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Rousseff's referendum plan for Brazil runs into trouble

Demonstrators gather during a protest as police officers stand guard in central Rio de Janeiro June 24, 2013. REUTERS/Lucas Landau
Demonstrators gather during a protest as police officers stand guard in central Rio de Janeiro June 24, 2013. REUTERS/Lucas Landau

By Anthony Boadle

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's bid to defuse a sudden outburst of national discontent by proposing a referendum on political reforms ran into stiff opposition on Tuesday from politicians and lawyers who questioned its legality.

Tens of thousands of Brazilians have taken to the streets this month in the biggest protests in 20 years, fueled by an array of grievances ranging from poor public services to the high cost of World Cup soccer stadiums and corruption.

The demonstrations against Brazil's political establishment have jolted politicians of all stripes and clouded the outlook for Rousseff, who is expected to seek re-election next year.

The national capital, Brasilia, braced for more protests on Wednesday, with some schools cancelling classes. New demonstrations were also expected in Belo Horizonte during a game between Brazil and Uruguay for the Confederations Cup, a warm-up for the World Cup in 2014.

In an emergency meeting with Brazil's governors on Monday, Rousseff proposed a national plebiscite to ask voters whether they agree to holding a constituent assembly to reform Brazil's political system.

The bold move was seen as an attempt by a popular president to bypass the country's unpopular Congress with an appeal to the people. Legal experts said that was unconstitutional.

The head of the Brazilian Bar Association, Marcus Vinicius Furtado, proposed in a meeting with Rousseff that political reforms be adopted by Congress based on a popular petition.

Politicians - including the head of the lower chamber of Congress Henrique Alves, a member of the governing coalition of parties - said political reforms should be decided by Congress.

Former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso said that under Brazil's constitution Rousseff could not call an assembly to amend the charter. He said political reforms should be drawn up by Congress and then submitted to the country's approval in a plebiscite.

To hold a referendum to decide what to reform would "take up what is left of this presidential term and have repercussions for the economy that are hard to predict," Cardoso said in a post on the FHC Institute's Facebook page.

Political analysts saw Rousseff's referendum proposal as a ploy to gain time and spread the political risk of the crisis.

"Rousseff's intention is to address the public's huge disaffection with the political class by separating herself as an agent of change," Washington-based Eurasia consultancy said in a note to clients. "In practical terms, however, the proposal is unlikely to lead to any meaningful political reform."

Eurasia said it was not a lack of legal mechanisms that has hampered political reform in Brazil, but the absence of will across the political class.

The same point was made by the president of Brazil's Supreme Court, Joaquim Barbosa, who weighed into the debate with a news conference after meeting with Rousseff on the issue.

"Proposals have been sitting for years in Congress, which has shown no interest in reforming the political system. And that lack of interest, in part, has led to the crisis of legitimacy we have now," Barbosa told reporters.

It was unusual for a chief justice to be publicly giving his opinion on a matter he might have to rule on if it is brought before the Supreme Court. But Barbosa is highly respected in Brazil for leading the country's biggest political corruption trial, which led to the conviction last year of several leaders of the ruling Workers' Party.

Barbosa said the Brazilian people should be consulted directly because they were tired of political deals negotiated behind their backs by the political elites.

Brazil's democratic system was not endangered by the current wave of protests, he said. "Brazil's democracy is solid enough to weather this turbulence."

(Editing by Christopher Wilson)

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