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Analysis: The World Cup's political fallout

If Brazil's games are mismanaged, President Dilma Rousseff could face serious political consequences this autumn.

Last updated: 16 Jun 2014 06:38
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Many Brazilians are unhappy with their country's hosting of the World Cup [Jillian Kestler D'Amours/Al Jazeera]

Sao Paulo, Brazil - While Brazilians raucously cheered for their home team as it kicked off the World Cup with a victory over Croatia, they reserved a special welcome for President Dilma Rousseff during the opening ceremony, greeting her with resounding jeers and boos.

For many Brazilians - football fans included - the festivities remain marred by anger and resentment over what they see as government over-spending, misplaced priorities and broken promises.

"I wanted the government to do something good, but they didn't finish anything: not airports, not stadiums, not infrastructure, nothing," said 59-year-old Juan Jose Rodriguez, an El Salvador native who has lived in Brazil for nearly 40 years.

Rodriguez came to Sao Paulo to cheer on Brazil during its opening game on June 12, but quickly admitted that he didn't want the national team to succeed. "With all my heart, I don't want [Brazil] to win. The government plays a game with the people; [if] people are happy, they forget," he said.

"The protests have to continue. Brazil really needs to show up and show itself. We're fed up with everything. The government is going to pay for [this]."

The World Cup's political effects

With the World Cup coming just months before Brazilian presidential elections in October, the "beautiful game" could indeed have serious political ramifications for the country of more than 200 million people.

If something goes very wrong in the organisation of the Cup … then this could be used by the opposition to charge the government,

- Carlos Eduardo Lins da Silva, political scientist

"[It depends on] the perception that people will have on the efficacy of the government... If things don't go well, people can go against the government, saying [it is] incompetent," said Fernando Guarnieri, a political science researcher at the University of Sao Paulo's Comparative and International Studies Research Centre.

Guarnieri told Al Jazeera that Rousseff - who has been in power since 2010, when she took over from Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, popularly known simply as Lula - would benefit most if the tournament runs smoothly. "If we don't have chaos in Brazil … I think people will have a positive image of the president," he said.

But a Datafolha poll published on June 6 found that Rousseff's support had fallen to 34 percent from 44 percent in February. Rousseff's two biggest competitors, Aecio Neves of the Social Democracy Party and Eduardo Campos of the Brazilian Socialist Party, recorded 19 percent and seven percent support, respectively.

According to Datafolha's Research Director Alessandro Janoni, 30 percent of Brazilian voters have no preferred presidential candidate. This level of voter uncertainty is the highest in Brazil's history, and is linked to dissatisfaction with government planning around the World Cup, Janoni told Al Jazeera.

"Now what we feel is a social Maracana," he said, referring to the stadium in Rio de Janeiro where Brazil infamously lost to Uruguay 2-1 in the finals of the 1950 World Cup. The loss is still seen by most Brazilians as a source of national shame. "The Brazilian people were expecting too much [from] the World Cup, and what the government and FIFA delivered to the Brazilian people isn't what they expected. [It's] like the Maracana."

But Brazilian political scientist Carlos Eduardo Lins da Silva explained that historically, there has been an inverse relationship between how well the national team does at the World Cup, and how the ruling party fares at the polls.

"In 2002, Brazil won the Cup and then-President Cardoso's candidate was defeated in the October election. In 2006 and 2010, Brazil was not the champion, and then-President Lula was re-elected [2006] and his candidate [Rousseff] was elected [2010]," da Silva told Al Jazeera over email.

He said that he didn't expect on-the-field results to affect the October elections, but emphasised that events outside the stadiums could have an impact. "If something goes very wrong in the organisation of the Cup … then this could be used by the opposition to charge the government," da Silva said.

Widespread discontent

Rousseff has defended the $11.5bn spent on building stadiums and World Cup-related infrastructure in the 12 host cities, and she has promised to investigate any corruption charges.

What the polls are saying is that people are very upset with politics, with the political system, with political parties.

- Arthur Ituassu, professor of social communication at Pontificia Universida de Catolica

"Beneath those green and canary jerseys, you embody a powerful legacy of the Brazilian people. The national team represents nationality," said Rousseff, in a televised speech on June 10 meant to bolster national support for the tournament. "It's above governments, parties and interests of any group."

But according to a Pew Research poll published on June 3, about six in 10 Brazilians believed that hosting the World Cup was a bad decision, sucking up money that could instead have been used for social services like healthcare and education.

The survey also found that a majority of respondents disapproved of how the president was handling major issues, including corruption, crime, public transportation, and World Cup preparations, while 72 percent of Brazilians were dissatisfied with the running of the country as a whole.

Despite the criticism and the poor public perception of the World Cup, Rousseff is still considered the frontrunner leading up to the October election. Just over half of people in the Pew poll held a favourable view of her, compared to only 27 percent in favour of Aecio Neves, and 24 percent in support of Eduardo Campos.

'An incredible, historical opportunity'

According to Arthur Ituassu, a professor in the department of social communication at Pontificia Universida de Catolica in Rio de Janeiro, the World Cup has made it impossible for the government to ignore the country's long-standing social problems. It has also encouraged Brazilian workers to push for more rights.

"What we have now is a very legitimate political strategy, in the sense that you have some professional categories doing strikes and protesting against the World Cup as a way to receive some benefits," Ituassu told Al Jazeera. "What the polls are saying is that people are very upset with politics, with the political system, with political parties," he added.

But so far, the pressure coming from Brazil's streets has failed to achieve any concrete gains.

"On one hand, you have those who are in charge who cannot even understand what is going on, and are doing business as usual… On the other hand, you have people who are unhappy with terrible social problems and [have been] unable, so far, to converge on a political platform," said Carlos Vainer, a professor at the Urban and Regional Planning and Research Institute at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

"This is an incredible, historical opportunity - but also, the game is not over."

Follow Jillian Kestler-D'Amours on Twitter: @jkdamours

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Al Jazeera
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