SAO PAULO — Last fall, right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro made it clear that there was only one way he would leave power: “Only God,” he told raucous supporters in São Paulo, “can remove me” from office.
Ordinary Brazilians, however, may do just that on Sunday when they head to the polls in an election that carries massive stakes for the future of the world’s fourth-largest democracy.
Bolsonaro’s chief rival in the election, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has held a commanding lead in polls for more than a year, and recent surveys suggest that the leftist former president has an outside chance to win an outright majority in this weekend’s first round, preventing the need for a two-person runoff three weeks from now.
But over the last two years, Bolsonaro has openly suggested that he does not intend to accept the results of an election he loses and has pledged to his supporters that he will “go to war” to prevent the end of his presidency. An ardent ally of former U.S. President Donald Trump, Bolsonaro has spread baseless conspiracy theories about voter fraud, accused Brazilian electoral authorities of rigging the election against him, and unleashed a relentless series of attacks against Brazil’s electronic voting system, which experts regard as one of the safest and most efficient in the world.
In recent days, Bolsonaro and his right-wing party have abandoned any remaining semblance of a traditional campaign and seemingly let go of any lingering hope that he could win the election legitimately. Instead, the president has intensified his attacks: This week, the New York Times reported, Bolsonaro’s party released an official document alleging — falsely — that Brazilian election observers could manipulate results “without leaving a trace of evidence” behind.
With 24 hours remaining before the first vote is cast, the question looming over Brazil’s election is not whether Bolsonaro will attempt to provoke a democratic rupture in response to a defeat, but what it might look like: A military coup? A Brazilian version of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol? Violence and chaos that disrupts a free election and peaceful transfer of power? Or something else entirely?
“I’m sure that he will not concede,” Thomas Traumann, a Brazilian political analyst, told HuffPost last month. “I’m sure that he will contest. I’m sure that he will try to put people in the streets saying he won anyway.”
The possibilities have attracted attention from across the world and turned Brazil’s election into the latest test of whether a right-wing movement that has prospered via legitimate elections over the last four years can succeed in using its victories to fully tear down a major democracy.
The stakes are massive: Aside from the United States, Brazil is the largest democracy in the Western Hemisphere, and even a failed attempt at an authoritarian takeover would likely reverberate across the Americas and the world.
A second term for Bolsonaro, whether won legitimately or not, would allow him to consolidate the authoritarian gains of his first four years, in which he has targeted the rights of Brazil’s minority populations — including LGBTQ Brazilians, Black people and Indigenous tribes — and eroded democratic institutions.
Environmental experts also fear that it would spell doom for the Amazon rainforest, which has experienced record levels of deforestation on Bolsonaro’s watch, further inhibiting the global effort to combat climate change.
The United States and European Union have focused intently on the election. Senior U.S. officials have repeatedly warned Bolsonaro and his allies to stop undermining the elections, and the U.S. Senate this week passed a resolution that called on the Biden administration to “review and reconsider its relationship with any government that comes to power in Brazil through undemocratic means.” Dozens of EU lawmakers, meanwhile, argued this week for trade sanctions on Brazil if Bolsonaro succeeds in contesting the results.
Those efforts may prevent the most alarming scenario: a military intervention on Bolsonaro’s behalf. Bolsonaro, a former Army captain who has long expressed affinity for the dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, has stocked his government with a record number of soldiers and leaned on them in his quest to undermine the election. His running mate, retired Gen. Walter Braga Netto, reportedly threatened Brazil’s Congress to make election changes Bolsonaro sought last year, and military leaders have sought certain reforms that Bolsonaro has called for to address problems that election officials say do not actually exist.
Experts, however, have regarded a coup attempt as unlikely, in part because it does not enjoy the sort of support from the United States and other Western democracies that tolerated the overthrow of a leftist government during the Cold War in 1964. (Brazilian financial elites and the media, two other crucial pillars of support for that coup, have also largely rebuked Bolsonaro’s efforts to draw the armed forces back into electoral politics.)
Top Army officials seemingly put any remaining doubts about how the institutional armed forces would react to bed on Friday, saying they intended to respect the results of the election no matter who wins.
A version of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, however, may be more plausible. On Sept. 7, Brazil’s independence day, Bolsonaro called his supporters to the streets for massive rallies meant to demonstrate his ability to mobilize his base.
Bolsonaro and his backers have already used the size of those demonstrations to question the polls. If and when he does cast doubt on the results, he will likely use the images of those events — much as Trump cited crowds at his own rallies in 2020 — as a suggestion that crowd sizes are indicative of how “true Brazilians” voted and that something must be amiss.
“They will be the base for his refusal to accept the result of the elections,” Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, said after the rallies.
Brazil’s primary electoral institutions, including its Supreme Court and Superior Electoral Tribunal, have for months prepared for post-election scenarios in which Bolsonaro attempts to question the results. But he still commands the support of nearly one-third of the Brazilian population, and many are susceptible to his conspiratorial claims, which have spread like wildfire across social media sources like WhatsApp and Telegram, two chat services that are widely used in Brazil and have been linked to fake news campaigns that have helped radicalize the Brazilian right.
“He’s trapped in his own radicalism, in the sense that even if he’s willing to accept the results, most who are around him … are probably not going to let Bolsonaro just give up on his candidacy or the presidency.”
And there are questions about how rogue elements of Brazil’s violent police forces, which have shown substantial support for his election conspiracy theories, will react in a potential election dispute.
A loss in the first round, experts say, would leave Bolsonaro weakened and likely unable to pull off a substantial threat to Brazil’s democracy. But it doesn’t mean that he won’t try — or that his supporters and allies won’t launch an attempt on his behalf. Bolsonaro has expanded gun rights for Brazilians over the last four years, and many of his supporters are now heavily armed and touting that fact ahead of a potential election dispute.
“The beast that Bolsonaro has created is pretty much out of control,” said Guilherme Casarões, a Brazilian political expert at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in Sao Paulo. “We’re talking about 700,000 Brazilians with new gun licenses. We’re talking about members of the [police] forces and some members of the military who are really willing to back Bolsonaro’s authoritarian instincts.”
“He’s trapped in his own radicalism, in the sense that even if he’s willing to accept the results, most who are around him…are probably not going to let Bolsonaro just give up on his candidacy or the presidency,” Casarões said.
Brazil’s election season has already been marred by violence. Bolsonaro supporters have pelted crowds at da Silva’s events with urine and feces and have waged worse attacks. In July, a Bolsonaro backer raided a birthday party and killed a member of da Silva’s leftist Workers’ Party. This week, a da Silva supporter was stabbed and killed in a bar after telling a man that he would vote for the former president this weekend.
Fears that more violence could erupt at voting centers, rallies or other events have consumed many Brazilians, more than one-third of whom now say they’re uncomfortable discussing their vote with others, according to a recent poll.
Four years ago, Bolsonaro rode discontent with Brazil’s political establishment to the presidency, capitalizing on anger over a collapsed economy, rising levels of violent crime, and political corruption to win a race many believed he couldn’t.
Da Silva, who was imprisoned on a corruption conviction and barred from the race, symbolized many of those problems at the time, creating a perfect scenario for a politician like Bolsonaro who has always seen the left and its policies — especially those aimed at bolstering the rights of Brazil’s minority populations — as the country’s biggest problem.
Four years later, however, the Brazilian economy and Bolsonaro’s handling of it has dominated the race. Da Silva, whose conviction was annulled thanks to judicial improprieties last year, has focused on the subject, promising Brazilians that he will deliver the sort of prosperity the country experienced when its economy boomed during his eight years as president.
Da Silva has pledged to restore Brazilians’ “right to barbecue” ― a reference to the rising food costs that sent hunger rates skyrocketing and left many poorer Brazilians unable to afford the beef that is a staple of traditional weekend cookouts.
“The people have to go back to eating a barbecue, eating a picanha and having a beer,” he said during a nationally televised broadcast last month, a line that inspired sales of online merchandise bearing a potentially powerful, if unofficial, slogan: “Steak, beer and Lula 2022.”
“To Bolsonaro, the election has always been a battle of 'good vs. evil,' and he has proved incapable of approaching it any other way. That has inflamed his supporters but turned off most Brazilians.”
Bolsonaro has been unable to adjust, even as the economy has improved in recent months. To him, the election has always been a battle of “good vs. evil,” and he has proved incapable of approaching it any other way.
That has inflamed his supporters but turned off most Brazilians. Much like Trump, Bolsonaro’s reelection strategy has suffered from a miscalculation: He won the presidency in 2018 not because a majority of Brazilians fully agreed with him, but because he was the alternative to a political system they saw as decrepit and in need of total change.
Now he’s the system, and many Brazilians who held their nose and chose Bolsonaro in 2018 seem fatigued by the violent rhetoric, chaotic politics and anti-democratic governance that defines Bolsonarismo.
“Clearly, he’s not as strong now as he was four years ago when he was the man of the moment,” Santoro told HuffPost last month. “Now he seems more like a politician in decline.”
Tired of Bolsonaro’s machismo-fueled politics, his cavalier approach to the coronavirus pandemic and his lack of focus on the economy, women have turned against him in droves. A majority of Brazilians overall say they won’t vote for him under any circumstances.
In recent weeks, da Silva’s campaign has focused nearly all of its efforts on turning out voters, especially those from poorer backgrounds who are typically more likely to favor the left but less likely to cast ballots, even though voting is mandatory in Brazil. They have also attempted to persuade supporters of other candidates to cast strategic votes for da Silva, in the hopes of pushing him across the majority threshold Sunday.
A first-round victory, they believe, would blunt whatever Bolsonaro does to try to subvert the election. Three more weeks of campaigning, by contrast, may put Brazil’s democracy in even more peril than it’s already facing.
“The second round,” Casarões said, “will give Bolsonaro an extra month to cause as much turmoil as he can.”