Standing on a corner of São Paulo’s main avenue, holding a banner demanding “Impeachment Already”, Michele Pick and Maria Necela Sampaio were clear about what needed to happen to resolve the deepening political crisis in Brazil.
"Dilma has to go," said Sampaio, referring to Dilma Rousseff, the president re-elected last October whose Workers' Party administration is now engulfed in a huge corruption scandal and struggling to navigate the country's worst recession in two decades. "If she doesn't, things will only get worse."
The two friends were among hundreds of thousands of angry Brazilians who took to the streets on Sunday, and their banner reflects the increasingly anti-government nature of a protest movement that has been bubbling away since Rousseff’s October victory.
In all, marches took place in 168 cities across Brazil, with police estimating that close to 800,000 people took part, though local media calculated a significantly lower total, even if still higher than the last round of demonstrations in April.
But beyond the immediate rallying cry for impeachment, there was a diversity of opinion among protesters on how Brazil should find its way out of its current crisis, reflecting the diffuse nature of the grassroots organisations that called the demonstrations and the uncertainty of the political opposition on how to respond to them.
Along with the demand for Rousseff's removal, there were growing calls for new elections, as few protesters said they wanted power to pass, as the constitution dictates, to vice-president Michel Temer, a leader of the populist and deeply corrupt Democratic Movement of Brazil party, which is the president's main coalition partner.
“We don’t want Temer as president. He would just be more of the same. What we need is new elections,” said Pedro Vasconcellos, a former Rousseff voter who had renounced his support because of Workers’ Party corruption. Like many of those protesting, he wanted to see the opposition Social Democrats back in power after an absence of almost 13 years.
At a demonstration driven by anger at Workers’ Party wrongdoing, many of those interviewed quickly brushed off voluminous evidence of Social Democrat misdemeanours as Workers’ Party propaganda. The slogan on a popular T-shirt worn by many on Sunday read “Don’t blame me, I voted for Aécio”, referring to
, the Social Democrat candidate defeated by Rousseff in October.
This reflects the reality that, despite the president's single-digit approval rating, the protests remain an affair of the middle class opposition, with the biggest rallies concentrated in its stronghold of São Paulo state and yet to attract the poorer Brazilians whose votes returned Rousseff to power.
For the first time since the rallies started, Neves took part on Sunday, addressing crowds in his home city of Belo Horizonte as the opposition continued to inch its way towards throwing full support behind impeachment, despite the current lack of legal grounds for doing so.
But other participants were calling for more drastic action to clean up the country’s politics than just handing power over to the opposition. Among the organisers in São Paulo were groups that featured speakers dressed in army fatigues, who demanded military intervention to root out all political corruption.
For some, even that was not enough.
“The military brass has also been corrupted,” said Marcos Magalhães, pointing to the recent arrest of an admiral for receiving bribes in connection with the construction of a nuclear reactor. Instead, Magalhães was calling for a popular armed revolt.
“Brazilians need to radicalise and take up arms against Brasília,” he said. “All political parties are corrupt. The people need to rise up.”
Magalhães’s extreme views attracted criticism from other demonstrators who stopped to read the manifesto he had hung up on railings. But the involvement of all major parties in corruption has undoubtedly boosted the appeal of groups that a year ago were on the fringe of Brazilian politics.
For traditional anti-corruption campaigners out on Sunday, such radical voices only served to dilute the original thrust of the protests, which were sparked by revelations of political graft in state-controlled oil giant Petrobras.
“These groups only serve the forces of those who don’t want change. They dilute the movement’s power,” said Osvaldo Merbach, who was busy gathering signatures in support of a campaign by public prosecutors to toughen up Brazil’s weak anti-corruption laws, a more complex task even than removing a president.
Among those signing up for the initiative were Marina Ariente and Reinaldo Kuhl, a young couple whose placard read “Neither left nor right but forward”.
“Political reform is the way ahead. Impeaching the president is not going to solve all Brazil’s problems,” said Ariente. “A change in the government without a change in the law will not resolve anything, but unfortunately too many of the middle class think that way.”