Tensions High in Brazil Before Protesters Head to Streets

March 12, 2016 Updated: March 12, 2016

RIO DE JANEIRO—Tensions are high on the eve of political protests planned around Brazil on Sunday by supporters of the governing Workers’ Party and those who want to see President Dilma Rousseff impeached.

Opposition groups have been planning the pro-impeachment demonstrations for weeks and hope the protests will draw millions onto the streets nationwide. But differences between the two sides have been sharpened by police actions earlier this month that saw Rousseff’s predecessor, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, spirited to a Sao Paulo police station to testify in a sprawling investigation of corruption at the state-run oil giant Petrobras.

Some Workers’ Party supporters are expected to stage their own counter-demonstrations on Sunday, setting up concerns by authorities over the possibility of violence.

Supreme Court Justice Marco Aurelio Mello said in remarks in Rio de Janeiro’s O Globo daily he was afraid the protests could result in conflict and “even a corpse.”

Sao Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin, of the opposition PSDB party, has banned government supporters from marching down the city’s main avenue on Sunday in a bid to “guarantee security.”

Brazil is suffering its worst recession in decades, with new official statistics showing the economy shrank by almost 4 percent last year.

Rousseff saw her approval ratings dip into the single digits in the first year of her second term in office amid the spiraling recession. She is battling impeachment proceedings over claims she used state-backed banks to plug holes in the budget.

She has not been implicated in the massive Petrobras corruption probe, which has already ensnared many of Brazil’s richest businessmen and top politicians from across the political spectrum. The investigation is now closing in on Silva, Rousseff’s mentor.

Police showed up at Silva’s apartment in the greater Sao Paulo area early on March 4 and took the former president to a police station to answer questions about two properties he’s connected with that investigators suspect were lavishly remodeled by a construction company embroiled in the Petrobras scandal.

In response to the police action, the Workers’ Party’s leader in Congress, Jose Guimaraes, called on supporters to prepare for “war in the streets.”

Tensions further spiked on Wednesday, as Sao Paulo state prosecutors charged Silva with money laundering, in a separate case. A judge must accept the charges in order for that case to move forward.

Silva, a once-revered leader who presided over galloping economic growth and unprecedented social changes in Brazil, leaving office in 2010 with sky-high approval ratings, was long regarded as untouchable. His judicial dramas have galvanized both supporters and detractors.

Opposition activists see the recent events as compelling reasons for disgruntled Brazilians to attend Sunday’s protest. Government supporters, on the other hand, see Silva’s legal problems as a bid to besmirch the former leader’s image and undermine the government.

Amid the current polarized climate, worries about potential clashes on Sunday are justified, said Carlos Melo, an analyst at the Sao-Paulo based Insper business school.

“Violence is a legitimate concern,” said Melo. “There is a climate of tension in the country that has been brewing since Rousseff was first elected in 2010. It grew steadily worse.”