On Thursday, two days after Brazil's largest political party announced plans to abandon its governing coalition with President Dilma Rousseff's Workers' Party, an estimated 800,000 protesters took to the streets in 94 cities across the country in an attempt to blow wind into the sails of an administration that many have already declared a sinking ship.
Chanting "there will be no coup — there will be a fight!" demonstrations unfolded throughout Brazil on the 52nd anniversary of the military coup that unseated Brazil's president in 1964. Leaning on the country's collective memory of the dictatorship that followed, organizers rallied protesters against what they believe to be a desperate attempt to unseat a democratically elected president.
In São Paulo, 40,000 protesters took to the Sé Plaza, while another 30,000 marched in the northern city of Belém. But the biggest numbers came from capital Brasília, where organizers estimated that 200,000 people gathered around the Palacio Planalto, the epicenter of the political crisis that has shaken the ruling government and its institutions from their foundations. Law enforcement estimated the number of participants to be 50,000.
"Those who will be most harmed in the case of a coup are the country's workers, and the second most impacted will be Brazil's youth," said Antonio Lisboa, the secretary of international relations for the Union Workers Central, one of the groups that organized the protests in the capital. The fall of the Workers' Party, he said, threatens to undo 70 years of work to ensure the rights of workers across the country.
"The opposition has made it a priority to roll back workers' rights," he added. "And that is why people have come out across all of the states, all across Brazil, to defend democracy and renounce the prospect of a coup."
While an appearance by ex-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was highly anticipated, he did not participate. Organizers instead played an audio recording (that repeatedly skipped) in which he urged protesters to reject proposed impeachment measures against Rousseff that are currently being debated in the lower house of the legislature — fallout from a long-running kickback scandal that has rocked the state-run oil giant Petrobras and the government. Rousseff has not been directly implicated.
Actors, cartoonists, and authors also took part in the event in Brasília, many condemning the government but offering support to the largely working class protesters participating in the act.
"For the Rousseff administration, the pro-government demonstrations are an important signal that Dilma still enjoys some level of support, and that any successor will face ongoing protests from PT supporters," said Harold Trinkunas, head of the Latin America Initiative at the Brookings Institute. "Ultimately, they reflect the anxiety on all sides about the future and whether Brazil will be able to hold onto its recent social and economic gains."
But by all measures, it's been a disastrous month for the ruling government. Rousseff faces impeachment, the economy is a worsening wreck, and Lula, who is himself being investigated for corruption, is in procedural purgatory after Rousseff appointed him to her cabinet as chief of staff, ostensibly to help her manage the crisis. Because the appointment places Lula out of the jurisdiction of his investigators, critics saw Rousseff's move as an attempt to shield her former mentor. A judge barred the appointment with an injunction that the government has appealed.
What began two years ago an investigation of graft has ballooned into a tour de force headed by Sergio Moro, a federal judge who has jailed members of Brazil's highest social echelons in a sweeping corruption investigation. But in recent weeks, the crisis has devolved into a desperate game of political survival where all bets appear to be off.
When Rousseff announced that she would bring Lula into her cabinet as chief of staff, protecting him from Moro's investigation, the judge released private phone calls between the two that were interpreted by many as evidence that they were conspiring to evade justice.
Moro later apologized to Brazil's Supreme Court for the scandal caused by the release of the tapes.
Now, with the departure of the PMDB from the government's coalition, Rousseff will have a harder time rallying the 172 votes in the lower house that she will need to block an impeachment vote.
Disapproval of her administration stands at a whopping 69 percent. Over the weekend, aides to Vice-President Michele Temer, the PMDB leader, said they had already begun drafting plans for his first weeks as president should Rousseff be removed, including sweeping cuts to social programs enacted by the Workers' Party.
Last week, the legislature's lower house selected a committee that would lead impeachment charges against the president, claiming that she tinkered with the budget to improve her chances for reelection in 2014. In a twist that reveals the complexity of reforming the discredited Brazilian political system, more than half of the members of the impeachment committee are themselves facing charges of corruption or other serious crimes.
Of the 513 total members of the lower house, 303 face charges or are being investigated for serious crimes, while the same is true of 49 of the 81 Senate members.
At a public event on Wednesday, Rousseff denounced the use of impeachment as a tool of political resolution. Though she acknowledged that impeachment is a legitimate and legal tool to deploy in certain circumstances, she stressed that "the constitution demands that in order for the impeachment to be correct, there must be a liability crime."
Later in the day, she posted the video on her Facebook page. "Impeachment without a liability crime is a coup," she wrote. "There is no use pretending."
Protests have long played an important role in political processes across Brazil, and the dueling pro- and anti-government protests that have emerged in recent months have sparked a national debate about race, class, and privilege in a country that remains deeply divided socially and economically.
In 2013 and 2014, young Brazilians — more than half were under the age of 25, most protesting for the first time — were met with police violence and legal maneuvers aimed at stifling demonstrations as they voiced their opposition to lavish government spending on mega-events in the face of social inequality, the rising cost of transport, and housing deficits.
On March 13, the largest-ever anti-government protests were recorded in São Paulo, with an estimated 1.4 million taking part. They called for Rousseff to step down, wielding inflatable dolls of ex-president Lula dressed in prison garb. A recent poll by Datafolha showed that participants were by and large educated males — 77 percent self-reporting as white — with an average age of 45, half of whom earned between five and 20 times the minimum wage.
The composition is a stark contrast to that of the country itself, with only 48 percent of the general population self-identifying as white. A protest in support of the government that same March 13 was visibly more diverse, with 62 percent self-reported as white, with 20 percent reporting themselves as mixed (pardo) and 14 percent as black.
"The majority of those who are involved in this move towards impeachment are trying to throw out Dilma so that they can move up," said Darcy Maximo, a director of the Workers' Party in the Federal District around Brasília.
She acknowledged that the Workers' Party has a number of internal challenges it will need to reconcile, including charges of corruption, but insisted that Thursday's march was not intended to legitimize the corruption charges within her party.
As impeachment proceedings continue in the lower house, she said, members of the Workers' Party have another reason to come into the streets.
"What is at stake here is our democracy," she remarked. "Not our party."
Follow Eva Hershaw on Twitter: @beets4eva