Thousands of people stormed the streets of Brazil yesterday (15 March) to object to President Michel Temer's pension reform plan that would cap pension benefits and raise retirement age. The demonstrations reflect the deep ideological divide among Brazilians as Temer seeks to pass the nation's most ambitious pension, labour and tax reforms in two decades.

Sao Paulo, Brasilia and Rio de Janeiro were among the cities that took part in the demonstrations, which saw civil servants, rural workers and labour unions nationwide participate.

Brazil pension reform
Demonstrators gather during a protest against proposed federal government reforms in Rio de Janeiro Mario Tama/Getty Images

More than 1,500 people in Brasilia broke into the Finance Ministry overnight and occupied it for several hours, according to military police and the Movement of Rural Workers Without Land, an activist group whose flag flew from one of the ministry's widows.

Traffic crawled through Sao Paulo due to a partial transport strike that began overnight. Fewer than half of the city's buses ran during the morning commute, the bus authority reported, though it said most buses were back on the streets later in the day. Only two of six subway lines operated normally, while three ran a partial service. Later in the day, protesters including teachers, union members and leftist activists took to the streets of Sao Paulo to protest at changes proposed by Temer for labour rules and the social security pension system.

Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, one of Brazil's most popular politicians despite a political scandal, joined protesters in Sao Paulo, calling the impeachment against fellow ex-President Dilma Rousseff that led to Temer's presidency as a coup against the people. Amidst rumours that Brazil's Workers Party will field Lula for 2018 elections, the former leader rallied the crowd by saying the people will vote out Temer from office.

"It is becoming clear that the coup in this country was not just against (former president) Dilma (Rousseff), it was not just against the left. The coup in this country illegitimately usurped citizens so as to end the victories of the working class after many years of employment and social security reform." He continued, saying: "I want to congratulate you all for coming out onto the streets. You are giving heft to the feelings of the people, to what the people are thinking, to those who feel they have been tricked. The people will rise when it comes to the people of Brazil electing the government democratically."

Temer has acknowledged the unpopularity of his reforms but stressed his priority is to get the country's economy on a sound footing. Members of Temer's ruling coalition have said there is not much room for changes in the reforms if the country wants to reduce a record budget deficit that has undermined investor confidence. Temer said yesterday that his proposed overhaul would keep Brazil from having to make the kinds of radical changes that European countries like Portugal and Greece were forced to make to revive their economies. He said that Brazilians "little by little will understand that it's necessary to support this road to put the country back on the rails".

Pamela Lopes, a commuter in Sao Paulo, disagreed. Speaking to the Associated Press, she said she wants to see more resistance to the changes even if it meant a tough commute. "Life is difficult, and the government is deceiving us," she said "Everyone should be on strike."