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Rousseff's Popularity Plummets, but She's Still Not a Weak President

Two weeks of massive protests have taken a dramatic toll on Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's approval ratings. According to pollster Datafolha, her approval ratings, as measured by those who evaluate her government to be "excellent" or "great," dropped a whopping 27 percentage points from 57 percent in early June to 30 percent now. Those who evaluate her government to be "bad" or "horrible" grew from 9 percent to 25 percent in the same period, and those who evaluate her government to be "regular" grew from 33 percent to 43 percent.

Does Rousseff's declining popularity mean she now heads a weak government and is headed to defeat in next year's presidential election? Not necessarily. First, any poll taken in the middle of massive protests needs to be taken with a grain of salt, and a better sense of the new equilibrium in voter and public sentiment will emerge as the dust settles.

There are also two other very important points contained in the polling data that counter any conclusion that Rousseff is now a weak president. If Datafolha had conducted a binary poll (approve/disapprove) rather than using a five-point scale, Rousseff's level of support would be around 50 percent rather than 30 percent (which is the total of "great" and "excellent"). Remember, also, that Rousseff's positive numbers are still higher than her negatives (see chart below). And according to data on 200 presidential elections compiled by Ipsos Public affairs, incumbents with that level of support six months prior to the vote win re-election more than 80 percent of the time. Not coincidentally, according to Datafolha, Rousseff continues to lead the pack in a hypothetical presidential race.

What's really going on here is the end of an unusual "supercycle" in Brazilian politics that has rewarded presidents with outsized popularity during the past eight years or so. From 1994 through 2006, "strong" governments had approval ratings that fluctuated between 30 percent and 40 percent. That was the case during former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso's first term (1994 to 1998 -- "FHC" on the chart) and then during former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's first term (2002 to 2006). Both men easily won re-election.

But from 2006 onward, presidential approval ratings skyrocketed to a range of 70 percent to 80 percent. The roots of the phenomenon are well known: Surging economic growth and the expansion of the middle class led to a dramatic increase in living standards for a large swath of the population. Growth slowed during Rousseff's term, but employment and wage growth remained robust. As a result, Rousseff's approval numbers still hit 65 percent in March of this year.

That supercycle is over. Not only is Brazil's economy going to continue to struggle with relatively low growth and higher inflation, but middle-class demands for better services and discontent with perceived government failures have caught up with politicians. Rousseff is still the front-runner in the upcoming presidential election, but Brazilian politics are returning to a more normal state in which opposition candidates will be more competitive.

Christopher Garman heads Eurasia Group's emerging market's practice.

VARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images

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