Massive protests set to shake Brazil

Demonstrators attend a protest against Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff calling for her impeachment, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on March 13, 2016.
Demonstrators attend a protest against Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff calling for her impeachment, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on March 13, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

Nationwide bid to oust unpopular president over graft scandal, management of recession

BRASILIA • Protesters, many draped in the Brazilian national flag, poured into the streets of Brasilia and Rio de Janeiro yesterday at the start of mass demonstrations seeking to bring down President Dilma Rousseff.

More than a million people were expected to turn out across the nation, which will host the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in August. Ms Rousseff, struggling to hold on to power in the face of a massive corruption scandal and the worst recession in decades, has urged demonstrators to remain peaceful.

The largest demonstration was expected in Sao Paulo, the country's financial capital and main opposition stronghold. The authorities said they were bracing themselves for a million protesters. Thousands were already gathering in Rio and Brasilia and organisers said more than 400 cities would participate.

Many protesters in Rio and Brasilia came wearing the national football team jersey or with the yellow and green flag around their shoulders. "I'm demonstrating today because I believe that only my participation can eventually stop the mismanagement of the country's riches," said Mr Marcelo Antunes, 66, an engineer in Rio de Janeiro. "I think all Brazilians need to participate - we can't stand aside."

In the battle to topple Ms Rousseff and her ruling Workers' Party, pressure from the street will be vital, he said.

Ms Rousseff - deeply unpopular because of a giant corruption scandal centred on state oil company Petrobras and because of her management of the recession - faces impeachment in Congress.

HOPING TO STOP MISMANAGEMENT

I'm demonstrating today because I believe that only my participation can eventually stop the mismanagement of the country's riches.

MR MARCELO ANTUNES, an engineer in Rio de Janeiro

Her chief mentor in the leftist Workers' Party, former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is fighting allegations that he was part of the Petrobras corruption network. As if these headaches were not enough, the PMDB party, Ms Rousseff's crucial partner in a shaky government coalition, indicated on Saturday that it could pull out in 30 days.

Criminal charges filed against Mr Lula on Wednesday over his alleged undeclared ownership of a luxury apartment have invigorated the opposition and increased chances for an impressive turnout.

For deputies in Congress of all stripes, crowd size will be a crucial signal for whether or not to push for Ms Rousseff's impeachment.

Congress is mulling over impeachment on the grounds that she allegedly manipulated government accounts so that she could illegally boost public spending during her 2014 re-election campaign.

Ms Rousseff, a former leftist guerrilla tortured under Brazil's dictatorship, insists there is not "the slightest possibility" she will resign. But as pressure builds, she is running out of allies.

Not only is the PMDB threatening to abandon her, but its leader - her Vice-President, Mr Michel Temer - has additional motivation to see impeachment go through because under the Constitution, he would become interim president.

Against that backdrop, Ms Rousseff said she is considering giving Mr Lula a ministerial post. This would put him out of reach of regular criminal courts because sitting politicians can only be judged in the Supreme Court.

But Mr Lula is said to be reluctant, given that such a move would make him an even more hated figure to the opposition, escalating the power struggle.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2016, with the headline 'Massive protests set to shake Brazil'. Print Edition | Subscribe