A supporter of Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro helps carry a photo of the president during a rally on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, May 26, 2019. The pro-Bolsonaro rally follows anti-government protests against cuts in the education budget as the president also battles an uncooperative Congress, a family corruption scandal and falling approval ratings after five months in office. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

Backers of embattled Bolsonaro take to streets in Brazil

May 26, 2019 - 3:19 pm

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Thousands gathered in cities across Brazil on Sunday to show support for President Jair Bolsonaro, who faces an uncooperative Congress, street protests, a family corruption scandal and falling approval ratings five months into his term.

The stumbling start for the far-right leader who rode a wave of dissatisfaction with Brazil's political class to victory led his backers to call for the demonstrations, which represented a mixed bag of demands and protests.

Supporters sang the national anthem and waved Brazilian flags while chanting the names of Bolsonaro cabinet members. Many said that Brazil's institutions were not letting Bolsonaro govern. Some called for the closure of Congress and the Supreme Court.

"We need to clean out Congress," said Neymar de Menezes, a 45-year-old construction contractor. "Unfortunately all the deputies there are compromised and all about deal making. Bolsonaro is fighting them by himself."

Bolsonaro, who earlier in his political career said he would close Congress if he were ever president, told reporters on Friday he didn't support calls to close institutions.

"That would not be good for Brazil," Bolsonaro said. "That's more Maduro than Jair Bolsonaro," he added, referring to Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro.

The call for demonstrations created a rift among Brazil's conservatives. The president of Bolsonaro's party said protests "don't make sense."

"For the love of God, stop with the calls for protests, these people need a reality check," tweeted Janaína Paschoal, a federal congresswoman whose name was floated as a potential vice president. She said Bolsonaro's biggest risk was himself, his sons and some of his staff members.

"Wake up! On the 26th, if the streets are empty, Bolsonaro will realize he has to stop with the drama and do his job," she said.

Bolsonaro did not participate in the demonstrations. Speaking at a church service in Rio de Janeiro, he said demonstrators were on the streets to, "deliver a message to those who insist on keeping the old politics who aren't allowing the people to be free."

The idea for demonstrations in favor of Bolsonaro gained steam after tens of thousands of people across Brazil last week protested budget cuts to public education imposed by his government. Bolsonaro dismissed the student-led protests, calling their participants "imbeciles" and "useful idiots."

It was the first mass street movement against the former army captain who took office on Jan. 1 and has seen his popularity steadily slipping. Roughly as many people now disapprove of his government as approve of it.

Pollster XP Investimentos said its poll showed 36% of Brazilians think Bolsonaro's government is bad or terrible and 34% say it's good or great. The firm surveyed 1,000 people on May 21-22, with a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points.

"Bolsonaro got off to a very bad start, especially in the first month," said Sergio Praça, a political scientist at the Getulio Vargas Foundation University, referring to a corruption scandal involving his family.

Just weeks into his presidency, questions mounted over a report from financial regulators that flagged irregular payments in 2016 and 2017 between his son, Flavio, then a state legislator and now a senator, and his driver. Prosecutors suspect the payments are part of a common scheme in lower levels of Brazilian government in which politicians hire ghost employees who kick back portions of their salaries into the elected official's bank account. Bolsonaro and his son ran on anti-corruption platforms — a large reason why many voters chose him over the leftist candidate from the scandal-ridden Worker's Party.

Praça said things have not been looking up since then. Brazil's economy is sluggish and its currency has weakened. Bolsonaro is struggling to make alliances in Brazil's infamously deal-making Congress, which is preventing him from passing his agenda, including a desperately needed pension reform. Brazil's pension system, which allows swaths of the population to retire in their early 50s, is the single largest factor contributing to the country's deficit.

And, just as during his campaign and time in Congress, Bolsonaro is making headlines for controversial comments. In March during Carnival, he tweeted a pornographic video saying it was a warning to the nation of how decadent the celebration has become.

"The beginning of his government has been marked with uncertainty and confusion," Praça said.

Meanwhile, about 1,000 human rights activists and residents of Rio de Janeiro's slums staged a beachfront protest against police violence at the same time pro-Bolsonaro demonstrators were gathered on a neighboring beach.

Bolsonaro and Rio Governor Wilson Witzel support shoot-to-kill policing tactics in neighborhoods where drug gangs operate.

Some of the participants in the Ipanema Beach protest said they had lost family members to police violence.

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