Brazil government regroups after huge protests

A day after massive demonstrations urging the ouster of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, her chief of staff on Monday acknowledged popular discontent with the country's political class but said the flagging economy was the main reason behind the protests' high turnout.

Jacques Wagner's comments, made in a news conference that followed a meeting early Monday between Rousseff and her closest advisers, were among the government's first official attempt to explain what top newspapers here have described as the largest political demonstration in Brazilian history.

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An estimated 3 million people are thought to have taken part in more than 100 protests nationwide, meaning Sunday's anti-Rousseff demonstrations were larger than mass protests in 1984 demanding direct presidential elections amid the country's military dictatorship, according to the respected Folha de S. Paulo daily.

Analysts agree that Sunday's protests represent a strong demonstration of dissatisfaction that only complicates Rousseff's already difficult position. She's fighting impeachment proceedings in Congress amid the worst recession in decades and a sprawling corruption investigation closing in on key figures in her Workers' Party.

"The fact is that Sunday can be seen as a watershed moment, which frightens the government (and) pressures Congress," Folha said in an editorial on Monday. "Surprised by the strong turnout on Sunday, the government has been put on alert that it needs to act quickly" to avoid Rousseff's impeachment.

Lower house Speaker Eduardo Cunha, a Rousseff foe, is expected to form a commission to begin impeachment proceedings sometime this week.

Wagner said the government was interpreting the Sunday's high turnout as a sign "the people are sick and tired of the political class."

While he added that "everything contributed" to pushing people onto the streets, "the main thing is people's lives, meaning the economy."

"If everything is great, citizens aren't even looking," he is quoted as saying by Globo television network's G1 Internet portal.

Although she's seen her approval ratings dip into the single digits, Rousseff has categorically ruled out resigning, saying last week it was objectionable to demand the resignation of an elected president without concrete evidence the leader had violated the constitution.

The government hopes that pro-government demonstrations scheduled for Friday will help shore up Rousseff's position.

Still, in a statement Monday, the U.S.-based Eurasia Group political and economic risk consulting firm put at 65 percent the probability that Rousseff will not serve out her term, which ends in 2018.

"We now think an impeachment vote will occur by May, and Rousseff will not survive it," the statement said.

The statement said Sunday's turnout was fanned by the "ballooning" Petrobras corruption probe and the "highly polarized environment" after the police action earlier this month that saw Rousseff's predecessor and mentor, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, spirited to a Sao Paulo police station to answer questions in the Petrobras investigation.

Among other issues, federal investigators were trying to determine if Silva sold his influence in the current administration in exchange for speeches and donations to his nonprofit foundation Instituto Lula.

The more than 100-page transcript of Silva's questioning was released on Monday. In it, Silva denies having asked for money for his foundation from any of the construction companies ensnared in the Petrobras scandal but acknowledged that his aides may have made such requests. In the document, Silva also explicitly states his intention of running for office again in 2018.

Last week, Sao Paulo state prosecutors filed money laundering charges against Silva and requested that he be provisionally detained in a separate probe. But the judge decided Monday it was not up to her to rule on the matter and sent it to the federal judge in the southern city of Curitiba that's heading the so-called "Car Wash" investigation into corruption at Petrobras.

The Workers' Party meanwhile is pressing for Silva to accept a Cabinet post in Rousseff's government. Rousseff has said she would be "extremely proud" to have Silva, who supporters say could prove crucial to helping Rousseff remain afloat.

Critics suggest the offer is aimed at shielding the once-wildly popular former leader from imprisonment on any charges. Under Brazilian law, only the Supreme Court can authorize the investigation, imprisonment and trial of Cabinet members.

Silva has repeatedly insisted he has not committed any wrongdoing and suggests the probes are part of a political smear campaign.

Sunday's demonstrations, overwhelmingly comprised of the white, older middle-class people who have railed against Rousseff for years, may have weakened the government but they don't seem to have strengthened the opposition. The crowd in Sao Paulo, where the respected Datafolha polling agency estimated turnout at half a million people, booed opposition politician Aecio Neves, who narrowly lost to Rousseff in the 2014 presidential run-off.

No major incidents were reported in Sunday's protests. The government highlighted "the peaceful character" of the demonstrations in a statement late Sunday, saying they underscored "the maturity of a country that knows how to co-exist with different opinions and knows how to secure respect to its laws and institutions."

 

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