A sea of yellow and green stretched in front of Jair Bolsonaro as the far-right populist president clambered on to the stage in São Paulo. Clad in the vivid colours of the Brazilian flag, more than 100,000 of his most ardent supporters had converged on Latin America’s largest city for a raucous show of support for the man they call mito — the myth — and Bolsonaro was not about to disappoint them.
“There are those who think they can take me from the presidency with the mark of a pen. Well, I say to everyone I have only three possible fates: arrest, death or victory. And tell the bastards I’ll never be arrested,” the former army captain told the roaring crowd at the September 7 rally. “Only God can take me from the presidency.”
It was music to the ears of Bolsonaro’s hardcore supporters, many of whom had travelled hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometres to cheer on the politician they believe is saving Brazil from its corrupt institutions: in their eyes a deceitful media, a venal Congress and, most importantly, an imperious Supreme Court.
For others, including the nearly 65 per cent of Brazilian voters who now disapprove of the Bolsonaro administration — in power since January 2019 — the comments were a clear warning of the president’s growing radicalism and the risk that he may try to undermine, or even abandon, elections scheduled for October 2022.
Shock and scandal have long been favourite weapons in Bolsonaro’s political arsenal often deployed to inflame situations, but the frequency and specificity of his rhetoric in recent months, combined with the mobilisation of his radical supporters, has generated a wave of concern for Brazil’s democracy.
In July, he warned “there will be no election” next year if Brazil does not modify its electronic voting system to include printed paper receipts. He insists these are necessary to stop fraud, even though the country’s top electoral court has repeatedly demonstrated the integrity of the system. He then threatened to act outside the “boundaries of the constitution” in a stand-off with the Supreme Court, which has emerged as a focus of Bolsonaro’s ire after repeatedly striking down initiatives close to the president’s heart, such as relaxing gun controls. It has also ensnared the president and one of his sons in an inquiry into the orchestrated spread of “fake news”.
“Bolsonaro has crossed the line,” says Maria do Socorro, a political scientist at the Federal University of São Carlos. “[Yet] the demonstrations in São Paulo show that the Bolsonarismo movement has political strength and conservatism in Brazil is greater than many think.”
The question bedevilling the nation is where the mercurial president will go from here. Bolsonaro already faces a tough election battle, under pressure from a stagnating economy and the return of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the popular leftwing former leader.
The president’s anti-democratic rhetoric has done little to endear him to voters beyond his 20 per cent core support. In addition, he has alienated large parts of Brazil’s influential business community, which backed the former paratrooper as the dark horse candidate in the 2018 race but is now losing faith.
Officials close to the president say that now he has shown his strength with the mass demonstrations, he will return to a working relationship with Brazil’s institutions. But opponents fear he is laying the groundwork to contest next year’s election results or even launch a coup.
“The situation doesn’t look very good for Bolsonaro, with Lula now favoured in 2022. If this trend consolidates, Bolsonaro will double down on [his] argument that the election is rigged. He will try to mobilise his base against the Supreme Court. A Trumpian January 6 event is not unlikely in the current conditions,” says Matias Spektor, a professor at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, referring to the attack on the US Capitol building.
“In the coming days, weeks and months, in particular as the economy declines further and we get nearer the election cycle, the radical Bolsonaro that rose to power will come back,” adds Spektor.
Bolsonaro has courted controversy at almost every stage of his career. He spent two weeks in a military jail as a young officer in the late 1980s after criticising the pay and living conditions of soldiers. And as a seven-term deputy in the lower house of parliament, he was repeatedly censured for obscene language and insulting colleagues, notably in 2014 when he told a fellow lawmaker that she was too “ugly” to rape.
As president, he has never hidden his authoritarian instincts. He has repeatedly praised Brazil’s 1964-85 military dictatorship and last year joined a rally calling for a military intervention in Congress and the Supreme Court. This action prompted one judge to compare Brazil to Weimar Germany during the rise of Hitler.
Opposition politicians say the president’s intentions are clear. “Bolsonaro . . . boasts that he will not accept the result of the next elections,” says Alessandro Vieira, a senator with the centre-right Citizenship party. “He attacks the judiciary and legislature as part of a strategy of avoiding his own responsibilities and opening a path to an authoritarian regime.”
Kim Kataguiri, a centre-right politician in the lower house of Congress, echoes the belief that Bolsonaro is preparing for a coup, saying: “He knows that when he loses his presidential immunity, he will be condemned for the crimes he committed — his criminal negligence during the pandemic and the corruption scandals when he was a lawmaker,” referring to allegations — denied by Bolsonaro — that he siphoned public funds while he was a federal deputy between 1991 and 2019.
“Whether a coup would be successful is another discussion,” adds Kataguiri. All three of Bolsonaro’s predecessors — Michel Temer, Dilma Rousseff and Lula — faced investigations after leaving the presidency and he himself has admitted that arrest is one of his “possible fates”.
Most analysts believe Bolsonaro is too institutionally isolated to pull off any kind of authoritarian adventure. The Supreme Court has stood firm against his excesses. The media also remains free and highly critical.
Congressional leaders, meanwhile, are engaged in a delicate balancing act of supporting the government in order to claim generous slices of the public budget, yet pushing back when the president goes too far. Few expect Brazil’s notoriously fickle politicians to stick by Bolsonaro’s side in the event of an electoral catastrophe. The top brass of the armed forces have also shown little appetite for military adventurism, even though Bolsonaro commands strong loyalty among many rank-and-file soldiers and police officers.
“Brazil is a full democracy, with absolute freedom for [decades]. When, in these years, did the armed forces cause any instability?” asks one retired general. “The president uses harsh, inappropriate, aggressive rhetoric . . . But the slightest cough from him and we start talking about a coup? This is out of place.”
The greater threat could be posed by Bolsonaro’s base of well organised supporters. Some critics have already voiced concerns that he might not be able to control them if the result goes against him.
Their reaction would be magnified if the potential victor was Lula. Although one of Brazil’s most popular presidents during his two terms between 2003 and 2010, Lula has since become a divisive figure, associated with the corruption uncovered in the Car Wash investigation, a years-long probe that revealed a vast contracts-for-kickbacks scheme involving state oil company Petrobras, a cartel of construction companies and scores of prominent politicians.
Just two days after the São Paulo rally, pro-government truckers blockaded highways in 15 states, clogging the nation’s supply arteries. Acting autonomously, the truckers demanded the impeachment of the Supreme Court judge leading the “fake news” investigation into Bolsonaro and his family. They stood down only after the president told them they were contributing to price inflation, which — running at double digits — is a growing source of popular discontent.
“Bolsonaro is the people,” says Carla Drago at the São Paulo demonstration. “These protests show that the people are not joking.” Rosalice Fleury, 75, describes herself as a “graduate of ‘64”, referring to her attendance at demonstrations against the then-president João Goulart, who was ousted by a military coup. “It won’t end if the people don’t go to the streets like we did in ‘64.”
For some politicians and analysts, Bolsonaro’s election game plan is to focus on locking in this key swath of around 20 per cent of voters. Then if, as expected, multiple candidates contest the election, this chunk could be enough to propel him through to any second-round runoff between the leading two contenders.
Polls suggest his most likely opponent in any run-off would be Lula, who is currently riding high with about 44 per cent support. In that scenario, Lula would win by 25 percentage points according to current polling. Yet his chequered legal history — including a stint in prison — and unpopularity among some voters make Lula a softer electoral target for Bolsonaro compared with other potential candidates.
Such a contest would create a straight fight between left and right.
“Bolsonaro is all the time trying to maintain this polarisation between himself and Lula’s Workers’ party because he knows a large part of Brazil is very afraid of the Workers’ party, because of the tragedy that our country endured with corruption,” says Joice Hasselmann, a rightwing politician who once backed Bolsonaro but has since become a critic.
Spektor adds: “Bolsonaro knows that in any political environment that is not polarised, that is not on the extremes, he stands very little chance of success.”
‘Neither Lula nor Bolsonaro’
With both benefiting from this polarised landscape, Bolsonaro and Lula have sought to discredit any “third way” candidate.
The current field of “neither Lula nor Bolsonaro” options is wide, but the contenders, including Eduardo Leite, the governor of the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, and Ciro Gomes, a centre-left politician, measure their support in single digits.
If a clear frontrunner were to emerge, however, they would most likely count on the backing of Brazil’s political centre, including politicians like Vieira and Kataguiri, as well as the financial sector, known colloquially as Faria Lima, after the main avenue in São Paulo’s financial district.
“Faria Lima is still hoping for someone well-known with a democratic and liberal agenda to emerge. I think that will be tough to find,” says Paulo Todaro, chief executive of Albion Capital, who does not support Bolsonaro but still has reservations about Lula.
After riding the commodities boom to its peak, Lula left office in 2010, with an 87 per cent approval rating — the highest ever for a Brazilian president. However, he was subsequently embroiled in the Car Wash investigation and spent almost two years in prison after a trial that his supporters decried as a political witch-hunt. His conviction was annulled by the Supreme Court this year on a legal technicality.
“We don’t know who Lula is now,” says Todaro. “After spending some time in jail, will it be an enraged Lula that wants to make a strong move to the left?”
If the financial sector is torn over how to feel about the former trade unionist, they have at least reached some kind of consensus that the ex-soldier is bad for business. Despite lofty promises at the beginning of the Bolsonaro administration, few of the government’s liberal economic reforms, including an overhaul of the tax system and an administrative reform of the state, have come to fruition. Most fell victim to the unrelenting political friction.
Unemployment remains high at 14 per cent. Interest rates surged to 6.25 per cent in September, up from just 2 per cent in March, and annual inflation almost reached 10 per cent in August, hitting voters in the pocket and sapping Bolsonaro’s popularity.
After enduring a brutal pandemic, which to date has killed almost 600,000 Brazilians, the initial economic recovery has quickly lost steam, with banks revising down their growth forecasts for next year to as low as 1 per cent.
“Business has for the most part withdrawn support [from the president], which is a new thing for Brazil,” says Armínio Fraga, chief executive of asset manager Gavea Investments.
“Markets will play a role in next year’s elections because if for some reason things [improve in the polls] for Bolsonaro, I think markets will see it as bad news,” adds Fraga, hinting at investment outflows and the impact on the exchange rate.
Daniela Campello, a professor at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, says that in the absence of a sudden surge in revenue — from a sustained commodities boom, for example — that could be injected into civil and social projects, the deteriorating economy will weigh heavily on Bolsonaro’s election prospects.
Conscious of this, the administration is currently trying to allocate funds from its budget to create a new multibillion dollar social welfare programme known as Auxílio Brasil, which would put more cash into the hands of Brazil’s poorest in what critics say looks like a naked attempt at vote buying.
For Bolsonaro’s faithful, the polls are wrong and a silent majority will come out to back him next year. “There is a history of erroneous polls, with a political bias. And it doesn’t match what we see on the streets,” says Ernesto Araújo, a former foreign minister in the Bolsonaro administration who remains close to the president.
For the likes of Araújo, Bolsonaro’s aggressive rhetoric, is not a threat to Brazilian democracy but rather a bid to protect its freedoms from what he and the far-right see as unwarranted and unconstitutional interventions by the Supreme Court.
In recent months, the court has ordered the arrest of a number of prominent Bolsonaro allies for using what was described as anti-democratic speech. Its crackdown on fabricated news — widely used by Bolsonaro’s camp in the 2018 election campaign — is also a sore point for the president’s supporters.
“Several actions coming from the court are unprecedented, [an] abuse of prerogatives, and the president has reacted to that. It’s a tense atmosphere, but there’s absolutely nothing that can be read as the president stepping outside the boundaries [of the constitution],” says Araújo.
It is a sentiment echoed by Ricardo Salles, a former environment minister and key Bolsonaro ally, who says that while the president’s rhetoric creates tensions, he doesn’t follow through with anti-democratic actions. “People cannot be blamed or convicted or incriminated by simply saying things,” he says. “This is just politics.”
Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice in São Paulo