Brazil's President Rousseff pushes plebiscite amid new protests

BRASILIA, Brazil (AFP) - Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff met on Thursday her allies and the opposition to work out details of a plebiscite on political reform as street protests flared anew, albeit on a smaller scale.

After talks with Justice Minister Eduardo Cardozo, Ms Rousseff began receiving members of her leftist ruling coalition. She was due also to meet with top lawmakers later in the day.

The series of meetings came as thousands of demonstrators massed outside Ceara State University in the north-eastern city of Fortaleza, where Spain were to face Italy in a Confederations Cup semi-final.

"Get ready, it's time to change the history of our country," read one banner.

The mass demonstrations, which began more than two weeks ago against a background of anemic economic growth and rising inflation, coincide with the Confederations Cup - a dry run for the 2014 World Cup, which Brazil will host for the first time since 1950.

Protesters are clamouring for better public services and tougher penalties against corrupt politicians. They are also angry about the US$15 billion (S$19.3 billion) Brasilia spent to host the two high-profile football tournaments.

Feeling the heat from the streets, Congress has been rushing through a series of bills that had been kept on hold for years.

The Senate has backed tougher penalties on corruption. It also scrapped a proposed constitutional amendment that sought to curb the investigative powers of independent public prosecutors.

The Supreme Court meanwhile ordered the detention of lawmaker Natan Donadon, who was sentenced to 13 years in jail in 2010 for embezzlement - the first such move in 25 years.

In other concessions to the protesters, the House of Deputies backed a Bill that would allocate 75 per cent of oil royalties to education and 25 per cent to health.

The Bill now goes to the Senate, but some of the articles could face a presidential veto as Ms Rousseff said she wanted 100 per cent of the revenues to go to education.

The government also announced plans to create 35,000 jobs in the public-health sector, open to Brazilian doctors, but also foreigners if necessary.

Some 12,000 medical experts are also to be trained in priority sectors.

The plebiscite proposed by Ms Rousseff would be non-binding and allow for debate of several issues, including election campaign finance and the voting system.

"The government believes that the people must be heard," said Education Minister Aloizio Mercadante, defending the plebiscite idea.

But opposition parties have made it clear they think it is up to Congress to craft a political reform which the electorate can then approve or reject in a referendum.

"First, the President must send to Congress what she views as a good political reform," Senator Aecio Neves, president of the opposition Brazilian Social Democratic Party, told the daily O Globo.

"The plebiscite is an improvised response by the President to tackle very complex issues which are the responsibility of Congress," he added.

Leaders of the Senate and the House of Deputies - both members of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, which is part of the ruling coalition - have endorsed the idea of a plebiscite, and the government hopes to submit a concrete proposal to Congress next Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the death toll from the more than two weeks of social turmoil rose to five on Thursday, when a 21-year-old man died in hospital a day after he fell from an overpass during a demonstration in Belo Horizonte.

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