Last week, an ominous set of billboards suddenly appeared across Brasilia, the Brazilian capital.
An already-fraught election season will reach its tensest moment yet on Wednesday as Brazil celebrates the bicentennial anniversary of its independence from Portugal. Right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, who has made it clear he will not accept defeat in October’s presidential election and has spent the last two years attempting to undermine the contest with a series of baseless conspiracy theories, has called his supporters to the streets for mass rallies that will coincide with a ramped-up version of the Brazilian military’s traditional holiday celebrations.
Open talk of a coup among Bolsonaro supporters has inspired fears that a leader who has mimicked former U.S. President Donald Trump throughout his presidency has targeted Sept. 7 as the date for a Brazilian version of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
More likely, Brazilian political experts say, is that Wednesday will serve as a dry run for whatever response Bolsonaro is planning to his increasingly likely defeat in the October elections. Sept. 7 may be the embattled leader’s last, best attempt to demonstrate that he still has the power to mobilize his most rabid supporters and the ability to tear down the world’s fourth-largest democracy if he chooses to.
“It will be a test for Bolsonaro and his supporters, to see how many people they can engage and how many people they can take to the streets,” said Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. “In that sense, it will be a very important occasion, just to see if they can mobilize a huge number of supporters that could, in a couple of months perhaps, criticize the result of the election and deny that Bolsonaro has lost.”
Despite widespread concern that the Brazilian Armed Forces, which overthrew an elected government in 1964, could join Bolsonaro’s anti-democratic crusade, a full-blown coup attempt remains unlikely and would almost certainly fail, most experts say. Military leaders have attempted to turn down the temperature ahead of the Sept. 7 commemoration, warning that they will not be used as a political prop and that the eight-hour series of demonstrations they have planned in Rio de Janeiro is a celebration of independence, not a show of support for Bolsonaro.
This week, The New York Times reported that Brazil’s top elections official also reached a preliminary agreement with military leaders for election-related reforms some generals had sought, inspiring some hope for a pre-election ceasefire between former soldiers within the Bolsonaro government and the democratic institutions that have defended the election system from the president’s attacks.
Bolsonaro, however, has been unable to gain ground on former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who led Bolsonaro, 45%-32%, in a survey released Thursday by Datafolha, Brazil’s largest pollster. Increasingly desperate and nearly out of options a month ahead of the vote, Bolsonaro has made it clear he will not leave quietly – whether the military and the masses join him or not.
“I’m sure that he will not concede,” said Thomas Traumann, a Brazilian political analyst. “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 only question, he said, is: “Will it be violent?”
Brazil’s 2022 campaign season has already been vicious. In May, a Bolsonaro supporter stormed into a birthday party and shot and killed a member of the Workers’ Party in the southern city of Foz do Iguaçu. A month later, someone used a drone to shower da Silva’s supporters with urine, and in July, a homemade device exploded outside a da Silva event, pelting a crowd with feces.
At the start of Brazil’s official campaign period in August, da Silva canceled an event to formally launch his bid for the presidency amid security concerns. He has worn bulletproof vests at events throughout the summer.
Bolsonaro wore a flak jacket while kicking off his own campaign in Juiz de Fora, a city in Minas Gerais state. The location was symbolic: In August 2018, Bolsonaro was stabbed during an event in the city and spent most of the subsequent election in the hospital or on bedrest, unable to campaign.
Bolsonaro’s preferred political language has always been violent. He has regularly expressed nostalgia for the oppressive dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985; he once said that Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet should have killed even more of his leftist adversaries; in the late 1990s, he called for the shooting of a Brazilian president. He has said he would punch two gay men if he saw them kissing in public, once called a female colleague in Congress too ugly to rape, and said that poor, Black Brazilians are unfit for procreation.
During the 2018 race, he promised to unleash Brazil’s police, who already ranked among the deadliest law enforcement bodies in the world, to kill even more, and pledged to rid the country of corrupt politicians and “communists” – by which he meant anyone opposed to him. The 2018 race was defined by discontent with the Brazilian political system and a litany of crises facing the country: The economy had collapsed, homicide rates had soared to record highs and Brazil was in the midst of a massive corruption probe that had implicated hundreds of politicians and business leaders.
The stabbing consolidated support behind Bolsonaro, seemingly validating the idea that Brazil had spiraled out of control and needed an iron-fisted response.
“The 2018 election was an anger election,” said Matias Spektor, a professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. “The public was furious. People were pissed off, and they wanted to see blood. And the one candidate who promised blood really effectively was Bolsonaro.”
“Bolsonaro’s strategy all along has been to try to make people concerned about what will happen if he doesn’t win.”
The upcoming Sept. 7 protests are clearly an attempt to recapture both the momentum and the fear that drove the far-right president to victory in 2018.
“Bolsonaro’s strategy all along has been to try to make people concerned about what will happen if he doesn’t win,” said Anya Prusa, a specialist in Brazilian politics at the Albright-Stonebridge Group, a Washington-based consultant.
Bolsonaro is increasingly desperate: He and his family – three of his sons are lawmakers – have faced a litany of potential criminal allegations during his time in office, and he would lose the legal protections that come with the presidency if he’s defeated in October. “I’m letting the scoundrels know,” Bolsonaro bellowed at a rally last year, “I’ll never be imprisoned!”
Da Silva’s improbable return to the center of Brazilian politics after his corruption conviction was annulled last year thanks to judicial malfeasance in the case against him, has only increased the odds that Bolsonaro will not willingly hand over power. Da Silva was barred from the 2018 race, preventing a head-to-head matchup that polls suggested he could have won.
Da Silva has held consistent leads in 2022 polls for the last year, a fact that has only inflamed the current president. To Bolsonaro and his supporters, da Silva’s Workers’ Party is not merely politically corrupt; it is also a force that corrupts a particular Brazilian identity – one that, like Bolsonaro, is white, machista, religious and conservative.
Much like Trump, Bolsonaro has a lousy poker face. He tends to broadcast his plans and then act on them. His refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of Trump’s 2020 defeat and his immediate embrace of similar voter fraud conspiracies hardened fears that a Jan. 6 event could take place in Brazil, too. His efforts to link the military to his cause and his persistent refusal to say that he will accept the results of the election, should he lose, have inspired deep fears about the ability of Brazil’s young democracy to withstand the threats it’s facing.
Over the last year, Brazil’s democratic institutions have mounted a furious defense. Top judges from Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court, which oversees and certifies elections, have challenged Bolsonaro to produce evidence of fraud (he failed to do so) and investigated his efforts to spread fake news about the election.
At events in Brazil and globally, the justices have publicly touted the safety and security of an election system that has never faced serious allegations of fraud: “We are the only democracy in the world that calculates and publishes electoral results on the same day with agility, security, competence and transparency,” Alexandre de Moraes, the head of the electoral court, said during his inaugural speech in August.
Brazil’s election system is widely regarded as one of the world’s best: Last spring, when the court hired hackers to infiltrate the system and expose its vulnerabilities, they failed to compromise it. Behind the scenes, justices have quietly prepared for a scenario in which Bolsonaro attacks the legitimacy of the election and the court in the event of a loss.
In August, the prestigious University of São Paulo’s law school released a letter in defense of Brazilian democracy at a public event in the country’s largest city. Similar in scope to a 1977 letter that is widely credited with paving the way for Brazil’s return to democratic rule a decade later, the document never mentioned Bolsonaro. But the implication was clear, and it was signed by hundreds of thousands of Brazilians, including leading lawyers, judges, business executives and cultural icons like Caetano Veloso, a popular singer who was exiled during military rule.
The Biden administration has privately told Bolsonaro to stop questioning the election in meetings over the last two years. This summer, after Bolsonaro used a meeting with foreign ambassadors to question the integrity of elections, the United States Embassy released a public statement defending Brazil’s electoral system as “a model for the world.” In Brazil, the message was viewed as a uniquely strong defense of democracy from a nation that has a deep history of backing coups in the Americas.
“Sept. 7 may be Bolsonaro's last, best attempt to demonstrate that he still has the power to mobilize his most rabid supporters and the ability to tear down the world’s fourth-largest democracy if he chooses to.”
Ordinary Brazilians, meanwhile, seem largely fatigued with Bolsonaro’s version of politics. He has spent four years delivering on the violence he promised. Police killings rose across the first half of his presidency to more than 6,200 per year, and two of the deadliest police raids in Brazilian history have occurred in the last 18 months. The number of Indigenous people killed in land disputes with illegal miners, loggers and other illicit interests has soared. Violence against LGBTQ people, and especially trans Brazilians, has escalated.
Attacks on journalists, human rights workers and environmentalists — all of whom Bolsonaro has targeted — have risen sharply: The murders of British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian Indigenous affairs expert Bruno Pereira in the Amazon rainforest this summer drew domestic and global outrage against Bolsonaro, who dismissed their killings as the result of an ill-advised “adventure” into the forest.
At the same time, Bolsonaro has largely failed to restore the economic prosperity Brazilians craved. COVID-19, and Bolsonaro’s mishandling of it, devastated the Brazilian economy and drove sharp increases in unemployment and inflation. Fuel and food prices surged: Brazil, once a glowing example of how to combat extreme poverty on a national scale, last year returned to the World Hunger Map, which it had triumphantly left in 2014.
“If you talk to people in Brazil these days, for almost everybody, life is much harder now than it used to be before the pandemic,” Santoro said. “People have this general feeling that life is worse now, and everybody is asking, ‘What did Bolsonaro do to respond to the pandemic? What did he do to prevent the bad things that are happening in Brazil?’”
Bolsonaro should have a strong argument to make on that front. Few countries were more aggressive than Brazil in their efforts to deliver cash aid to citizens impacted by pandemic-related lockdowns, job losses food shortages and other struggles. After a tough two years, inflation rates have receded, unemployment fell this year to its lowest level since 2015, and the economy is largely back on track. This month, a reformed welfare program began delivering bigger payments to the poor — the sort of helicopter money that, in theory, should bolster support for an incumbent president.
But conventional politics are not Bolsonaro’s forte, and the economy is not his preferred turf on which to fight. By the time Brazil began to recover, Bolsonaro had apparently decided that he would rather undermine the election than try to win it.
Da Silva, who oversaw Brazil’s economic boom in the early 21st century, has focused his campaign almost entirely on the economy, reminding Brazilians in ads and speeches of the prosperity that took place on his watch. Bolsonaro, meanwhile, has continued to throw red meat to his base: In the first presidential debate last Sunday, he castigated da Silva as a communist and attacked two women — calling a reporter “a disgrace to journalism” and a senator (and fellow presidential candidate) “a disgrace to the Senate.”
He has made up some ground in recent polls, but not nearly enough. Even an improving economy has left him with no clear path to victory ― at least legally.
It’s unclear whether Bolsonaro still has the power to inspire mass rallies of the sort he’s seeking this week. Last Sept. 7, Bolsonaro attempted to generate major protests against the Supreme Court, which had already begun to push back against his election conspiracies, and Brazil’s Congress, which had refused to act on a slate of election reforms he had proposed.
But despite some sporadic efforts to cause mayhem, the massive show of strength Bolsonaro had hoped to provoke largely failed to materialize. The Brazilian press widely interpreted the effort as a sign of his waning strength.
“Clearly, he’s not as strong now as he was four years ago, when he was the man of the moment,” Santoro said. “Now he seems more like a politician in decline.”
Bolsonaro still commands support from a sizable base of Brazilians — roughly a third of the country remains firmly in his corner — who may be willing to do whatever it takes to prevent the left from returning to power. In late August, a group of influential businessmen expressed support for a coup in WhatsApp messages. And Bolsonaro, who has stocked his government with military men, still enjoys the backing of many rank-and-file members of the armed forces and Brazil’s military police units.
The conditions aren’t ripe for a coup attempt, experts say: Unlike in 1964, the military doesn’t have support from the United States, the mainstream Brazilian press or the country’s business elite. The military’s top brass likely knows that intervention on behalf of an unpopular president would be a long shot to succeed and would be met with immediate domestic and international reprisal that would hammer both the armed forces and the Brazilian economy.
But “Bolsonaro is not a rational man,” Traumann said. “The fact that he might not win doesn’t mean that he might not try.”
At least a few generals may not be rational, either. Brazil’s police, meanwhile, are less professional, more disorganized and even more radical in their support for Bolsonaro, and could cause havoc on Election Day or immediately afterward.
Whatever Bolsonaro and his supporters choose to do between now and the end of the election, this much seems clear: Brazil is in the midst of a democratic crisis that seems likely to intensify over the next month, and that won’t quickly be resolved no matter the outcome of the election or any attempt to undermine it.
The right-wing leader has already said that a sizable segment of Brazilian voters won’t trust the outcome of the vote and won’t view the next president as legitimate. The violent, anti-democratic movement he promised to unleash four years ago is likely to remain a driving force of Brazilian politics, even if da Silva wins and Bolsonaro ultimately leaves office with a whimper.
“Bolsonarismo is here to stay,” Traumann said, “even if it’s without Bolsonaro.”