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Sao Paulo: On Friday and Saturday, at a convention hall in Brasilia, awash with the green, yellow and blue of the Brazilian flag, hundreds of people milled around – without masks – amid noisy chatter about “conservatism”, “Christian values” and “the dangerous left”.
At the two-day Conference on Conservative Political Action (CPAC), many wore vests with the event’s theme: “Freedom is not gained, it is conquered”. On Saturday, Donald Trump Jr. appeared on a screen at the meeting, claiming that China has “plans” for the 2022 elections in Brazil. “They [Chinese] can install a socialist government they can manipulate – someone who thinks like them, as opposed to someone who loves freedom,” thundered the son of former US President Donald Trump at the gig organised by Eduardo Bolsonaro, who heads “The Movement”, a group led by far-right ideologue Steve Bannon, in South America.
A few weeks ago, Eduardo, a federal deputy and third son of President Jair Bolsonaro, was speaking at a symposium hosted by Mike Lindell, an American millionaire who is one of the main conspiracy theorists about the “fraud” in the US election which Trump lost. At the 72-hour event, dubbed “random garbage” by experts, Bannon floated a theory about fraud in the next Brazilian election. “The election in Brazil is the second most important in the world and Jair Bolsonaro will face a criminal, [former president] Lula, the most dangerous leftist on the planet,” said Bannon. “And the election will be stolen by machines,” Bannon alleged, echoing Bolsonaro’s baseless claim that he would lose because of rigging of electronic voting machines by the federal election tribunal (TSE).
The next Brazilian election is scheduled for October 2022. The election process hasn’t started yet. But opinions polls put Lula way ahead of Bolsonaro. According to a poll, Bolsonaro would lose to Lula in the first round itself; he would lose to all potential candidates in the second round. In recent months, Bolsonaro’s popularity has sunk. Fearing a defeat, Bolsonaro has been training his guns at the country’s Supreme Court, Senate and TSE.
On Saturday, speaking at CPAC, Bolsonaro targeted the court and Alexandre de Moraes, a judge who has sent some of Bolsonaro’s closest backers to jail on serious charges in recent months. Justice Moraes would also head the TSE in 2022 when Brazil goes to polls (the election commission here is headed sitting judges of Supreme Court on rotational basis). “They’re thinking I’m going to back off, but I won’t run away from the truth or the commitment I made to you,” said Bolsonaro to a boisterous crowd as he peddled his election fraud theory and accused Justice Moraes of “contaminating” the Brazilian democracy.
Since last year, Bolsonaro’s stock has been falling as his disastrous handling of the pandemic made Brazil one of the worst-hit countries in the world. Locking horns with the judiciary and legislative since 2019, the president has now declared an open war on the two other wings of power as he stares at defeat in the elections. Just like Trump did in the US, Bolsonaro has been talking of fraud even before a single vote has been cast. Observers see the Brazilian leader following the playbook of Steve Bannon, who is suspected of engineering the January 6 assault on the Capitol Hill – an attempt to change the election result by violent takeover of the Congress.
Brazil is on the edge right now as it fears a similar attack on the country’s institutions on Tuesday, September 7, when Bolsonaro’s supporters come out on the streets in support of the beleaguered president. Many of them could be armed.
All eyes on Brasilia
Brazil celebrates the 199th anniversary of its independence from the Portuguese empire on Tuesday. On this historic day, Jair Bolsonaro has asked his supporters to pack the streets, especially in Brasilia and Sao Paulo, in a show of strength. In the national capital, tension is running high as caravans of buses offload the president’s supporters at hotels booked for them by his rich backers. On social media, evangelical pastors are exhorting the faithful with apocalyptic visions of “soldiers and civilians invading the Congress and the Supreme Court”. In various state capitals, nervous governors are keeping a track of serving officers of military police sneaking away to Brasilia to join Bolsonaro’s rally.
The planned demonstrations and the feverish tone set by the CPAC in Brasilia has made the National Human Rights Council ask the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to send observers to the rallies – a rare request. “In addition to threatening that there will be no elections in 2022, anti-democratic elements supported by the President have propagated threats of a coup by the groups that propagate hate speech,” the council said in a note on Saturday.
But Bolsonaro is banking on a head-on collision with other institutions to save himself. The president and his supporters have been openly talking of the September 7 demonstrations being an “ultimatum” to two apex court judges who are overseeing the cases which can have serious legal implications for the Bolsonaro clan. The far-right leader, a former paratrooper, seems to be launching a pre-emptive strike against the institutions which can derail his presidency.
“We do not have a real crisis between the institutions but Bolsonaro is trying to engineer a crisis. He is pushing the argument that everything is wrong in the country and the ungovernability is not his fault as other institutions don’t let him govern. He is also trying to create a justification in the face of a likely defeat in the election and then create a real crisis by saying that he doesn’t recognise the result and he would not step down,” says Rafael R. Ioris, a professor of Latin American history and politics at the University of Denver, Colorado. “What will happen then? That is the big question.”
The president has been in conflict not only with the judiciary but also the Senate, which is investigating the government’s conduct during the pandemic through a Parliamentary Inquiry Commission (CPI). The commission’s report, due this month, is expected to indict the Bolsonaro government with possible criminal charges, including the corruption in the $300-million contract for Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin. In the past four months, the Senate panel has captured the country’s imagination with a thorough probe into the “acts of omission and commission” of the Bolsonaro government. The investigation into the Indian vaccine deal, known here as CovaxinGate, has been particularly damaging to the president, who knows the CPI report will hit him like a tonne of bricks. Bolsonaro has been rather candid about his apprehension. “I have three alternatives for my future: to be arrested, to be dead or to win,” Bolsonaro said last week while talking to his supporters.
Clinging on to power by any possible means, including a coup, could be Bolsonaro’s best bet of keeping himself and his family out of trouble as they face serious cases in various courts. The Supreme Court alone is looking into four criminal cases involving Bolsonaro, his sons or supporters. Bolsonaro also faces two cases in the election tribunal, including one about the dissemination of fake news about election fraud. Most of these cases are being heard by Justice Moraes, who is also looking into the allegations that the president interfered in the work of Federal Police to protect his sons from investigation. Bolsonaro’s three sons from his first marriage – all elected officials – are under investigation in various cases.
Last week, the president’s fourth son, Jair Renan, became a target of an investigation as it was revealed that he had opened an events management firm with the help of Marconny de Faria, a lobbyist who is being investigated by the Senate as an intermediary of Precisa Medicamentos, the company which represented Bharat Biotech in Brazil for the Covaxin deal. Jair Renan’s mother, Ana Cristina who was Bolsonaro’s second wife (Bolsonaro is into his third marriage now), is also being probed for running a kickback scheme with the help of her 10 family members in Rio de Janeiro. Senator Alessandro Vieira has filed a request to summon Ana Cristina to the CPI because of her alleged relationship with the lobbyist in the Covaxin deal.
A basket case of failure
In 2018, a large number of people voted for Bolsonaro as he promised to turn around the country’s economy with his free-market rhetoric. It is on this front that he has failed the most as the economic scenario here looks bleak. The economy was expected to grow 5% in 2021 due to the low-base effect of 2020, but the growth forecast for the next year is less than 2%. More than 14 million people are jobless.
The threat of a power grab in the middle of an economic crisis has made some of Brazil’s business elite wary of Bolsonaro’s plans. In recent days, banking and agribusiness associations have released statements condemning “radical adventures” and warned against “the risk of setbacks and institutional ruptures”. “We cannot present ourselves to the community of nations as a society permanently strained by endless crises or at risk of setbacks and institutional ruptures. Brazil is much bigger and better than the image we have projected to the world. This is costing us dearly and will take time to reverse,” said a statement from the association of agribusiness, the sector that has sustained the Brazilian economy the most during the pandemic.
The statements from the top business groups were a clear message to the president that a part of the country’s elite has little appetite for a violent uprising at this moment. Though Bolsonaro has dismissed these voices of protest, he knows he has lost the narrative to other centres of power. “The pandemic provided an opportunity to Bolsonaro to rally people behind him if he handled it in a rational way. He misread it, following Trump’s lead, and said that it was not a real problem. But the pandemic in Brazil is a real problem as is evident from the horrible numbers. It was an opportunity for him to centralise power to exert his authoritarian impulses. But in reality, it led to decentralisation of power as the governors, the Supreme Court and the Congress acted well to control the pandemic and curbed some of the worst authoritarian instincts of Bolsonaro,” says Ioris.
Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic was an unmitigated disaster. It cost him the 2020 election. Bolsonaro is going down the hill the same way. A poll published on September 1 shows a huge increase in Bolsonaro’s negative rating, with his rejection on the rise in all socio-economic, political, geographical and religious groups. Even among the evangelicals, who largely backed him in 2018, there is more rejection than approval. With such a slump in popularity, Bolsonaro has little chance of recovering lost ground by the time Brazil votes in the next presidential election.
Bolsonaro followed Trump’s template in tackling the pandemic and he reduced Brazil to the second worst country in terms of number of infections and mortalities. In the process, he also drained the country’s economy down the sinkhole. But he has not given up on Trumpism. As he fears a humiliating ouster from office next year, Bolsonaro seems to have picked up another trick from the Trump book, written by Bannon. Last week, as he was asked about the rising prices of beans, which is part of the Brazilian staple diet, Bolsonaro said: “Anyone who says he needs to buy beans is an idiot. Everyone has to buy a rifle.”
It is the men with guns in the country’s armed forces, military police, shooting clubs and private security firms that Bolsonaro hopes to bring out on the streets in his support. As per some reports, the President enjoys big support among the middle- and lower-ranks of military. At the top, his government is packed with serving and retired officers, making it the most militarised government in the country’s history. Bolsonaro has often referred to the military as “my armed forces” and threatened often to unleash them against other institutions.
Now, as Bolsonaro’s conflict with other institutions reaches a critical point, there are fears that Brazil is on the brink of a democratic rupture, if not immediately than in a few months. “I am not sure if Bolsonaro wants to stage a coup on Tuesday because we are not sure how much support he has among the top generals. Of course, some are with him but not all. If he manages a coup now, he will find it difficult to govern as the polarisation in the country will increase. But he is definitely preparing the ground for next year. If he loses, he would declare the election was fraud,” says Ioris.
The Trump crowd that invaded the Capitol had caught the police force by surprise. Yet it failed in overturning the election result. In Brazil, the Bannon experiment is being fine-tuned as the Bolsonaro crowd hopes to carry out a dress rehearsal for the storming of government buildings in Brasilia.
Florencia Costa and Shobhan Saxena are independent journalists based in Sao Paulo, Brazil.