BRASILIA (Reuters) - When a Brazilian newspaper reported last month that President Dilma Rousseff had gone for a nighttime spin incognito around the capital on the back of an aide’s Harley-Davidson, her favorable mentions soared on social media.
It was just what Rousseff needed after a bad couple of months: She had been booed at an international soccer match and at a gathering of mayors from around the country. Worse still, her popularity tanked following massive street protests against corruption, poor public services and the high cost of living.
The unexpected outburst of anger was aimed at politicians of all stripes and targeted Congress. But it also shook Rousseff’s administration to the core and clouded the prospects for next year’s election, when she is widely expected to run for a second four-year term.
A technocrat with a distaste for the gladhanding of politics, Rousseff quickly gathered her closest advisers, led by her 2010 campaign adviser and pollster João Santana, and drew up a plan to connect more with the public through travel and the Internet, an aide said.
The president responded to the demonstrators’ main demands with a five-point plan to improve public transportation, health and education services, maintain fiscal discipline and reform Brazil’s political system to make it more accountable.
The president has increased the frequency of her trips around Brazil to two or three a week to inaugurate new schools, low-cost housing and infrastructure projects aimed at upgrading and expanding the overcrowded urban transit systems that sparked the first protests in June.
“A government cannot be deaf,” Rousseff, 65, told a crowd on Wednesday in a working-class suburb of Rio de Janeiro where she announced plans to build a new metro line.
Donning a hardhat and orange overalls, she visited a shipyard that is building a production and storage platform to tap Brazil’s huge offshore oil reserves, praising a law she proposed - and Congress quickly passed after the protests - to use royalties to fund education and health programs.
At each stop, Rousseff starts by speaking to local radio stations, a trick borrowed from her charismatic predecessor and political mentor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who remains hugely popular almost three years after leaving office.
Santana “has told her that she has to get out there and beat the bush and expose herself to the people and explain all the good things that she has been doing,” said David Fleischer, a professor of politics at the University of Brasilia.
The results are beginning to show. Rousseff’s approval rating sank from 73.7 percent before the protests to 49.3 percent in July. By last week it had climbed back to 58 percent.
The bump in the polls can partly be explained by the president’s efforts to improve public services in states with a large middle class, such as Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais - the same states that saw the biggest protests in June.
In a nod to the power of the Internet - the protests were mostly organized on social media - Rousseff is also taking her campaign to cyberspace.
Presidential aides said the government plans to revamp its official www.brasil.gov.br website to make it more attractive and user-friendly, providing everything from tax information to a winning lottery number, not just touting government deeds.
Rousseff’s Facebook page will be redesigned, and the president will take to Twitter again, having stopped after winning the 2010 election, they said.
If her poll numbers keep creeping higher, political analysts say Rousseff will kick off the election year with a comfortable level of support and as odds-on favorite among a relatively weak field of potential rivals.
In a recent poll, the number of respondents who said they would vote for Rousseff rose by 3 percentage points from July to 36.4 percent, while support for Aecio Neves, the likely candidate of the main opposition party, PSDB, held steady at 15.2 percent.
Environmentalist Marina Silva, who placed third in 2010, was the only politician to gain ground from June’s protests because she was not identified with the political establishment. However, she is running out of time to register her new party, called the Sustainability Network, by October 5 to be able to run for president again next year.
Cristiano Noronha, a political analyst with consulting firm Arko Advice in Brasilia, said Rousseff’s opponents have failed to capitalize on the political crisis created by the street protests. Still, her reelection will hinge on what matters most, he said: economic performance.
Voters will want to see inflation and unemployment kept under control. The infrastructure concessions and oil contracts to be auctioned in coming weeks will also be crucial for the government to revive investment and confidence in Brazil’s sluggish economy.
A U.S. Federal Reserve decision on Wednesday to taper off monetary stimulus, which hurts emerging economies like India and Brazil, would not help the recovery Rousseff needs, Noronha said.
Editing by Prudence Crowther