Brazil Protesters Assemble as Rousseff's Future Hangs in Balance

Brazilians March in Massive Anti-Government Protests
  • Legislators watching turnout to gauge support for impeachment
  • About a million marched against Rousseff's government

More than one million people marched through cities across Brazil on Sunday to protest political corruption, a weak economy, and to call for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, in a showing that could accelerate efforts to remove her from office.

The protest in Sao Paulo was the largest ever recorded by polling firm Datafolha, surpassing even the 1984 rallies to demand direct presidential elections following the military dictatorship. Other cities also had record turnout, and the 100,000 people in capital city Brasilia was a considerably stronger showing than the four mass protests staged last year, months after Rousseff won re-election to a second term.

Demonstrators mostly clad in the green and yellow of Brazil’s flag carried banners denouncing corruption and calling for Rousseff’s ouster, and sang anti-government songs made famous on social media. The atmosphere was generally festive and free of the violence that some feared if there were confrontations between opposing political groups.

The peaceful nature of Sunday’s protests shows “the maturity of a country that knows how to live with diverging opinions,” and the freedom to protest should be respected, Rousseff’s press office said in an emailed statement.

Ronaldo Cappellesso, a 45-year-old store owner in Brasilia, said it feels like the country has reached a tipping point, with many of his friends protesting for the first time. “Finally I feel that impeachment is actually going to happen,” he said. “Anything is better than what we have now.”

Enough is Enough

Many Brazilians say they have had enough after enduring the worst recession in decades and a rolling corruption scandal known as Lava Jato, or Carwash in English, that has ensnared multiple politicians and business executives. The outpouring of public sentiment will be decisive for legislators debating whether to remain loyal to the president or abandon her ruling coalition, according to Paulo Calmon, a political science professor at the University of Brasilia.

“We’re walking in the middle of a perfect storm, with a high level of uncertainty,” Calmon said. “The feeling is that we’re going to have some kind of definition in the next months or even weeks, which could be removing Rousseff from office or some other political arrangement. That’s what makes 2016 different than 2015.”

Financial markets in recent weeks welcomed the possibility that Brazil’s political crisis could be nearing a conclusion. The real is up 12 percent this month, the best performance among world currencies, and the Ibovespa climbed to the highest level in seven months.

Pressure Builds

Brazil’s political drama is playing out less than five months before the 2016 Olympic Games, the first awarded to a South American country, are due to start in Rio de Janeiro.

Pressure on Rousseff started building in February with the arrest of her campaign strategist and allegations that she tried to interfere with corruption investigations. The political crisis hit a new high with former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s brief detention for questioning on March 4. Both Rousseff and Lula have repeatedly denied wrongdoing.

Patricia Araujo, a 34-year-old lawyer marching in Brasilia, was unconvinced. “Even if she didn’t steal from the country to put money in her bank account, she still benefited from corruption,” Araujo said.

Sergio Moro, the federal judge from the southern state of Parana who’s overseeing the Carwash investigation, was hailed as a hero in almost all the protests. People chanted his name, and some wore t-shirts saying “In Moro we trust.”

‘Beauty of Democracy’

Some opposition politicians sought to capitalize on the dissatisfaction with the government. Senator Aecio Neves, who narrowly lost to Rousseff in the 2014 presidential election, marched with protesters in Sao Paulo, even though he was criticized by some for being “opportunist.”

“This is the beauty of democracy,” Neves said on Twitter. “We’re seeking a way out of this impasse in accordance with the constitution.”

Many protesters blamed Brazil’s recession, heading into its second year, on widespread corruption and bad economic policies. Fatima Santana, a 52-year-old hairdresser in Rio de Janeiro, said her earnings were sharply lower and that the recession is undoing the past gains made by the middle class.

“If things continue the way they’re going, it’s going to be a country of rich and poor,” she said. “The middle class is over.”

Fist Fights

It’s not just critics of the government taking to the streets. Supporters of Rousseff’s Workers’ Party, known at the PT, held some small rallies on Sunday and plan demonstrations this month against the impeachment process. They also will show support for Lula, the party’s co-founder and Rousseff’s predecessor, who was charged this week with money laundering and providing false testimony.

Still, the past two weeks of bad news for Rousseff have led some allies to distance themselves from her government and begin negotiations with the opposition. The March 12 national convention of Rousseff’s largest allied party, known as the PMDB, ended with the threat to fully break away from the ruling coalition next month and step down from cabinet positions in her government.

Adding to Rousseff’s woes, the country’s top electoral court is investigating whether she illegally funded her re-election campaign in 2014, and the magazine IstoE this month reported allegations that she tried to interfere with Carwash investigations.

More politicians and construction executives with ties to Lula and Rousseff are likely to sign plea bargains in coming weeks as part of Carwash, raising the potential for damaging revelations, said David Fleischer, professor emeritus of politics at the University of Brasilia. “The worst is yet to come,” he said.

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