(Updates protest size, adds economic context, quotes)
By Paulo Prada
RIO DE JANEIRO, March 15 (Reuters) - Over one million demonstrators marched in cities and towns across Brazil on Sunday to protest a sluggish economy, rising prices and corruption - and to call for the impeachment of leftist President Dilma Rousseff.
The marches across the continent-sized country come as Brazil struggles to overcome economic and political malaise and pick up the pieces of a boom that crumbled once Rousseff took office in 2011.
Rousseff, now early into her second four-year term, is unlikely to resign or face the impeachment proceedings called for by many opponents. A fifth year of economic stagnation and a multibillion dollar corruption scandal at state-run energy company Petroleo Brasileiro SA, or Petrobras has fueled their anger.
But for a president narrowly re-elected just five months ago, the protests are a sign of a polarized country increasingly unhappy with its leadership. Rousseff has recently been jeered at public appearances and Brazilians in some cities banged pots during a televised speech she made earlier this month.
Sunday’s larger than expected demonstrations also promise to embolden opposition parties and restive allies who are nominally part of Rousseff’s ruling coalition, but nonetheless hindering efforts, along with staunch leftists in her own party, to pass reforms intended to help jumpstart the economy.
In a statement posted online Sunday, Aecio Neves, a centrist who was defeated by Rousseff in October and is the leader of Brazil’s main opposition party, said the demonstrations marked a day when Brazilians “went to the streets to reunite with their virtues, their values and also with their dreams.”
Rousseff in a statement Saturday said that she supported the rights of the marchers. She said she hoped the demonstrations, timed to coincide with the thirty year anniversary of the end of a two-decade military dictatorship, would illustrate Brazil’s “democratic maturity.”
Indeed, Sunday’s gatherings were mostly calm and festive, with little of the violence that tarnished a wave of massive demonstrations in 2013, when Brazilians protested billions of dollars of spending, even as the economy stumbled, to host the 2014 World Cup of soccer.
But if less vehement, the rallies Sunday surprisingly matched those of two years ago in scale. In Sao Paulo alone, more than a million people, according to state police, weathered a drizzle to march along skyscraper-lined Avenida Paulista, the heart of Brazil’s financial capital and biggest city by late afternoon.
”People feel betrayed, said Diogo Ortiz, a 32-year-old advertising worker, who called the ongoing scandal at Petrobras “a national and international disgrace.”
Earlier, thousands of residents of Rio de Janeiro poured onto the Copacabana waterfront of Brazil’s second-largest city. Most dressed in the blue, green and yellow of Brazil’s flag. Crowds sang the national anthem and shouted “Dilma, Out!”
Many protesters hail from the country’s wealthier classes, who traditionally oppose the ruling Workers’ Party.
Underscoring class divisions, marchers said Rousseff and the ruling party have instigated the polarization by trying to pit their traditional supporters, the recipients of popular social welfare programs, against the rest of Brazil.
The party “is inciting the people against the people,” said Helena Alameda Prado Bastos, a 61-year-old editor in Sao Paulo.
The Workers’ Party, opponents complain, for too long ignored critiques that its heavy spending, subsidized lending, protectionist policies and corruption have sapped the vitality that led to average growth exceeding 4 percent during the decade before she took office.
Although the party also presided over those good years, during two terms of Rousseff’s mentor and predecessor, economists say she failed to adjust policies when a global commodities boom ended and sapped once-soaring export revenue.
So grim are Brazil’s prospects that many economists expect it to slip into recession this year. Inflation is running at a ten-year high, while Brazil’s currency, the real, has lost over 22 percent of its value against the dollar this year.
Rousseff supporters held rallies of their own on Friday, though demonstrators numbered far fewer than Sunday‘s. (Additional reporting by Caroline Stauffer, Pedro Fonseca, Anthony Boadle and Maria Carolina Marcello; Editing by Christian Plumb)