Brazil leader seeks support for broad political reform

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff met with senior lawyers and lawmakers Tuesday to enlist support for a plan to defuse a wave of mass popular protests by embarking on sweeping political reform.

Rousseff has proposed a referendum to set up a constituent assembly that could oversee reform and placate the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets in recent weeks to demand a better quality of life.

She also offered to earmark $25 billion for public transport to appease anger over high fares and creaking, overcrowded bus and rail systems.

The president underscored the need for increased investment in health and education and urged tougher penalties for those found guilty of corruption.

But her proposals got mixed reactions.

Rousseff met with Marcus Vinicius Furtado, the president of the country's Bar Association, to discuss the body's call for a ban on corporate financing of election campaigns.

Furtado said afterwards that a political reform was possible without establishing a constituent assembly.

"It would mean expending a great deal of energy for something which can be resolved without having to amend the constitution. All that needs to be changed is the legislation on elections and on parties," he added.

Rousseff was to confer later with Senate Speaker Renan Calheiros, the president of the Supreme Court Joaquim Barbosa and members of the Homeless People's Movement.

The president's proposals put pressure on Congress, the only body that can call a referendum, where projects to reform politics, combat corruption and boost investment in education have languished for lack of support.

"The president wavers and acts as if she assumed power today, forgetting that this government has been in office for 10 years," Senator Aecio Neves, president of the opposition Brazilian Social Democracy Party.

"This government does not assume its responsibilities and shifts them to third parties," he told the daily O Globo.

Senator Pedro Taques of the Labor Democratic Party, a member of the ruling coalition, backed the idea of a constituent assembly but cast doubt on the ability of the current congress to carry through political reform.

Education Minister Aloisio Mercadante said two dates were being considered for an eventual referendum: September 7, the anniversary of the country's 1822 independence and November 15, the anniversary of the 1889 proclamation of the Republic.

With her proposals, Rousseff sought to regain the political initiative after demonstrations that stunned her leftist government, bringing 1.2 million people into the streets last Thursday alone.

On Tuesday, street demonstrations continued on a smaller scale, including in Sao Paulo, where hundreds of people marched peacefully under pelting rain to demand better health and transport and an end to police violence.

"My government is hearing the democratic voices of the streets which are demanding change," Rousseff said Monday.

The protests in Brazil initially focused on a hike in transport fares before mushrooming to encompass a variety of gripes including criticism of the huge cost of staging the 2014 World Cup.

The wave of demonstrations coincides with the Confederations Cup tournament being held in six Brazilian host cities as a dry run for next year's World Cup. Brazil has spent $15 billion to stage the two events.

A poll by the Ibope institute released on Sunday found that despite criticism of the high cost of the World Cup, 67 percent said they approved of Brazil hosting a tournament it has won five times.