I've been in Maputo for the last few days, working with colleagues at IESE on some research into the riots that brought this city to a standstill in 2010. This work is part of a four-country comparative study of the 'moral economy' that underlies efforts to secure accountability for hunger, whether through institutionalised lobbying or through 'unruly' popular political action. Rather than Maputo's own riots, however, much of my time here has been has been spent talking to puzzled Mozambican colleagues about the massive wave of protests that has surged across Brazil.
My Mozambican friends can understand a protest being triggered by a bus fare increase - after all, it wasn't only the price of bread but also a rise in the cost of the chapas (semi-formal minibus routes on which most urban Mozambicans depend to get to work) that set off the 2010 riots here, and threatened to do so again when another fare increase was brought in last year. The potential for anger at police brutality to intensify popular mobilisation, as happened in São Paulo in the initial phase of the Brazilian protests, is another familiar feature here. And they recognise that anger at corruption - another key issue for Brazil's protestors - was a factor in the Maputo riots in 2010, and may yet trigger more violent protests here, as a tiny elite continues to hoard the rewards from Mozambique's mining and energy boom.
But many Mozambicans are perplexed by the other apparent triggers of the Brazilian protests Why do the protestors seem to hate the Workers' Party (PT), when under the recent PT governments Brazil has achieved 'zero hunger'? Why are they so critical of public health and education, when the country's expansion of access to these services is the envy of many countries in Africa and beyond? Surely Brazil's recent programme of infrastructure investment is as necessary as that on which Mozambique has itself recently embarked, with Brazilian as well as Chinese assistance? And surely Brazil - unlike Mozambique - has a flourishing democracy in which the state has pioneered many new ways of listening to citizens, so that they don't have to take to the streets in frustration? Or is Brazilian participatory democracy actually not all it's cracked up to be?
Here, Brazilian democratic innovations such as participatory budgeting and local policy councils have become part of the good governance packages promoted by the donor community. The need for democratic reform in Mozambique has never been more apparent as a standoff between the government and the opposition party (and former guerrilla movement) Renamo turns dangerously violent, and the tensions that triggered the 2010 riots continue to build in the street markets, chapa stops and back alleys of Maputo. Brazil is ever more visible in and from Mozambique, thanks to a growing presence in the country that ranges from evangelical pastors and mining companies to soybean farmers and social movement activists. As Camila Asano has argued in a recent OpenDemocracy article, democratic Brazil 'is in many crucial ways in a stronger position than its fellow emerging powers to achieve great things on the international stage'. It thus seems enviably placed to set an example for the future of democracy in Mozambique - but which example, exactly?
Working on both sides of the equation
Looking at Brazil from Mozambique, I'm reminded of the work of our former IDS colleague John Gaventa, who argued that efforts to promote democracy should include 'working both sides of the equation', and who led a decade of work under the Development Research Centre on Citizenship, Participation and Accountability which reached the conclusion that successful democratic change depended on 'blurring the boundaries' between citizen and state. Brazil was a model case, one to be looked to and learned from by anyone interested in a democratic future for countries like Mozambique. Now it seems to me that these protests represent the boiling-over of a frustration that derives from failures on both sides of the Brazilian democratic equation - and that they reveal how blurred boundaries have given way to a new divide.
Since the country's post-dictatorship 'Citizens' Constitution' came into effect in 1988, the Brazilian state, with leadership often coming from the PT, has promoted an unprecedented series of participatory and deliberative innovations. These have deepened and broadened engagement, and successfully kept a democratic conversation going despite the country's vast size, glaring inequalities, endemic violence and corrupt electoral politics.
On the other 'side of the equation', since the mass mobilisations that marked the transition from dictatorship to democracy in the 1980s, Brazil's citizenry has opted for forms of collective action that could be linked with,though never confined to, an ongoing process of institutionalised dialogue with the state. Unruly political actions by marginalised groups - ranging from peasants' land occupations to the invasion of government buildings by bow-and-arrow-wielding indigenous warriors - have continued throughout this period. But they have usually been deployed not as a denial of democratic dialogue but rather as a tactic to force the state to engage more fully in it, and to challenge the use of economic, bureaucratic and political power to close down its possibilities.
The latest protests have broken with this logic in two important ways: they have been led not by the hyper-marginalised rural poor but by middle-class urban youth, and they have systematically denied the legitimacy of institutionalised democratic engagement (whether through political parties or through formally-structured social movement organisations) as a means of converting popular political energy into policy change.
So what has happened and what does it mean for Brazil and other countries? In the next couple of days I will aim to reflect on those questions through a short series of blogs, analysing what has happened on both sides of the democracy equation in Brazil.
Alex Shankland is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.
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The Participation, Power and Social Change (PPSC) team at IDS works in partnership with diverse collaborators from around the world to generate ideas and action for social change.