President Jair Bolsonaro calls Brazil’s bicentennial Wednesday a chance to celebrate the nation’s proud history, but critics say he has transformed what should be a day of unity into a campaign event that they fear he will use to undermine next month’s election in Latin America’s fourth-biggest democracy.
Bolsonaro, who trails in polls before the Oct. 2 vote, has urged Brazilians to flood the streets, and tens of thousands of his supporters were expected to turn out in Brasilia, Sao Paulo and his hometown of Rio de Janeiro in a show of strength. The military planned displays in the capital and in Rio, with Bolsonaro attending.
The far-right nationalist has for years made a mission of encouraging Brazilian patriotism, and coopted the national colors of green and yellow as his own. He stacked his administration with military officers and repeatedly sought their support, most recently to cast doubt on the reliability of the nation’s electronic voting system, without evidence.
Opponents worry Bolsonaro will copy Trump
His attacks on the voting system has prompted widespread concern among his opponents that he may follow former U.S. President Donald Trump’s footsteps in rejecting election results. Analysts said they would be monitoring for incendiary comments Wednesday.
“Bolsonaro and his supporters have built this up into the most important day of the whole campaign. So, he’ll have to deliver some kind of red meat,” said Brian Winter, vice president for policy at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. “But everyone wants to know if he’ll cross that line and create a genuine institutional crisis.”
Following a military parade in Brasilia, Bolsonaro will attend another display in Rio along Copacabana beach, where his supporters often demonstrate. The latter will entail rifle salutes, cannon fire, flyovers, paratroopers and warships anchored offshore.
But Rio won’t be seeing what the president had announced would be a big parade instead of the annual nonpartisan event downtown. Instead, Rio’s mayor and military leaders settled on the more modest display at the beach site the president designated.
Bolsonaro, a former army captain and lawmaker for decades before winning the 2018 presidential election, has spent most of his first term locking horns with Supreme Court justices, some of whom are also top members of the electoral authority.
He has accused some judges of hamstringing his administration and favoring former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the poll frontrunner seeking to return to the post he held in 2003-2010. That has effectively turned those figures and their institutions into enemies for Bolsonaro’s base, which represents roughly one-quarter of the electorate.
'Peace and harmony' encouraged
When Bolsonaro launched his reelection bid July 24, he asked supporters for “one last” show of support on Independence Day. “Those few deaf people in black robes have to understand what the voice of the people is,” he said, referring to the justices.
The National Guard will beef up security outside the Supreme Court building Wednesday, and police will search people at checkpoints around the esplanade where the military display and a later rally will take place.
Since his campaign began, Bolsonaro has softened his tone regarding Independence Day. In the southern city of Curitiba last week, he told supporters to lower a banner demanding a military coup. And in a TV spot released Tuesday, he urged people to turn out for the bicentennial “with peace and harmony.”
Carlos Ranulfo de Melo, a political scientist at Federal University of Minas Gerais, said this likely reflects campaign strategy to avoid fiery rhetoric and instead focus on the improving economy.
Concerns about violence
But Rodrigo Prando, a political science professor at Mackenzie Presbyterian University in Sao Paulo, said he expected Bolsonaro to rail against the electronic voting system and the Supreme Court.
The president is known for off-the-cuff outbursts. At last year’s Independence Day rally, he pushed the country to the brink of an institutional crisis by proclaiming he would ignore rulings from a Supreme Court justice. He later backtracked, saying his comments came in the heat of the moment, and the boiling tension was reduced to a simmer.
There have been concerns about political violence. Some of his die-hard supporters attempted to storm the Supreme Court last year. In July, a federal prison guard killed a local official from da Silva’s Workers’ Party as he celebrated his birthday, and witnesses said he shouted support for Bolsonaro before pulling the trigger.
The newspaper Estadao de S. Paulo, among others, reported Aug. 19 that military intelligence had identified risks of radical, pro-Bolsonaro movements attempting to infiltrate bicentennial celebrations to provoke turmoil and defend military intervention.
“There’s a movement that tries to legitimize a coup if the result from the ballots doesn’t please the Bolsonaristas,” said Tai Nalon, co-founder of fact-checking agency AosFatos. “You didn’t have that in 2018.”
Members of Bolsonaro’s campaign are hoping he stays on message. Congressman João Augusto Rosa, deputy chairman of Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party, told The Associated Press he wants to see the president reach out to undecided voters, especially poorer Brazilians who have received increased welfare payments under his administration.