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Brazilians' interest in Rousseff impeachment wanes as debate gears up

Brazilians appear to have grown weary of their country's ongoing political crisis. At a pivotal time in the debate over impeaching President Rousseff, interest is waning. Donna Bowater reports from Rio de Janeiro.

To a passerby, it could have been any other crowd of football fans at the gates of Brazil's iconic Maracana stadium.

But the shirts were a kaleidoscope of Rio de Janeiro's biggest clubs: the red and black of Flamengo, the red cross of Vasco mixed together with the tricolor of Fluminense and monochrome Botafogo. In an unusual display of unity, rival supporters were on the streets together to defend democracy as Brazil prepares for a decisive week, which could see the president teetering on the brink of impeachment.

Their message was firmly against ousting President Dilma Rousseff, yet critical of the government and in favor of political change.

"We don't only want to stop the coup and defend democracy. We're much more ambitious than that," Orlando Guilhon, 63, a Flamenguista, or Flamengo fan, told the crowd. "Our message to public powers is that this government also doesn't represent us because the majority of Congress is made up of rich, white men above 55."

Guilhon, who works with the social movement the National Forum for the Democratization of Communication (FNDC), said he wanted to see the democratically elected government improved rather than toppled.

Orlando Guilhon

Orlando Guilhon says the issue goes well beyond Rousseff and the current crisis

The rally was one of many smaller, splinter protests with more nuanced positions ahead of the expected standoff in Congress over impeachment. Last week, a "Women for Democracy" protest organized by the ruling Workers' Party took place while lawyers also held a rally in Sao Paulo in defense of impeachment and in support of Judge Sergio Moro, who has led the Lava Jato ("Car Wash") anti-corruption probe that has deepened the political crisis.

If Brazil was once polarized between pro-government and pro-impeachment camps, public debate now seems more fragmented.

Support for removing Rousseff has fallen from 68 percent in the wake of the mass anti-government protest on March 13 to 61 percent last week, according to research institute Datafolha. Similarly, support for her resignation has fallen from 65 to 60 percent. Meanwhile, the same proportion also supported the impeachment of Vice President Michel Temer, who would stand in as president if Rousseff were impeached over allegedly manipulating government accounts.

Apathy sets in

The figures suggested dissatisfaction - not just with the president but also with the alternative - and disengagement. There have been increasing calls for neither continuity nor impeachment.

"The majority of the population doesn't like politics," Guilhon said. "They think it's just for professional politicians. We have to show that it's not just a vote once every four years. We don't only want to defend this democracy but we want to see it improved as well."

Datafolha found that three-quarters of Brazilians had not even discussed the current political situation with their friends or relatives. Those who had were more likely to be young and well educated.

Marina Silva, who contested the 2014 presidential election, and her party, Rede Sustentabilidade, launched a campaign for entirely new elections, suggesting that the solution to the political crisis lay neither with Rousseff nor with Temer.

And yet this increasing inclination towards apathy is expected to subside as the impeachment case reaches a climax this week.

Dilma Rousseff and Vice President Michel Temer

Both Roussef and Temer's political futures hang in the balance

After a special congressional commission submits its report on Monday as to whether Rousseff should face impeachment proceedings, Congress will later this week take up the issue, in the most crucial stage of the process. Committee members voted 38 to 27 in favor of the impeachment.

Both sides of the campaign have been gearing up for a significant turnout as congressmen vote one by one as to whether the petition goes to the Senate, the upper house.

Frente Brasil Popular (Brazil Popular Front), the main anti-impeachment protest movement, has organized a week of rallies and demonstrations across the country.

Meanwhile, Vem Pra Rua (Come to the Street) is calling for millions to turn out on Sunday, April 17, when Congress is expected to vote.

Gustavo Gesteira, a spokesman for the Vem Pra Rua movement, denied the impeachment campaign was losing momentum. "On the contrary, we've seen that impeachment is gaining strength," he told DW. "People understand that Dilma Rousseff didn't respect the law, and no one is above the law."

He rejected claims from the Workers' Party that the movement to impeach Rousseff, who was re-elected in October 2014 with 54 million votes, was a form of coup.

"It's a lie. It's a smokescreen," he said. "It's in the legislation under the Brazilian constitution. It's very likely she will be impeached because she's unable to govern now."

'Contempt for universal suffrage'

Irrespective of opinion polls and public support for impeachment, the figures that matter now are those that show how many congress members will vote in favor. The case will pass to the Senate if 342 congressmen vote for impeachment, while Rousseff needs 171 votes against to guarantee her mandate. And the latest figures show an increase in support among congressmen for impeachment from 41 percent in December to 60 percent.

Luiz Gonzaga Belluzzo, a former economic policy secretary in the Finance Ministry, said impeaching Rousseff would just continue a cycle of undermining direct voting.

"The recent history of Brazilian politics revealed the frantic exchanges of positions between the 'impeached' and the 'impeachers,'" he wrote in an article for Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper. "From this legal-political hubbub, there remains contempt for universal suffrage as a guarantor of the legitimacy of a mandate in a democracy.

"Rousseff received her mandate through universal suffrage. A president cannot be treated like a football coach: if the crowds don't like it, we change it."

Watch video 02:46

Brazil divided over Rousseff impeachment

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