BRASILIA/SAO PAULO • Protests erupted in several Brazilian cities on Wednesday after President Dilma Rousseff named her predecessor, Mr Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, chief of staff, and a taped conversation fed opposition claims that the move was meant to shield Mr Lula from prosecution for corruption.
In the capital, Brasilia, riot police fired pepper spray at more than 5,000 demonstrators who filled the streets outside the presidential palace and Congress building. They waved banners calling for the leftist leader's resignation and Mr Lula's arrest.
Thousands more demonstrators packed the main Avenue Paulista in financial hub Sao Paulo, which was the centre of national protests on Sunday that drew more than one million people onto the streets in a call for Ms Rousseff's departure.
With Brazil's economy mired in its worst recession in a generation, popular anger at Ms Rousseff is mounting as an investigation into bribes and political kickbacks at state oil company Petrobras taints her inner circle.
Her appointment of Mr Lula, who was charged last week with money laundering and fraud as part of the probe, was slammed by opposition parties as a desperate attempt to rally support in Congress against impeachment proceedings due to start on Thursday.
Mr Lula, a 70-year-old former union leader whose 2003-2010 government helped lift some 40 million Brazilians out of poverty, remains one of Brazil's most influential politicians. But the corruption investigation has weakened his sway in Congress and there are growing signs that Ms Rousseff's main coalition partner is preparing to abandon the government.
"Brazil cannot continue with them any more," said Mr Rubens Bueno, one of dozens of opposition lawmakers who interrupted a session with chants for Ms Rousseff to resign. "They are using their positions to stay in power at all cost."
Ms Rousseff is betting on Mr Lula's political prowess to save her from a spiralling crisis. The two leftists, who have led Brazil for the past 13 years, are both fighting for their political lives, and news that they were teaming up again in the government deeply divided Brazil.
Allies call Mr Lula the only man capable of saving Ms Rousseff's embattled administration, but opponents condemn the fact that ministerial immunity will now protect him from prosecution in ordinary court. Cabinet ministers can only be tried before the Supreme Court in Brazil.
The appointment is a risky bet for Ms Rousseff, who is battling crises on multiple fronts: an impeachment attempt, a deep recession, mass protests and the fallout of an explosive corruption scandal at state oil giant Petrobras.
The hurried publication of Mr Lula's appointment in a special edition of the government's official gazette on Wednesday gave him immunity from all but the Supreme Court, delaying any attempts to prosecute him.
The federal judge overseeing the graft probe said in a court filing released on Wednesday that taped telephone conversations showed Mr Lula and Ms Rousseff considered trying to influence prosecutors and courts in favour of the former president. He admitted, however, there was no evidence they actually carried this out.
The former president's return to Brasilia was overshadowed on Tuesday by the release of plea bargain testimony from Senator Delcidio do Amaral, who alleged Mr Lula and Ms Rousseff knew about the graft scheme at Petrobras and one of her ministers had tried to buy his silence.
Mr Lula, Ms Rousseff and her ministers have denied any wrongdoing.