Thousands of pro-Bolsonaro protesters demand reforms in Brazil

Rio de Janeiro (AFP) –


Thousands of supporters of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro took to the streets across Brazil Sunday in a protest seen as a gauge of the embattled leader's popularity only five months into his term.

Waving Brazilian flags and chanting Bolsonaro's nickname "Mito" or "Myth," protesters wearing T-shirts emblazoned with "My party is Brazil" demanded lawmakers speed up approval of the government's signature pension reform that has stalled in Congress.

His supporters blamed "satanic maneuvers" by the head of the lower house, Rodrigo Maia, for stalling the reform.

"The politicians must understand that Brazil does not belong to them," said former paratrooper Geralmir dos Santos, 50, as he gathered with thousands of noisy protesters along Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana beach.

The protests, organized by Bolsonaro's most radical supporters, are aimed at shoring up the ultraconservative government as it faces growing opposition.

Tens of thousands of students and teachers took to the streets on May 15 to protest against the government's plans to freeze 30 percent of discretionary spending for public universities in the second half of the year.

Rising unemployment, slowing economic growth and deepening discord within his administration has further eroded Bolsonaro's popularity since taking power in January.

His controversial order earlier this month permitting millions of Brazilians to carry loaded weapons in public has fuelled anger, sparked a legal challenge and added to his woes in Congress, where his relations with key leaders such as Maia had already deteriorated.

Bolsonaro, who was in Rio this weekend for one of his son's weddings, had said he would not participate in the demonstrations and advised his ministers against taking part.

"Today is the day the people are going to the streets, not to defend the president, but to defend the future of our nation," Bolsonaro said at an evangelical church in Rio on Sunday.

Bolsonaro's ambitious overhaul of Brazil's pension system -- which he has warned will bankrupt the country if his proposal is not approved -- is seen as key to getting a pipeline of economic policies through Congress.

But the changes to Brazil's retirement age and benefits are facing resistance in the lower house of Congress where Bolsonaro's ultraconservative Social Liberal Party has only around 10 percent of the seats.

Economy minister Paulo Guedes, who is spearheading the government's reform agenda, threatened Friday to resign if the pension bill was not passed or was watered down.

"We will not have money to pay officials, it will be chaos in the public sector," Guedes told Veja magazine.

"The reform is urgent."

Some of the protesters in Rio called for "military intervention" as in 1964 when a military coup ushered in decades of army rule in Brazil.

Others expressed more sober demands, such as "Let's help our president rebuild Brazil."

"I am here for the pension reform, which will be good for the poor," said Janelsa Salomao, 59, in Rio.

"Those who do not want it are corrupt."