BRASILIA — Demonstrators on both sides of the impeachment debate have set up two camps here before Sunday’s historic vote that could lead to the ouster of Dilma Rousseff, the country’s Workers’ Party president.

But they don't just disagree about whether Rousseff should be impeached over allegedly breaking fiscal-responsibility laws. They are engaged in an ideological battle for the political soul of the country.

They are divided on what they want for Brazil’s future and how they read the legacy of 13 years of Workers’ Party rule by Rousseff and her predecessor, former union leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

The few thousand people camped outside the Mané Garrincha soccer stadium included trade unions, gay and lesbian rights groups, a landless workers’ movement, groups of black students from Brazil’s poorer northeast, and even indigenous activists from the Amazon.

Iza Tapuia, 50, from the indigenous Tapuia tribe in Pará in the Amazon, said Workers’ Party policies such as a cash-transfer scheme called the Bolsa Família, or Family Allowance, for poor families benefited indigenous tribes. Brazil’s indigenous people also gained from quotas the Workers’ Party introduced for ethnic minorities that enabled them to attend universities they were previously excluded from.


“This was really important for the indigenous movement,” she said.

But the price of supporting Rousseff through the vote would be demands for a more progressive agenda if she is to survive.

“We believe that this moment is very important for us to revisit the social agenda,” Tapuia said.

Marivaldo Santos, 22, was among a group of young activists arriving from the eastern state of Bahia. He said that because of Workers’ Party policies, black Brazilians like himself from poorer families were able use the Bolsa Família as a first step toward a career.

Defending democracy was not just about Rousseff’s elected mandate, he said, but also about the rights of underprivileged Brazilians traditionally ignored by governments that the Workers’ Party protected.

“Our agenda is the defense of democracy — for students, for women, for blacks, for gays,” he said.

On the other side of the political divide, Lauder Thomazini, 23, was among the thousand or so pro-impeachment, mostly white and middle-class demonstrators camped in a city park in central Brasilia. He had driven from Vitória state, in southern Brazil, and was one of a number wearing a T-shirt with a picture of right-wing federal deputy Jair Bolsonaro with the phrase “Bolsonaro President.”


Bolsonaro is a controversial figure who has been mobbed at pro-democracy demonstrations. He has said he could never love a gay child — he has said he would prefer they died in an accident. He has defended the military dictatorship that ran Brazil from 1964 to 1985, torturing thousands of its opponents, including Rousseff, who was then a member of an armed revolutionary group.

As Thomazini’s T-shirt indicated, Bolsonaro says he plans to stand for president in 2018.

“He supports carrying arms for security. He is an anti-communist. He defends the liberal market and wants to do deals with first-world countries,” Thomazini said.

Thomazini also said he admired U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.


Paulo Figueiro, 36, wore a sticker on his green-and-yellow soccer shirt reading: “The Crazy Liberal Gang.”


He was in a group of men from Porto Alegre, in southern Brazil, who said they defended liberal ideals such as a free market and privatizations of state companies such as Petrobras, the oil company where a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal, which is the main driver behind this impeachment push, was concentrated. This is heresy for Workers' Party supporters.

Investigators say Rousseff’s party was involved in systematic corruption, earning a percentage of bribes from lucrative Petrobras contracts. The scandal prompted mass street protests.


“The population doesn’t accept corruption anymore,” Figueiro said.

His friend Tiago Medina, 28, said the Workers’ Party had engaged in systematic corruption at Petrobras to fund its real aim — staying in power.

He argued that Brazil is following Argentina, which recently elected pro-business candidate Mauricio Marci as president and is swinging to the right.

“There is a new right arriving in Brazil that defends liberal values,” he said.

Read more: