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Brazil’s ruling party, born of protests, is perplexed by unrest

Riot police  clashed with protesters who blocked access to the Castelao Stadium in Fortaleza on Wednesday.

ALMEIDA VANDERLEI/AFP/Getty Images

Riot police clashed with protesters who blocked access to the Castelao Stadium in Fortaleza on Wednesday.

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — The protests were heating up on the streets of Brazil’s largest city last week, but the mayor was not in his office. He was not even in the city. He had left for Paris to try to land the 2020 world’s fair — exactly the kind of expensive, international mega-event that demonstrators nationwide have scorned.

A week later, the mayor, Fernando Haddad, 50, was holed up in his apartment as scores of protesters rallied outside and others smashed the windows of his office building, furious that he had refused to meet with them, much less yield to their demand to revoke a contentious bus fare increase.

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How such a rising star in the leftist governing party, someone whose name is often mentioned as a future presidential contender, so misread the national mood reflects the disconnect between a growing segment of the population and a government that prides itself on popular policies aimed at lifting millions out of poverty.

After rising to prominence on the backs of huge protests to usher in democratic rule, the governing Workers Party now finds itself perplexed by the revolt in its midst, watching with dismay as political corruption, bad public services, and the government’s focus on lifting Brazil’s international stature through events like the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics inspire outrage at home.

On Wednesday, tens of thousands protested outside the newly built stadium where Brazil faced off against Mexico in the Confederations Cup, as the police tried to disperse them with tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray. In what would normally be a moment of unbridled national pride, demonstrators held up placards demanding schools and hospitals at the “FIFA standard,” challenging the money Brazil is spending on the World Cup instead of on health care or the poorly financed public schools.

With support for the protests escalating — a new poll by Datafolha found that 77 percent of São Paulo residents approved of them this week, compared with 55 percent the week before — Haddad and Geraldo Alckmin, the governor from an opposition party, bowed Wednesday night, announcing that they would cancel the bus and subway fare increases after all. Other cities, including Rio de Janeiro, have pledged to do the same.

But while the fare increases may have been the spark that incited the protests, it unleashed a much broader wave of frustration that the government has openly acknowledged it did not see coming.

“It would be a presumption to think that we understand what is happening,” Gilberto Carvalho, a top aide to President Dilma Rousseff, told senators Tuesday. “We need to be aware of the complexity of what is occurring.”

The swell of anger is a stunning change from the giddy celebrations that occurred in 2007, when Brazil was chosen by soccer’s governing body to host the World Cup. At the time, dozens of climbers scaled Rio de Janeiro’s Sugar Loaf Mountain, from which they hung an enormous jersey with the words, “The 2014 World Cup is Ours.”

“We are a civilized nation, a nation that is going through an excellent phase, and we have got everything prepared to receive adequately the honor to organize an excellent World Cup,” Ricardo Teixeira, then the president of the Brazilian Football Confederation president, said at the time.

Since then, the sentiment surrounding Brazil’s preparations for the World Cup, and much else overseen by the government, has shifted. Teixeira resigned in 2012, under a cloud of corruption allegations, and while the Brazilian government says it is spending about $12 billion on preparing for the World Cup, most of the stadiums are over budget, according to the government’s own audits court.

The sheen that once clung to the Workers Party has also been tarnished by a vast vote-buying scheme called the mensalão, or big monthly allowance, in a nod to the regular payments some lawmakers received. The scandal resulted in the recent conviction of several of high-ranking officials.

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