no Partido Novo?” [The formation of new parties and the case of the New Party: What’s new in the New Party?], (masters’ thesis, Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, 2017).
9 Interview with elected councilwoman Júlia Lucy, Brasília, D.F., November 2018.
10 In the 2018 elections, the chamber had a 51 percent turnover rate, the highest since 2004, and the senate had an amazing 85 percent turnover rate—the highest in the history of the Brazilian National Congress. Traditional parties lost seats to parties that previously had little representation. The state-level legislatures experienced similar electoral results.
11 Dan Mercea and Marco Bastos talk about “serial transnationalists” in their analysis about digital transnational activism. See Dan Mercea and Marco T. Bastos, “Being a Serial Transnational Activist,” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication (2016), doi:10.1111/jcc4.12150.
12 Marisa von Bülow, “The Empowerment of Conservative Civil Society in Brazil,” in The Mobilization of Conservative Civil Society, ed. Richard Youngs (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2018),16.
13 Project #28 of 2017.
14 Carolina Bandeira de Brito Melo, “Redes de movimentos sociais e estado: o caso do Movimento Brasil Livre (MBL)” [Social movement networks and the state: The case of the Free Brazil Movement (MBL)] (masters’ thesis, Federal University of Piaui, Brazil, 2019).
15 Marisa von Bülow, A era das redes ciborgue, na campanha e no governo [The age of cyborg networks, campaign and government], 2019, available at www.institutodademocracia.org.
16 Maria Alice Ferreira and Matheus Baccarin, “Mulheres contra Bolsonaro: análise de redes do movimento #elenão e a produção de narrativas no Twitter” [Women against Bolsonaro: network analysis of the #nothim movement and the production of narratives on Twitter] (paper presented at the Compolitica Conference, May 2019, http://ctpol.unb.br/compolitica2019/GT5/gt5_Ferreira_Pereira.pdf).
17 von Bülow, “The Empowerment of Conservative Civil Society in Brazil.”
18 Mark Granovetter, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” American Journal of Sociology 78, no. 6 (1973): 1,360–1,380; and W. Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg, The Logic of Connective Action: Digital Media and the Personalization of Contentious Politics (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
19 Marcela Canavarro, “Political Mobilization in Brazil from 2013 to 2017: A Technopolitical Analysis Using Surveys and Social Network Data Mining” (Ph.D. diss., Universidade do Porto, Portugal, 2019).