Crowds march against 'coup' targeting Brazil's president

Members of labour unions hold a demonstration during the National Day of Mobilization against the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. (Andressa Anholete, AFP)
Members of labour unions hold a demonstration during the National Day of Mobilization against the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. (Andressa Anholete, AFP)

Sao Paulo - Supporters of embattled President Dilma Rousseff marched across Brazil on Wednesday protesting what they say is a "coup" aimed at toppling the leftist leader by impeachment.

"There will be no coup!" chanted thousands of marchers in downtown Sao Paulo, most of them wearing the red shirts of Rousseff's Worker's Party (PT).

Pro-government rallies, organized in part by Brazil's powerful labor unions, were also held in other cities including Rio de Janeiro and the capital Brasilia.

"I'm here to protest the political aberration that is seeking to topple a democratically elected president," said attorney Clarise De Almeida, aged 24, who waved a pro-Rousseff placard.

Any talk of "coup" raises the specter of Brazil's 1964-1985 military dictatorship. Rousseff, a former leftist guerrilla, was imprisoned for two years and tortured during the dictatorship.

"It's the elites that want to take power again," added Vera Alice Demetrio, who was wrapped in a flag from Rousseff's last campaign.

"I am a woman who has worked hard, I am an honest woman," Rousseff said at a rally in Brasilia. "I will fight against the illegitimate interruption of my mandate," she said.

Showing his support at the event was Uruguay's popular former president Jose Mujica.

Dueling rally numbers

These are the first pro-government rallies since congressional lower house speaker Eduardo Cunha accepted an opposition request to impeach Rousseff on December 2.

The president is accused of budget maneuvers she says were long accepted by previous governments, but her opponents say are illegal.

Organizers said that nearly 300 000 people marched on Wednesday, though police said the number was closer to 50 000, the news site G1 reported.

For comparison, anti-government protests Sunday were sharply lower than the 2.5 million that marched against government corruption in mid-March: the crowds numbered 83 000, according to police and 407 000, according to protesters.

Rousseff, aged 68, has not even completed the first year of her second term in office and is facing an economy in recession, a fiscal deficit, double-digit inflation and growing unemployment.

Rating agency Fitch cut Brazil's sovereign debt rating to junk status on Wednesday, the second downgrade for the world's seventh economy.

Then there is the Petrobras scandal, which has rocked Brazil to its core.

Contractors working with the state-run oil giant, where Rousseff was once a senior manager allegedly paid bribes to politically connected Petrobras executives in order to land contracts, and the money was then allegedly divvied up with politicians.

Rousseff was cleared of wrongdoing in the Petrobras case, but that has not helped her approval rating, which has sunk to around nine percent.

Adding to the general malaise in this football-mad country, the US probe into FIFA corruption has targeted former Brazilian Football Confederation president Jose Maria Marin and others.

Impeachment ruling

The Supreme Court is set to rule on Thursday on the legality of the commission formed in Congress to recommend whether Rousseff should be removed from office.

Rousseff's allies said the opposition illegally held secret votes, not the usual open ballots to stack the commission with anti-government legislators.

The specialist website Congresso em Foco soon reported that of the 65 lawmakers chosen to the panel, about 30% face criminal probes.

If the high court agrees with the legal challenge, it could tell Congress to re-start the case against Rousseff.

The impeachment case took a dramatic twist Tuesday when police investigating corruption allegations raided the home of the architect of the impeachment drive, house speaker Cunha, who has been accused of taking as much as $40m in bribes and hiding the money in Swiss bank accounts.

Other politicians were also targeted in morning raids, which were ordered by the Supreme Court. A total of 53 search warrants were being executed, police said.

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