With Rousseff's Survival in Doubt, Eyes Turn to Brazil Protests

  • Legislators watching turnout to gauge support for impeachment
  • Detention of ex-President Lula inflamed passions on both sides

Hundreds of thousands of Brazilians are gearing up to march in Sunday’s anti-government protests, which could tip the balance against President Dilma Rousseff in her struggle to remain in office.

As of Friday evening, more than 360,000 people had signed up on a Facebook page pledging to take part in opposition marches, a 20 percent increase from Thursday morning. Protests are scheduled for hundreds of cities throughout Brazil with smaller demonstrations planned for more than a dozen countries, including the U.S., France and Australia.

Many Brazilians say they have had enough after enduring the worst recession in decades and a corruption scandal involving politicians and business executives known as Lava Jato, or Carwash in English. The outburst of public sentiment will be decisive for legislators debating whether to remain loyal to the president or join a swelling opposition seeking her impeachment, said Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

“If the protests are massive, they will increase pressure on the government and make impeachment more likely,” he said.

Possible Confrontations

But it’s not just critics of the government who are taking to the streets, as supporters of Rousseff’s Workers’ Party, known at the PT, also are planning demonstrations this month against the impeachment process. They also will show support for party co-founder and Rousseff’s predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who was briefly detained by federal police early this month and charged by prosecutors this week with money laundering and providing false testimony. He denies any wrongdoing.

Lula’s legal troubles have increased polarization in Brazil, with his detractors and supporters clashing in recent days outside his home in Sao Paulo. Following televised images of the two sides engaged in shoving matches and fist fights, the PT changed the date for its demonstration to March 18 so it wouldn’t coincide with anti-government marches.

“People are free to do what they want, and if they want to protest they have the right,” said PT leader Rui Falcao. “We just ask that they avoid confrontations.”

Yet nearly half of respondents in an Ipsos public opinion poll expect Sunday’s protests to have some level of violence. Travel risk firm International SOS warned people to avoid the demonstrations altogether.

Political Troubles

While a weak turnout may reduce the impetus for impeachment in Congress, it’s unlikely to put an end to Rousseff’s political troubles. The country’s top electoral court is investigating whether she illegally funded her re-election campaign in 2014, and magazine IstoE this month reported allegations that she tried to interfere with Carwash investigations. She has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.

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.

To make matters even more challenging for the president, signs are emerging that her coalition in Congress is beginning to crumble. Her biggest allied party, known as the PMDB, will hold its national convention on Saturday and is expected to tell members they are free to vote however they wish, even against the president on impeachment. A smaller party, the PSB, already joined the opposition this month.

Prompt Vote

Rousseff’s supporters in Congress in recent days have been advocating a prompt vote on impeachment, with her deputy leader in the lower house, Silvio Costa, saying they still have enough votes to defeat the measure. Lower house speaker Eduardo Cunha, who accepted the impeachment request in December, said he would restart the process next week after the Supreme Court clarifies some technical questions on voting.

Fleischer of the University of Brasilia agreed that timing could be key, saying the longer the impeachment process languishes in Congress, the more average Brazilians will feel the effects of economic downturn.

Yet the political crisis is deepening faster than expected, meaning the odds that Rousseff will survive politically are diminishing, analysts at political consulting company Eurasia Group wrote Friday.

"In light of fresh Lava Jato evidence, and the possibility of huge turnout at upcoming anti-government protests, we are raising the odds of Rousseff’s ouster from 55 percent to 65 percent," they wrote.

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