Antigovernment Protesters Return to Brazilian Streets

Antigovernment Protesters Return to Brazilian Streets

Many blame ruling party for faltering economy, climate of corruption crippling Petrobras

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Antigovernment protesters returned to the streets of several Brazilian cities Sunday. People taking part in a protest in Brasília against the government of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff hold signs reading ‘Dilma Out’. PHOTO: EVARISTO SA/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

By

MARLA DICKERSON and LUCIANA MAGALHAES/WSJ

April 12, 2015 2:03 p.m. ET

SÃO PAULO—Antigovernment protesters returned to the streets of several Brazilian cities Sunday to express dissatisfaction with President Dilma Rousseff and her ruling Workers’ Party, who many blame for Brazil’s faltering economy and a climate of corruption that has crippled the nation’s most important company.

It was the second major demonstration against the president in less than a month. Some political analysts doubt Sunday’s turnout will match that of a March 15 event that drew an estimated 1.7 million protesters nationwide.

While 63% of Brazilians surveyed now support Ms. Rousseff’s impeachment, according to figures released late Saturday by the Datafolha polling firm, experts say the odds of that happening remain remote. The president has won praise even from some critics in recent weeks for continuing to press austerity measures aimed at reviving growth.

In São Paulo, Avenida Paulista, the main thoroughfare for Sunday’s afternoon protest, was noticeably quieter at midday than it was for last month’s anti-Rousseff event. Still, protesters vowed to keep the heat on Ms. Rousseff and demand accountability for a burgeoning scandal at state-run Petroleo Brasiliero SA, known as Petrobras.

Ligia Tineo, a 55-year-old homemaker, called the graft ring alleged by prosecutors and Federal Police to have existed “absurd” and an insult to Brazilian taxpayers. “The Brazilian people do not deserve this. Brazilians are hardworking and these [alleged wrongdoers] can´t take advantage of their positions,” she said.

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Protesters wave a flag with an image of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff during a demonstration against her government at Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday. PHOTO: ANTONIO LACERDA/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Television footage showed peaceful protests under way in cities including Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, Belo Horizonte, and the capital Brasília. Organizers said gatherings were planned in nearly a dozen states.

Sunday’s protests come just days after federal police made new arrests in the wideningcorruption probe that has riveted the country. Prosecutors accused Petrobras suppliers of skimming hundreds of millions of dollars from the oil giant through inflated contracts, then sharing some of the proceeds with politicians, including some members of the Workers’ Party, known as the PT. Ms. Rousseff has denied knowledge of the alleged wrongdoing and hasn’t been implicated; the PT has repeatedly denied the allegations. Suppliers accused of wrongdoing have either denied the allegations or said they are cooperating with authorities.

The scandal has crippled Brazil’s oil and gas sector and rippled through the construction industry, stalling projects and throwing tens of thousands of laborers out of work. With unemployment rising, the government has moved to strike leniency deals with some of the firms to keep the economy moving.

Rogerio Chequer, one of the founders of a major protest group, Vem Pra Rua, or Come to the Street, said he is dead-set against such accords and fears the government is trying to protect accused wrongdoers.

“The leniency deals are a risk” to the investigation, Mr. Chequer said.

The president’s press office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Ms. Rousseff’s approval ratings have crumbled in recent weeks, as her administration grapples with the graft scandal and an economy teetering on recession. Just 13% of Brazilians rated the president’s performance as good or great in the most recent Datafolha poll. Inflation has soared past 8%. Consumer and business confidence have plummeted.

On Sunday, some São Paulo protesters carried placards demanding that Ms. Rousseff step down or face impeachment. “Out Dilma, and take the PT with you,” read one.

Analysts say that is a long shot, but acknowledge that antigovernment protesters clearly have had an impact: Ms. Rousseff appears to be listening to her critics.

Her administration in recent weeks has cut popular subsidies, slashed spending and increased taxes to shore up her government’s deteriorating finances and avoid a downgrade to Brazil’s sovereign credit rating. And she has made concessions with a major party in her ruling coalition to keep her economic agenda on track.

The moves have calmed markets, halted a steep slide in the currency and given opposition parties less ammunition to condemn her policies. Finance Minister Joaquim Levy, for example, is implementing program cuts and other measures long endorsed by Ms. Rousseff’s conservative rivals.

“She is now doing what people who didn´t vote for her wanted her to do,” said Celson Placido, chief investment strategist a XP Investimentos.

Ms. Rousseff’s biggest worry now may be rising discontent among her base of supporters. Recent polls show her approval ratings have slipped badly among working class and poor Brazilians, many of whom benefited from programs and subsidies now being rolled back in the austerity push.

Labor unrest is growing. Unions have staged a number of strikes, walkouts and marches this year, including a demonstration last week protesting a bill that would permit Brazilian employers to outsource some or all of their workforces.

Ms. Rousseff appears to be betting that a stronger economy is her best hope for regaining the backing of her supporters and muting her critics.

In the meantime, expect plenty of noise from Brazil’s streets in coming months, according to analysts from the Eurasia Group.

“Unrest and low presidential approval will be the norm for 2015,” the consulting firm said in a statement.

Write to Luciana Magalhaes at Luciana.Magalhaes@dowjones.com

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