September 7 was Brazil’s Independence Day, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro used the occasion to continue his assault on the country’s democratic institutions.
Bolsonaro had called on his hardcore supporters to rally, as he battles Congress and the judiciary over their refusal to go along with his attempts to rewrite electoral rules ahead of the 2022 election and over probes into him and his allies that could imperil them criminally.
He addressed crowds in Brasilia and São Paulo, using the platform to attack and threaten the supreme court. “Either the leader of this branch of power gets this minister under control, or this branch will suffer what none of us want,” Bolsonaro said. He said he would not follow the decisions of certain justices, including one who will be in charge of the electoral tribunal during the 2022 elections.
Though an estimated 100,000 Bolsonaro backers gathered in the capital, Brasilia, as well as in São Paulo, according to Brazilian media outlets, the marches did not erupt in mass violence and chaos. Ahead of September 7, some feared a repeat of something like the January 6 insurrection in the United States.
That didn’t happen, despite worries that pro-Bolsonaro demonstrators might try to storm the Supreme Court. Though police and protesters clashed, attempts to push past police barriers largely failed.
But the threat to Brazil’s institutions has not lapsed, not from Bolsonaro nor from those who unquestionably back him.
That danger comes from Bolsonaro’s political weakness. A large swath of the public is angry over his mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 580,000 people, one of the worst death rates in the world. That, along with Brazil’s still-sluggish economy and the myriad scandals following Bolsonaro, has tanked his popularity; his approval rating has hit an all-time low of around 23 percent. Right now he’s losing — badly — in most recent presidential polls, with some suggesting the incumbent might even fail to advance to a runoff.
Bolsonaro is seeing his political, and maybe personal, downfall in real time. Faced with these crises of his own making, he is creating another one against Brazil’s democracy, in a desperate attempt to hold power and protect himself.
“We cannot accept a voting system that does not offer any security in the elections,” Bolsonaro said in São Paulo on Tuesday, according to Reuters. “I can’t participate in a farce like the one sponsored by the head of the electoral court.”
“They are fine with going with these democratic processes, provided that they are the winners,” Paulo Barrozo, an associate law professor at Boston College, said of leaders in the mold of Bolsonaro and former US President Donald Trump. “The moment that there is any indication that they’re not going to win, then they are no longer committed to electoral democracy.”
“The playbook is the same, the motivation is the same,” Barrozo continued. “And it remains to be seen how much traction [Bolsonaro] is going to get in the larger Brazil society.”
The September 7 marches were a culmination of Bolsonaro’s attempts to discredit democracy
Bolsonaro’s campaign to discredit Brazilian democracy began way, way before September 7. He decried possible voter fraud even after his first victory in 2018, and his efforts have intensified once in the presidency and as his electoral prospects have worsened.
For months, Bolsonaro has been trying to sow doubt in the electoral system and frame the institutions defending those norms as corrupt actors out to get him. It may sound familiar.
He has repeatedly attacked Brazil’s electronic voting system — a kind of mirror image of Trump’s attacks on vote-by-mail and the like during the 2020 election. He is insisting that Brazilian voters must use paper ballots in the 2022 election, otherwise the results can’t be trusted. (Brazil’s electronic voting system was created to reduce fraud and corruption and to manage the logistics of a complex voting system, and has been in use since the country’s 2002 election.) “I’ll hand over the presidential sash to whoever wins the election cleanly,” the far-right Bolsonaro said in July. “Not with fraud.”
Bolsonaro pushed Congress to change the rules, and on the day Congress debated the voting proposal, he presided over a military parade in Brasilia. Still, Congress declined to pass a law requiring paper ballots; Bolsonaro attacked some of those lawmakers as having been “blackmailed.”
Bolsonaro has also directed his ire toward the judiciary, both the supreme court and what’s known as the Superior Electoral Court, which oversees and administers the country’s elections.
Some current and former supreme court justices have directly criticized Bolsonaro’s anti-democratic rhetoric and defended the integrity of Brazil’s elections. Ultimately the Supreme Court opened an investigation into Bolsonaro’s efforts to spread voting misinformation and threatening Brazil’s democracy.
The supreme court has also opened a bunch of other investigations into Bolsonaro, along with those in his inner circle, including an ally arrested for allegedly spreading fake news. Bolsonaro is under investigation for posting a sealed document from an electoral investigation on social media, in an attempt to prove voter fraud. He’s under investigation for his mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic, including a possible vaccine kickback scheme. He and his sons are also implicated in other corruption schemes, with potential criminal consequences.
All of these pressures are looking harder and harder for Bolsonaro to shake, and it’s happening against the shadow of Covid-19 and high unemployment and inflation. “The political scenario is worsening for him, so he’s trying to figure out some way to hold on to power to protect himself,” Sean T. Mitchell, an associate professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, told me last month.
The September 7 marches fit with Bolsonaro’s attempts to hold power. The question now is whether the demonstrations were enough to embolden him to launch even more aggressive attacks on the country’s institutions.
Brazil’s September 7 rallies were not January 6. But they are still ominous for Brazilian democracy.
In Brasilia and in São Paulo, Bolsonaro’s supporters draped themselves in the Brazilian flag, or wore its green and yellow colors.
It wasn’t record turnout, but it also wasn’t a total flop. Bolsonaro’s loyalist base showed up, and they are motivated. (There were also some anti-Bolsonaro counterprotests in cities Tuesday, though opposition leaders largely urged their supporters to gather on September 12 instead to avoid potential clashes.) The marches also showed that they are buying into Bolsonaro’s attacks on Brazil’s democracy. They carried pro-Bolsonaro signs, a number in English. Some blasted the Supreme Court. Some called for a military takeover.
Why so many English language banners in Brasília today? Is it the new official language of Bolsonarismo? pic.twitter.com/JFLSUEN76k— Tom Phillips (@tomphillipsin) September 7, 2021
It was a show of President Bolsonaro’s die-hard supporters, which was the goal. Bolsonaro is losing popular support, and the calls for his impeachment have intensified. But so far, the public outrage hasn’t fully translated into political consequences; Bolsonaro still has allies in Congress, whom he’s managed to keep by making deals, not out of any ideological loyalty (Bolsonaro actually doesn’t have a political party right now). But Bolsonaro doesn’t want those ties fracturing.
“He’s trying to give a demonstration that will somehow overwhelm his 20 percent approval numbers, show that he has support where it’s really needed — he can bring people out to the streets,” said Amy Erica Smith, an associate professor of political science at Iowa State University. “He’s trying to rally support to himself by showing that he already has support.”
The September 7 marches were also a test for how far Bolsonaro and his backers might take their threats against democracy, and how law enforcement might respond.
Bolsonaro escalated his rhetoric against the supreme court and other institutions — walking up to the coup line, perhaps, but not quite crossing it. There was his threat that if the judiciary continued to act as it had been, it “will suffer what none of us want.” He also declared that he would no longer follow rulings made by one of the supreme court justices, Alexandre de Moraes, who initiated some of the investigations against him.
“I want to tell those who want to make me unelectable in Brazil: Only God removes me from there,” Bolsonaro said in São Paulo, according to the Associated Press.
“There are three options for me: be jailed, killed or victorious. I’m letting the scoundrels know: I’ll never be imprisoned!”
Bolsonaro’s supporters spoke in all-or-nothing language. “Even if we need to pick up arms and die for Brazil then we’ll do that,” Luis Bonne, a 50-year-old civil servant and rally attendee, told the Guardian.
And though the fears that September 7 might become a preemptive “stop the steal” didn’t materialize, experts said the danger hasn’t passed. Instead, it seems clear from Bolsonaro’s language that there is no scenario where he will let the election play out and not challenge the results, or willingly leave.
Where the military stands on this adds to the precariousness of the situation. Bolsonaro does have support among lower ranks and military police, and elected leaders feared that many would turn out for the September 7 marches.
But whether high-ranking generals would go along with a Bolsonaro power grab or break with him is not at all clear. Experts said it’s unlikely he has enough of their support to launch a full-scale coup, but unlikely is not exactly a comfort when it comes to a military takeover. “Nobody can say this with 100 percent certainty among many observers who are watching this,” Smith told me last month. “And the fact that people can’t say this with 100 percent certainty is a source of power for [Bolsonaro].”
Brazil’s institutions have, so far, reacted to Bolsonaro, in some cases quite strongly. “There are very good signs of that working,” Barrozo said. “But again, it’s too close to a fatal accident that it could derail things.”
September 7 showed that Bolsonaro is testing Brazil’s democratic institutions. The question is how far those institutions can push back on him — and how much of his onslaught they can withstand.