“There is a new type of thief, those who want to steal our freedom,” Bolsonaro told supporters in June. He added: “If necessary, we will go to war.”
Thirty-seven years after the largest nation in Latin America overthrew the military dictatorship, the presidential election is taking on the appearance of a referendum on democracy.
The vote – Sunday is the first round – pits Bolsonaro supporters, the most radical of whom want a strongman in power, against Brazilians keen to end his Trumpian run. Since taking office in 2019, Bolsonaro has overseen the accelerating destruction of the Amazon rainforest, dismissed the coronavirus pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of Brazilians and resisted allegations that he encouraged an overuse of violence. force by the police.
Critics say he has also deeply undermined democracy – holding key positions with current and former military commanders, choosing war with the Supreme Court and piling the prosecutor’s office and police with loyalists.
The choice between former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, 76, and Bolsonaro, 67, has put Brazil at the forefront of the global tussle between democracy and authoritarianism. The contest here is closely watched in the United States – whose politics and polarization that Brazil seemed to reflect.
Sunday’s vote resembles the Biden-Trump matchup in 2020. Bolsonaro, who has maintained ties to Trump strategists including Stephen K. Bannon, polls about 10 percentage points behind Lula, a lion of the Latin left American who moved to the center and presented himself as a defender of the young Brazilian democracy.
“What’s at stake right now is democracy or barbarism,” Lula told supporters at an August rally in the city of Belo Horizonte.
Pressed on his plans, Bolsonaro said he would honor ‘transparent’ election results, and analysts say his appetite and ability to incite an old-fashioned coup with tanks in the streets is likely very limits. After a Supreme Court justice warned of the potential for political violence, Bolsonaro pointedly told his supporters not to stage a “new invasion of the Capitol.”
But given his loaded language, which often repeats that of his political star – former US President Donald Trump – critics in Brazil and beyond still warn of the potential for disruption or violence.
“President Bolsonaro’s reckless and dangerous rhetoric on electoral fraud raises[s] serious fears that he potentially impedes a peaceful transfer of power if he loses,” a group of 39 U.S. lawmakers led by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) wrote to President Biden this month. “Having personally experienced the horrors of the January 6 uprising, we know its consequences all too well.”
Polls suggest Lula is within striking distance of 50% of the vote – the margin required to avoid a runoff on October 30. If he wins outright, any attempt by Bolsonaro to cling to power would come up against weaker institutions than those in the United States – and would be the biggest challenge to democracy here since the end of the dictatorship in 1985. If he gains four more years, critics say, the world’s fourth-largest democracy could suffer further erosion of institutions. It would also mark another victory for the global far right, following major victories this month in Italy and Sweden.
A peaceful transfer of power after a loss to Bolsonaro could be a historic moment of a different kind. Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly isolated in the world and facing more criticism at home following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Turkey’s elected autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdogan could face a tough re-election campaign next year, as will Poland’s right-wing government in parliamentary elections. The fact that Bolsonaro is slowly entering the political night could signal that the illiberal tide, built on populism, polarization, voter disdain and misinformation and disinformation, may begin to ebb.
“If Bolsonaro loses, it will be important,” said Richard Youngs, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The fact that Brazil has gone backwards in terms of democratic quality largely explains these negative global trends. I think a number of autocrats could very well be put on the defensive.
Frederick Wassef, Bolsonaro’s lawyer, told the Washington Post there had been ‘blatant manipulation’ of opinion polls and warned that ‘various domestic and foreign forces’ were staging a ‘coup’ against his client.
Bolsonaro, he said, will take “all legal steps” to contest any victory for Lula, and he suggested the right would protest or stage nationwide strikes if his candidate lost.
“I don’t believe in anything serious, in terms of violence,” Wassef said. “But people aren’t going to sit idly by as the chair is stolen from a president everyone voted for and loved.”
Bolsonaro has for months laid the groundwork to blame a loss on election fraud. In July, he summoned dozens of foreign diplomats to the presidential residence to hear his claims that the electronic voting system, deemed reliable by election experts, was easily manipulated. He cited a 2018 police investigation into an incident in which a hacker broke into the national electoral authority’s internal system. The authority said the hacker had no access to voting machines or source codes, and could not alter data or compromise results.
These alleged electoral vulnerabilities – rejected by independent experts – have been taken up by members of the Brazilian military. Bolsonaro has also pushed for the military to conduct a parallel vote count with election officials. A compromise with election officials will allow the military to verify a small sample of ballots cast on Sunday.
With numerous military commanders in Bolsonaro’s administration and other government positions, up to 37% of Brazilians believe Bolsonaro could attempt a coup, according to a Datafolha poll in July.
Brazil’s right-wing dictatorship, which ruled the country from 1964 to 1985, tried to maintain a veneer of democracy. During his tenure, at least 434 people were killed or disappeared. Dissident torture techniques included mock crucifixions. Congress remained open, but it largely functioned as a rubber stamp. Elections were rigged and most political parties were abolished.
The military is now seen as lacking in ambition to lead the country, and few believe it has the courage or interest in action that would almost surely lead to swift US and European sanctions.
“They don’t respect democracy, they don’t respect Congress and they don’t respect the judicial system,” said João Roberto Martins Filho, a professor at the Federal University of São Carlos and former president of the Brazilian Association for Defense Studies. “But they respect American generals. So they may have listened to all the messages that the United States sent them. They know that a traditional coup will not work.
That hasn’t stopped coup rumors among some Brazilian power players, who worry about a return of the left-wing Workers’ Party, which ruled the country for 13 years until 2016 and saw one president impeached, and the other – Lula – imprisoned for a year and a half for alleged corruption (the conviction was eventually overturned and Lula was released).
In August, police acting on a warrant issued by the Supreme Court judge who heads Brazil’s electoral authority raided the homes of several pro-Bolsonaro business executives who allegedly considered a possible overthrow of a private text group .
Analysts say the biggest threat is a scenario in Trump’s book, in which Bolsonaro alleges fraud and refuses to acknowledge the election result.
“He could call on his supporters to take to the streets and cause unrest, especially if there is a second round,” said Guilherme Casarões, political analyst at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. “He could try to overturn the results or force a state of emergency so he can postpone the second round until next year.”
Bolsonaro, protected by his attorney general, has dodged official inquiries into alleged wrongdoing. But various accusations – including an inflated coronavirus vaccine deal at the Department of Health – could confuse him once he leaves office. A show of force could serve as a warning to Brazil’s political establishment to back down.
The uncertainty has put the country on edge. Former presidential candidates from all political walks of life have thrown their support behind Lula in the name of “democracy”. In August, thousands of Brazilians gathered at the University of São Paulo Law School, site of a protest against the dictatorship in 1977, to rally for the rule of law. Activists have written a new “manifesto” denouncing the risk of a break with democracy.
“We went through a difficult period, very polarized, like in the United States,” said one of the authors of the “manifesto”, Thiago Pinheiro Lima, a prosecutor who works with electoral authorities. “We want to avoid an episode such as the invasion of the Capitol.”
“I’m scared,” he added. “We have a fragile democracy and we have been subjected to strong and aggressive rhetoric discrediting institutions and the voting process for a few years now. This makes us fear an institutional rupture.
Bolsonaro, who often speaks in contradictory ways, has sought to both reassure and threaten.
“If it’s God’s will, I will continue,” he said in an interview with a group of evangelical podcasters this month. “If not, we will pass the belt and I will retire, because at my age, I have nothing more to do here on Earth.” Five days later he had a very different message, telling a TV reporter during a visit to London for Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral that “if I get less than 60% of the vote, something abnormal has occurred”.
Some analysts warn that a loss for Bolsonaro should not be interpreted as an endorsement of democracy, but rather as a rejection of a leader who broke his promises and left the country with extremely high inflation and a poverty rate roughly unchanged since the day he took office.
“It’s not about democracy; it’s about economics,” said Brazilian political analyst Matias Spektor, a visiting scholar at Princeton University. “It’s because Bolsonaro failed.”