On the morning of Aug. 10, Brazilian military tanks paraded through Brasília, past the presidential palace and in front of the country’s National Congress, where lawmakers were debating a constitutional amendment that would overhaul an election system widely considered one of the safest and most efficient in the world.
Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro has spent months studiously mimicking former U.S. President Donald Trump’s attempts to stop the supposed “steal” of the election he lost last November. The far-right Brazilian leader has stoked similar unfounded conspiracies about widespread voting fraud, sparking fears that he was laying the groundwork for his own version of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
The tanks parading through Brasília, the country’s capital, heightened concerns that Bolsonaro and his allies ― including his son Eduardo, a congressman and ally of alt-right Trump confidant Steve Bannon ― were also taking early steps to avoid one of the key failures that prevented Trump’s own authoritarian project from succeeding: His inability to convince leaders of the armed forces to join him.
Bolsonaro, a former army captain who has long expressed an affinity for the dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, has built a military cocoon around himself since the beginning of his presidency, stocking his government with generals and former soldiers at a rate unprecedented since Brazil’s return to democracy. The parade was only one recent indication that Bolsonaro hopes to use the military to bolster his attempts to either win the presidential contest in October 2022 or to claim fraud and remain in power if he doesn’t.
Alarming indicators keep piling up. Last Friday, Bolsonaro told a group of newly promoted military generals that the armed forces had the constitutional power to serve as a “moderating force” in times of domestic strife. The next day, he suggested that he would seek to impeach two Supreme Court justices who’ve pointedly refuted his election conspiracies. Later on Saturday, he shared a message on WhatsApp that expressed the need for a “countercoup” against the Brazilian judiciary and other institutions he opposes, and begged supporters from within and outside his government to stage mass demonstrations next month to prove their strength.
An actual military coup remains an unlikely scenario, most political analysts say. But there are fears that significant numbers of Brazil’s police ― just 15% of whom trust Brazil’s electoral system, according to one poll, and 21% of whom favor a return to dictatorship, according to another ― could back Bolsonaro no matter what. In a country where the military and public security forces largely retreated from domestic political affairs three decades ago, the flippant talk of intervention has made a Jan. 6-style eruption seem less a possibility than an inevitability should Bolsonaro lose next year, as almost all polls suggest he will.
A weakened Bolsonaro, who nevertheless remains focused on animating his radical base, has erased any lingering doubt that he plans to use the election to undermine and potentially dismantle Brazil’s democracy, the fourth-largest in the world. The question is how far he and his allies will go in pursuit of that goal.
“It’s very clear that he’s going to follow the script created by Donald Trump,” Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, told HuffPost. “And in Brazil, we cannot count on the neutrality of the armed forces or the neutrality of the police. So many bad things may happen.”
A Trumpian Fraud Conspiracy
Brazilian military leaders insisted that the timing of this month’s parade was a coincidence, an explanation that fell somewhere between impossible to believe and utterly irrelevant.
For months, Bolsonaro has advocated for the constitutional amendment that was up for debate in Congress that afternoon, arguing that Brazil needed to add a printed ballot to its all-electronic voting system in order to make elections more easily auditable and to prevent instances of fraud. After Trump lost, Bolsonaro warned that dead people may vote in large numbers next year.
“We’re going to have a worse problem than the United States,” he claimed.
No fraud has occurred in the two decades since Brazil adopted electronic voting machines, and when the Supreme Court demanded that Bolsonaro produce evidence to support his claims, he was unable to unearth a single case.
The vote in Congress, meanwhile, was sure to fail. Under that circumstance, the military parade was taken as an increasingly weak president’s attempt to intimidate lawmakers and the courts.
Bolsonaro’s claims of voter fraud are not new: Much like Trump, whom he considers an ally and a model for his own presidency, Bolsonaro openly questioned the legitimacy of Brazilian elections in the days before the 2018 contest that he ultimately won.
But his focus on the elections has intensified this year. Bolsonaro’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brazil’s sluggish economy, and his leadership style — which has mostly plunged his own government into crisis — have combined to crater his approval rating and left him lagging well behind former leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the archenemy of Bolsonaro’s right-wing movement, in early polls.
Trump’s claims of electoral fraud were factually baseless. In the Brazilian context, Bolsonaro’s adoption of such claims makes no sense at all. Voting in Brazil is mandatory, and the country’s electronic voting system is rapid and reliable, churning out vote tallies and official election results at a pace that would stun American voters. Luís Roberto Barroso, a Supreme Court justice who also heads Brazil’s highest electoral court, has said that the changes Bolsonaro is seeking would make it easier for nefarious and organized interests to craft vote-buying schemes or engage in other illegitimate practices, especially in far-flung parts of the country.
For most of the two decades that it’s been in use nationwide, electronic voting has served as a source of pride for Brazilians. But Bolsonaro’s claims have resonated, and not just on the fringes. The congressional vote never stood a chance of winning the two-thirds majority it needed to proceed. Somewhat surprisingly, though, it did win a simple majority of votes, including some from legislators not aligned with the president. Recent polls, meanwhile, have suggested that while nearly 60% of Brazilians opposed the printed ballot proposal, more than one-third favor it ― a sharp increase from just months ago.
“Bolsonaro has discredited many of the institutions, so there’s widespread cynicism about the institutions of democracy now,” James Green, a Brazilian history professor at Brown University, told HuffPost. “Twenty years ago, polls would’ve shown that 80% of Brazilians were proud to have one of the most efficient election systems in the world. It was a sense of pride that we’re advanced, we’re modern. I think that’s changed.”
Bolsonaro has not cowered in the face of defeat. Instead, he has used the legislative result and increasing public support to bolster his claims that Congress and the Supreme Court are blocking to thwart him, and that his conspiracies are the subject of popular demand.
Last week, after the congressional vote failed, Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes launched an investigation into Bolsonaro’s deliberate leaking of sealed documents he’d posted to social media in an effort to boost his claims of fraud. Bolsonaro responded by calling on Congress to impeach both Moraes and Barroso, who as the head of Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court has pointedly refuted Bolsonaro’s attempts to sow doubt in the voting system.
Then, on Saturday, Bolsonaro forwarded a message to a private WhatsApp group calling on his supporters to stage a massive protest on Sept. 7. The point of the demonstration, the message said, was to show that Bolsonaro and the military would have popular support for a “quite probable and necessary countercoup” against the Supreme Court and Congress.
A Crusade Against The Left
A countercoup is necessary, the WhatsApp message said, because Brazil has “a communist constitution that largely took away the powers of the President of the Republic.” Only through an aggressive democratic rupture could Bolsonaro adequately fight back against the real coup that “has already been going on for some time and is now advancing in a much more aggressive manner,” it added.
The perpetrators of that coup, according to the message, are “the Judiciary, the left, and a whole apparatus of hidden interests” that includes international actors.
Bolsonaro’s 2018 candidacy and his later presidency have thrived on disinformation and disillusion, which he stoked in order to exploit the trio of crises ― an economic collapse, a massive political corruption probe and sharp increases in violent crime ― that helped propel him into office, and that he has used to undermine faith in any number of Brazil’s federal ministries and democratic institutions since he assumed power.
He ran as a quasi-populist, anti-establishment nationalist purportedly hellbent on reclaiming Brazil from an opulent and corrupt elite. But his true target was the leftist Workers’ Party, and in particular da Silva, the former president who left office in 2010 with approval ratings near 90%, in large part because he oversaw a booming economy that drastically reduced poverty, expanded Brazil’s middle classes and established the country as an emerging global power. Da Silva’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, won two more presidential elections, and the Workers’ Party cemented itself as Brazil’s most successful, popular and institutionalized party.
Then everything fell apart: Rousseff presided over a devastating economic collapse in 2014 and was impeached two years later. Da Silva was convicted on corruption charges in 2017, making him the highest-profile target of a graft probe that ensnared hundreds of Brazilian politicians and scandalized the nation. To many Brazilians, the leftist leaders became the faces of two of Brazil’s biggest problems, and anti-Workers’ Party sentiment dominated the 2018 elections.
Bolsonaro saw in the Workers’ Party something even more evil. Economic boom times and an array of new social policies ― including affirmative action programs and the legalization of same-sex marriage ― during the Workers’ Party years increased the prominence of poor people, women, Black Brazilians, LGBTQ people and other marginalized populations across many sectors of Brazilian society.
To machismo-fueled right-wingers like Bolsonaro ― an ardent homophobe and a racist who once said he’d punch a gay couple if he saw them kissing, who told a female colleague in Congress that she was too ugly to rape, and who referred to Black populations in northeastern Brazil as “not fit even to procreate” ― the gains these groups made were a threat. The left’s greatest crime, in Bolsonaro’s eyes, was not political graft. It was the corruption of a particular Brazilian way of life.
Bolsonaro’s resounding victory seemed to vanquish the Workers’ Party. Bolsonaro governed as the authoritarian he said he’d be, targeting LGBTQ rights, protections of the Indigenous people, the free press and political opponents. But for much of his presidency, the left has remained splintered and largely irrelevant as an opposition force.
Now, the landscape has changed. Da Silva was released from prison after 580 days in November 2019, six months after The Intercept Brazil exposed judicial and prosecutorial malfeasance within the corruption case against him. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court reinstated his ability to run for office, and da Silva almost immediately signaled his intent to run for office, as he had planned to do in 2018 before courts banned him from the race.
Polls three years ago showed da Silva and Bolsonaro statistically tied. A year out from the October 2022 elections, nearly every poll conducted so far shows da Silva running well ahead of Bolsonaro ― and perhaps even earning an outright majority of votes in the election’s initial round, which would prevent the need for a head-to-head runoff between the two. In 2018, much of Brazil’s establishment elite either sat out the race or favored Bolsonaro instead of voting for a candidate from the Workers’ Party. With da Silva at the helm, the Workers’ Party remains the only real electoral threat to Bolsonaro, and with no centrist choice likely to emerge, much of that same establishment seems open to da Silva if that’s what it takes.
It’s plausible that Bolsonaro would wage a similarly anti-democratic campaign against Brazil’s institutions even without da Silva in the picture. The only true consistency throughout his three decades in politics is his expressed desire to return to the days of military rule. Meanwhile, congressional inquiries into his handling of the pandemic and police investigations into his family have made him even more desperate and exacerbated his authoritarian whims.
But da Silva’s presumed presence in next year’s election, and the signs pointing to him as the early favorite, has likely increased the odds that Bolsonaro will take drastic action.
“It’s clear that Bolsonaro is going to agitate and create this illusion of an insurrection, even if just to mobilize a couple hundred people. He has already planted that seed among his most radical supporters, and I don’t think he’s going to stop them.”
Attacking da Silva and democracy serves to further inflame Bolsonaro’s base, an obvious political benefit for a president whose base is his only concern. And beyond that, Bolsonaro doesn’t see a race against da Silva as simply a chance to hold on to power. It is an existential battle for the soul of Brazil ― at least the Brazil as Bolsonaro sees and wants it.
“He’s just manipulating his voters and manipulating public opinion, using the fear of the left coming back to power,” said Bruno Boghossian, a political columnist for Folha de S.Paulo, Brazil’s largest newspaper. “The fact that we’re discussing different scenarios if Lula [da Silva] wins and if someone else wins is proof that the problem is political. It’s not really about transparency in the elections.”
Bolsonaro may be weaker now than at any other moment during his presidency. But he has demonstrated a surprisingly durable level of support in a country where the prior two presidents saw approval ratings dip into the low single digits. Bolsonaro’s remains around 25%. It’s a bad sign for his election prospects, but it may still be a powerful enough base to protect him from the majority that wants him impeached, and to potentially mobilize in his favor if and when he claims the election was rigged against him.
“It’s clear that Bolsonaro is going to agitate and create this illusion of an insurrection, even if just to mobilize a couple hundred people,” Boghossian told HuffPost. “He has already planted that seed among his most radical supporters, and I don’t think he’s going to stop them.”
“This precedes the discussion about whether the military is going to support him or not,” he continued. “As [the United States] knows better than us, something like that — even if the institutions don’t go for it — it’s already really bad. It’s already detrimental to democracy.”
Will The Military Help?
Brazil’s armed forces have largely avoided domestic political affairs since the democratic transition ended in 1989. But under Bolsonaro, they have roared back into the picture at an alarming pace.
In 2018, Bolsonaro tapped retired Gen. Antônio Hamilton Martins Mourão — who a year earlier suggested that the military had discussed contingency plans to overthrow the country’s beleaguered government — to serve as his running mate. Since taking office, Bolsonaro has appointed more former soldiers to civilian positions within his government than have served at any point since the democratic transition. Military men currently hold 11 positions in Bolsonaro’s cabinet, and Bolsonaro has appointed a dozen more to lead state-controlled companies such as Petrobras, the federally owned oil giant. Overall, more than 6,000 military members and veterans serve in civilian governmental positions: Bolsonaro’s “de facto military government” is staffed more heavily with members of the armed forces than the military dictatorship was.
Somewhat ironically, Mourão, who told HuffPost during the election that he refused to rule out the possibility of a return to military rule, has been considered a moderating force within the Bolsonaro government. But he’s also been largely marginalized and remains a mostly irrelevant figure.
Other generals Bolsonaro has placed in key positions, not so much. Last month, Defense Minister Walter Braga Netto, a general, reportedly dispatched aides to tell congressional leaders that “there would be no elections in 2022” if Congress did not approve the electoral changes Bolsonaro was seeking. Braga Netto issued an unconvincing denial of the report, and similar rumblings have occurred since.
“There are currently no motives for Armed Forces intervention in Brazil, but this possibility is foreseen in the Constitution and can be used,” retired Gen. Augusto Heleno, a member of Bolsonaro’s Cabinet, said in a radio interview on Aug. 16.
Brazil’s military has a long history of opposing the left: Its 1964 coup overthrew a leftist president under the guise of thwarting the spread of communism, and the dictatorship worked alongside the United States and military regimes in Chile and Argentina during the Cold War. Some of that still lingers: Ahead of a major Supreme Court ruling in da Silva’s corruption case in 2018, Gen. Eduardo Villas Bôas questioned whether Brazil’s institutions were “really thinking about what is best for the country and future generations” in tweets that were widely interpreted as a threat.
Bolsonaro has tried to stoke that sentiment. He has staged parades honoring the dictatorship during his presidency, and his insistence to new generals last week that the Brazilian Constitution allowed intervention to protect and stabilize democracy is little different than the justification for the 1964 coup.
Despite those warning signs, most political analysts believe it’s unlikely that the military’s top brass will go along with a full-throated coup effort if Bolsonaro loses next year. The Brazilian armed forces, historians have argued, are no longer guided by distinct political ideology. Their main concern is their own self-interest. Intervening on behalf of a largely unpopular president would pose a massive risk to the military’s credibility, which it has worked hard to restore over the last 30 years.
“That twisted idea of ‘We’re going to have a dictatorship to defend democracy’ doesn’t work in a post-Cold War world,” said Green, the Brown University historian. He manages an archive of U.S. government documents related to the Brazilian dictatorship, and has also chronicled resistance movements to the regime.
Support for Bolsonaro among market elites is waning, and a coup attempt would only further isolate Brazil internationally. Bolsonaro doesn’t even have majority support for an intervention among his own supporters, a recent study found. The military could still try to intervene, Green said, but leaders of the armed forces are also aware that there isn’t significant popular support for such a move, and that “if they fail, they’ll be discredited for a generation.”
Still, Boghossian said it’s obvious that at least some segments of the military are sympathetic to Bolsonaro’s concerns about the election and the way the Supreme Court has responded to his charges. The fact that it’s uncertain how the military will respond if he continues to challenge Brazil’s democratic institutions ― or if he strikes at the heart of Brazilian democracy itself ― is alone a worrying sign.
The biggest threat may come not from the military but from Brazilian police forces, another institution that Bolsonaro has gone to great lengths to align himself with. Bolsonaro ran in 2018 as a law-and-order candidate who planned to unleash Brazil’s police — who kill nearly 6,000 people a year and rank among the world’s deadliest law enforcement bodies — by giving them carte blanche to kill with even more impunity. He has attempted to roll back Brazil’s stringent gun laws, and has also handed police new roles in environmental enforcement and other areas they haven’t traditionally occupied.
Like members of the armed forces, police have sought to expand their political influence in recent years, either by running for office or by moving into the government. Bolsonaro has helped: In June, he appointed a police officer with close links to his family to lead the Ministry of Justice.
The move may help Bolsonaro and his sons stave off some of the ongoing investigations into their family. But it also sent an important signal to police ahead of the election that Bolsonaro was on their side.
“This is a group that has been very loyal to him, and he has been very loyal to them,” said Ilona Szabó, co-founder of the Igarapé Institute, a Rio de Janeiro-based public security think tank. “Important parts of the police forces are very radicalized.”
The governors of Brazil’s 27 states oversee its primary police forces. Generally, the police are subject to far less institutional discipline and control than rank-and-file troops, and they care far less about the reputation and credibility inside or, especially, outside Brazil. Not all of them are aligned with Bolsonaro, of course, and fewer still would go along with a full authoritarian break with democracy even if Bolsonaro signaled they should.
But there are deepening worries that the police could pose significant threats to election administration or democratic participation and expression, and that even small numbers of rogue cops could render opposition-controlled states entirely “ungovernable.”
“A few armed men can cause a lot of disruption,” Szabó said. “Just that would create a horrible atmosphere. The main thing that would trigger that is a call to action by the president, and he’s showing every day that that’s where he’s going.”
A Stressful Year Ahead
Virtually no one believes Bolsonaro’s effort to undermine the election will actually work. Most interpret his recent escalations as the acts of a weak, desperate president who has made the determination ― earlier than most actual political observers ― that he’s unlikely to win a legitimate election next year. But the fact that it’s so obvious and so soon that he’s plotting to try is still a dangerous sign for a country that was not long ago one of the chief sources of global democratic optimism.
Today, even those who think the efforts are futile are fearful of what the year leading up to the election and its immediate aftermath have in store. Bolsonaro, who thrives in chaotic political environments, seems likely to create an atmosphere in which the election season is even more violent and chaotic than is the norm.
Still in the midst of a devastating pandemic that has caused nearly 600,000 deaths in the country alone and an economic malaise that has thrown millions of people back into poverty, Brazil is now facing yet another stressful election.
Bolsonaro has ample time to reverse his flagging poll numbers and win the election outright. That he has committed to this path suggests that no matter what he ultimately chooses to do, Brazil’s young democracy is about to face its toughest test since the dictatorship ended 36 years ago.