Rousseff backers take to streets against Brazil 'coup'

Rosa Sulleiro
AFP
Unionists and members of the Workers Party (PT) demonstrate in support of former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Sao Paulo, Brazil on March 18, 2016
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Unionists and members of the Workers Party (PT) demonstrate in support of former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Sao Paulo, Brazil on March 18, 2016 (AFP Photo/Nelson Almeida)

Sao Paulo (AFP) - Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's supporters took to the streets to fight back at attempts to oust her, as a flurry of court battles raged over her controversial cabinet appointment of predecessor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Waving the red flags of the ruling Workers' Party, tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in the country's largest city, Sao Paulo, greeting Lula with thunderous cheers when he was hoisted onto a parked truck to address the crowd.

But the ruling party's nationwide show of force drew less than one-tenth as many people as huge protests Sunday calling for Rousseff's ouster, according to police estimates that put the turnout at 267,000 in 55 cities across Brazil.

The leftist president's camp put the figure much higher, at 1.2 million -- still below the three million police counted Sunday.

With Rousseff fighting a newly relaunched impeachment bid and financial markets apparently betting her government will collapse, the Workers' Party sought to show it still retains the support that made it the dominant force in Brazilian politics over the past 13 years.

Rousseff's move to make her embattled mentor her chief of staff has triggered outrage among opponents, who filed some 50 court cases challenging the nomination over allegations that Lula was seeking ministerial immunity to avoid arrest in an explosive corruption scandal.

A Rio de Janeiro federal court ruling blocking him from taking up his new post was overturned on appeal.

But Brazilian media soon reported that a new federal court injunction suspending the appointment had been leveled.

Dozens of similar challenges are pending, and the Supreme Court has yet to rule on the government's request to definitively settle the matter.

- 'Right-wing coup' -

Rousseff accuses her enemies of mounting a "coup" against her.

Lula, speaking at the rally Friday, told supporters "We won't accept a coup."

"It's absurd what they're doing to Lula, an attack on a person who has done so much for this country and its neediest people," said 53-year-old housewife Maria do Carmo Zafonatto in Sao Paulo, where Lula launched his political career as a union leader in the 1980s.

"This is a coup by the right. That's why I'm here, to defend democracy."

Maria Cicera Salles, a 60-year-old government worker, said "rich people" fear Lula.

"They want to get rid of him because they're afraid he'll run (for president) in 2018 and win. They're massacring him. It's a crime," she told AFP.

No clashes were reported at the demos, which had raised fears of violence in a climate of soaring tensions.

On Friday morning, riot police in Sao Paulo fired stun grenades and water cannons to disperse some 150 hard-core anti-government protesters.

The group had been camped out for nearly two days, blocking the very same avenue where Rousseff's supporters later marched.

The ongoing protests come against the backdrop of new impeachment proceedings against the 68-year-old Rousseff.

An impeachment committee in the lower house of Congress held its first session Friday, saying it expected to reach a decision within a month on whether to recommend removing the president.

Its recommendation will then pass to the full chamber, where a vote by two-thirds of the 513 lawmakers would trigger an impeachment trial in the Senate.

Rousseff is accused of manipulating the government's accounts to boost public spending during her 2014 re-election campaign, and again in 2015 to mask a deep recession.

- Pandemonium in Brasilia -

The battle to own the streets follows a day of pandemonium in Brasilia, where Rousseff swore in Lula, 70, as her new chief of staff Thursday -- only to have the courts block the appointment.

The Rio federal court intervened after a crusading anti-corruption judge leaked a wiretapped phone call suggesting the president was trying to shield her mentor from prosecution on money-laundering charges.

Lula, who stepped down in 2011 after presiding over an economic boom, is charged with accepting a luxury apartment and a country home as bribes from construction companies implicated in a multi-billion-dollar corruption scam at state oil company Petrobras.

He denies involvement.

Recent polls show Rousseff's popularity rating is down to about 10 percent and 60 percent of Brazilians would support her impeachment.