BRASILIA (AFP) - Tens of thousands of Brazilians waving the red flags of the ruling Workers' Party demonstrated across the country on Thursday (March 31) against the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff.
The rallies were part of a concerted fight-back by the President, who is reeling in the face of impeachment proceedings for allegedly manipulating government accounts to disguise the depth of Brazil's recession during her 2014 reelection.
Further boosting Ms Rousseff, her chief ally in the spiraling political crisis - fiery ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva - won a major court battle that removes him from the jurisdiction of a crusading anti-corruption judge.
The peaceful pro-Rousseff demonstrators gathered in 31 cities, including Brasilia, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and northern centers like Recife. Although a reliable total estimate was not immediately available, at least 25,000 to 30,000 turned out in Brasilia alone, the police told AFP.
"No to the coup," said one placard popular at the protests. "Democracy", read a large banner at the gathering in Rio, which will host the Olympics in five months, where more than 5,000 people turned out.
In Sao Paulo, Brazil's financial powerhouse, Mr Francisco Ranieri, 50, said he had taken to the streets "because now is the moment".
"The opposition wants to push Dilma from power to end the people's government," added Mr Ranieri, a shopkeeper.
Mr Lula, the hugely influential founder of the Workers' Party and pillar of Brazil's left, had been due to lead the Brasilia rally but cancelled at the last minute. His spokesman did not explain the change in plan.
Just as protesters gathered, Mr Lula won a significant court victory that could help boost Ms Rousseff's cause.
Ms Rousseff has been counting on the well-connected former president to reorganise her flailing administration and lead the fight against impeachment in Congress.
But the leftist heavyweight's comeback has been derailed by corruption charges linked to a huge probe led by federal Judge Sergio Moro into a bribes and embezzlement scheme at state oil company Petrobras.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court issued an interim ruling removing the politically explosive case from Moro and putting it with the high court - a decision expected to give Lula considerable breathing space.
It was a rare victory for Ms Rousseff whose chances of defeating impeachment are thought to have nosedived this week. She has dismissed the impeachment drive as a trumped up campaign that amounts to a slow coup.
On Thursday, she told a group of artists and academics in Brasilia that the accounting tricks she's accused of using illegally were common practice in previous governments.
"If I suffer impeachment, then it means that every previous government should have been impeached too, because all of them, without exception, did the same thing," she said. "I was always respecting the law."
Congress's preliminary impeachment commission is expected to begin deliberations next Tuesday before making a recommendation mid-April.
Its recommendation is non-binding but will set the tone for a vote shortly after by the lower house, where 342 votes out of 513, or two thirds, are needed to launch an impeachment trial in the Senate.
If Ms Rousseff manages to get more than 171 votes she would defeat the measure, but impeachment could also fail through abstentions or deputies not attending so that the 342 figure is not reached.
Until only recently, Ms Rousseff seemed likely to narrowly prevail, despite her unpopularity and the intense hostility of opponents in the increasingly divided country.
But the exit this week from her coalition of the country's biggest party, the centrist PMDB, left her congressional support in tatters.
Loyalists are putting on a brave face, insisting that they can cobble together a new coalition and also target individual congressional deputies, regardless of their party's affiliation.
With seven ministries that had been held by the PMDB and some 580 other posts to hand out, the government hopes it will be able to horse-trade for support.