What’s new? Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s far-right president, faces possible electoral defeat in October at the end of a term marked by inflammatory rhetoric, appointment of military personnel to civilian posts throughout government and grave mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Why does it matter? Bolsonaro and his close allies point frequently to the likelihood of fraud and cast doubt on the integrity of Brazil’s polls, hinting that they might dispute an adverse result in October. At the same time, the government’s support base has narrowed while taking a harder line and getting more confrontational.
What should be done? A breakdown in Brazil’s constitutional order remains unlikely, but the courts, the military and political leaders will have to act in unison to rebut any baseless fraud claims. Should Bolsonaro’s far-right sympathisers appear poised for violence, police should move quickly to head off the threat.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro faces an election in October that will put his conservative agenda and bombastic rhetoric to the test. While his main rival in the election, former President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, remains well ahead in the polls, Bolsonaro has regained some ground after hitting an all-time low in approval ratings following his mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic and alienation of moderate supporters. Loyalty to his far-right government remains unconditional among a base drawing heavily upon evangelical Christians, the police, the armed forces, big business and rural landowners. The president’s efforts in 2021 to change the voting system, his attacks on other state institutions, including the courts, and his recurrent warnings about an amorphous threat of “communism” stoke concerns that he may dispute the election if he does not win. Unrest could ensue if his backers rally to his defence. In that event, Brazilian institutions will have to respond cohesively to any baseless claims of fraud while swiftly defusing any violent threat that Bolsonaro’s hard-right sympathisers might pose.
Bolsonaro’s rise to power was as much a condemnation of previous left-leaning governments as a victory for conservatism in Brazil. Drawing on burgeoning discontent with the Workers’ Party government, which had been in power since 2003 and stood accused of involvement in grand corruption, Bolsonaro, a long-time member of Congress and defender of military prerogatives, portrayed himself as the consummate political outsider, a man unafraid to speak his mind in coarse language. At the same time, he gave a megaphone to a growing conservative clamour in Brazilian society. His allies included evangelical Christians affronted by demands for LGBTQ+ rights, farming groups opposed to environmental restrictions and urbanites demanding tough measures to combat crime. Support from disenchanted voters on the left and backing from a broad right-wing coalition, combined with Lula’s exclusion from the race after questionable judicial proceedings, enabled Bolsonaro to win the 2018 election by a handsome margin.
He has since faced numerous setbacks. The state’s failure to control Amazon fires in 2020 earned him international rebuke and prompted diplomatic isolation, which was greatly aggravated after his main ally, former U.S. President Donald Trump, left office. His democratic credentials have come in for scrutiny after he meddled in judicial probes concerning his family and sniped at the trustworthiness of the Brazilian electoral system. Most importantly, his refusal to accept the seriousness of COVID-19 or trust in medical research has led Brazil to suffer one of the world’s highest death tolls during the viral outbreak, now standing at over 660,000. One of the health ministers during the pandemic was an army general, appointed by the president not for his competence for the position but for his loyalty, and is emblematic of the thousands of military officers now staffing government.
Many Brazilians fear that, should he lose in October, [President Bolsanaro] might refuse to accept defeat and call upon the military to help him thwart the voters’ will.
Lagging behind Lula in polls, Bolsonaro has stirred disquiet with his affinities with Trump and carping at the electoral system. Many Brazilians fear that, should he lose in October, the president might refuse to accept defeat and call upon the military to help him thwart the voters’ will. Military involvement, let alone a coup, seems implausible, given statements from the top brass. Officers suggest that few in their ranks would back any meddling, while the courts, the media and much of the public would oppose any rupture in the constitutional order. But other dangers exist. Bolsonaro inspires devotion among those who embrace his conservative agenda and demonisation of the left. His loyalists would loathe a Workers’ Party return to government. In recent years, they have resorted to public acts of provocation and overt threats to get their way. Furthermore, crime-related violence is commonplace in Brazil, and the country awash with guns. No evidence suggests that a far-right militia is up and running, but Bolsonaro’s supporters could nonetheless take to the streets en masse to try disrupting a peaceful transfer of power.
Preventing turmoil around the polls will depend to a great extent on the swift response of Brazilian institutions – above all the Superior Electoral Court, the armed forces and federal prosecutors – to accusations of electoral fraud, particularly insofar as they are able to handle valid complaints and distinguish them from groundless claims. Political forces in Congress, including Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party and others who have been sympathetic to him, will be essential to blocking disinformation, as will the media, while social media companies should be attentive to the misuse of their channels. If street protests arise, Federal Police should pay close attention to what far-right groups are doing and break them up if they threaten to provoke violence. Military and police commanders should also be mindful of the dangers of displays of partisan behaviour by troops or police officers. Moderation, assurances of electoral integrity and the cohesion of Brazil’s institutions will be crucial in helping the country withstand peacefully any confrontation between its political poles.
Foreign governments and international bodies have an important role to play as well. They should stand ready to condemn any action aimed at subverting the Brazilian electoral process, whether by Bolsonaro or his supporters.
Conflict and controversy have swirled around Bolsonaro ever since his political life began in 1986. Then an army captain, in that year he penned an op-ed in a well-known magazine airing soldiers’ discontent with low wages. Due to rules prohibiting serving military officers from publicly voicing political opinions, Bolsonaro was sentenced to two weeks in jail. Intended to deter him from seeking public renown, the move backfired: Bolsonaro was lionised by military officers as a result, and hundreds of their wives and retired soldiers wrote letters on his behalf. A year later, Bolsonaro was accused of planning to bomb several military facilities and the water treatment system in Rio de Janeiro as part of his campaign for higher salaries in the armed forces. After a trial in a military court, Bolsonaro was expelled from the army. The Supreme Military Tribunal reversed this decision following an appeal, but Bolsonaro nonetheless quit the armed forces to stand for election to the Rio de Janeiro city council, where he won a seat in 1988.
Bolsonaro became a member of the National Congress two years later and proceeded to keep his seat in the capital Brasilia through six subsequent elections. Despite his longevity in the legislature, he has shown little respect for traditional political loyalties during his career: he promptly resigned from the Christian Democratic Party that helped him get elected to Congress, and between 1990 and 2020 belonged to six different parties. He was elected president in 2018 under the banner of the Social Liberal Party but left it in his first year in office. Unable to attain the threshold requirements for securing legal status for his new party, the Alliance for Brazil, he remained without formal political affiliation until November 2021, when he joined the Liberal Party.
Despite these brittle party ties, Bolsonaro’s constituency has progressively expanded from its military core toward evangelical Christian movements, cultural conservatives, rural elites and supporters of “iron fist” law enforcement. For the first decade of his political career, his backing was anchored in military and security force personnel and their families. By 2009, he had emerged as the de facto spokesperson in Congress for the conservative caucus, enabling these parties to build alliances around a number of prominent themes. Proving himself a skilled political operator, he mobilised traditional rivals, such as Catholic and evangelical groupings, on issues such as religious teaching, home schooling and sexual education.
Bolsonaro also took advantage of the many challenges facing President Dilma Rousseff and her Workers’ Party government. In what became known in Brazil as the “crisis super cycle”, which culminated in her impeachment and departure from office, Rousseff experienced an outbreak of mass protests over poor public services and other grievances in 2013, the lava jato (car wash) corruption scandal, beginning in 2014, and an economic slump.
Bolsonaro stayed at the forefront of debates on socio-cultural norms in Brazil, becoming a staunch defender of the conservative agenda in Congress.
While cheerleading the rising tide of opposition to Rousseff, Bolsonaro also carved out a more distinctive profile as a right-wing outsider by leading the resistance to proposals unveiled by the Workers’ Party governments as part of the Third National Human Rights Program, launched in December 2009. Among other recommendations, officials proposed decriminalising abortion, placing limits on religious teaching and home schooling, prohibiting display of religious symbols in state offices, and creating a Truth Commission to delve into crimes committed under the 1964-1985 military dictatorship. Bolsonaro rallied his supporters against the creation of what he dubbed “gay kits” – materials that some opponents claimed were aimed at helping schoolteachers address the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people. From that time onward, Bolsonaro stayed at the forefront of debates on socio-cultural norms in Brazil, becoming a staunch defender of the conservative agenda in Congress. A deputy from Rio de Janeiro said he embodies “the true values of the Brazilian people. He is the only one who cares about family and God”.
Once close to the Workers’ Party, especially during Lula da Silva’s tenure, most evangelical groups – which tend to be stronger in poorer urban areas – broke ranks with the party after the Human Rights Program proposals were unveiled. A prominent pastor wrote in 2010 that “Christian principles are non-negotiable for us. In this regard, the Workers’ Party is on the other side”. The evangelical caucus in Congress moved to the opposition, finding in Bolsonaro a fierce ally against progressive causes. With its well-oiled political machinery and influential communications apparatus, the evangelical movement in return gave the former military officer a tremendous boost in public reach and popularity. His baptism ceremony to become part of the evangelical denomination Assembleia de Deus in May 2016 in Israel further consolidated this partnership.
Bolsonaro was already popular with low-ranking and retired soldiers, but he had remained widely distrusted among senior military commanders because of his campaigning for better working conditions while in the forces. His opposition to the Workers’ Party human rights plans nevertheless began endearing him to the top brass. Senior commanders were particularly aghast at the creation of a Truth Commission to study crimes under the military dictatorship perpetrated both by the government and insurgents. Many officers saw the Commission as an anti-military witch hunt in disguise organised by former guerrillas now in government, starting with Rousseff herself. After the Commission began its work, Bolsonaro stood out as nearly the sole member of Congress to attack its proceedings with venom, boosting his reputation with senior officers and establishing a strong bond with many of them.
Bolsonaro also strengthened his relationship with the police by providing unconditional backing to the security forces, particularly in his hometown of Rio de Janeiro. His unfaltering support for the police contrasted sharply with the critical stance adopted by many left-wing politicians and civil society groups toward forces that are often accused of corruption and using excessive violence. Growing calls from right-wing politicians for a tough approach to crime have been matched by a sharp rise in the number of elected members of Congress and the Senate with a background in the police forces, many of whom profess loyalty to Bolsonaro.
Bolsonaro … attracted rising support from rural landowners and frontiersmen … because of his opposition to the Workers’ Party’s proposal for land reform.
Bolsonaro also attracted rising support from rural landowners and frontiersmen (known in Brazil as garimpeiros and madeireiros) because of his opposition to the Workers’ Party’s proposal for land reform and ties to advocates for the rural poor, such as the Landless Workers’ Movement. This movement has occasionally occupied farms it deems unproductive to press for land redistribution, prompting Bolsonaro to refer to the activists as terrorists and argue that landowners should be allowed to repel such invasions with deadly force. Bolsonaro’s disregard for environmental regulation, his preference for allowing extractive industries to proceed unchecked and his criticism of the demarcation of native Brazilians lands’ have made him into a firm ally of rural elites and those who oppose any form of land redistribution or imposition of limits on land use.
By 2014, Bolsonaro had begun to combine these positions in a cohesive conservative platform, and his political profile soared as a result. That year, Bolsonaro was elected to Congress with the highest tally, at over 400,000 votes – nearly four times his average over the previous five legislatures. Between 2014 and 2018, Bolsonaro would work to refine his rhetoric and anti-establishment stance, gain new followers and become the leading adversary of the ruling Workers’ Party.
Although support for Bolsonaro rose constantly after he announced that he was running for president in 2016 (he was polling second a year after declaring his candidacy), the campaign was transformed by two pivotal yet largely unexpected episodes. First, Lula da Silva, the favourite to win, was arrested six months before the voting. After Lula was replaced on the Worker’s Party ticket by Fernando Haddad, former mayor of São Paulo, Bolsonaro found himself catapulted to first place in opinion polls. Secondly, in September 2018, a mentally disturbed person tried to kill Bolsonaro with a knife. The assassination attempt, during a rally in the state of Minas Gerais, galvanised the wounded candidate’s loyalists, increased public sympathy for him and, crucially, enabled him to excuse himself from debates with other hopefuls and campaign instead via social media. Bolsonaro eventually defeated Haddad in the election’s second round with 55.13 per cent of the vote.
The map of election results from the second round paints a clear picture of Brazil’s polarisation, with voting patterns reflecting the deep economic differences that make Brazil the most unequal country in Latin America. Bolsonaro managed to dominate a majority of cities in the Central West, Southeast and South regions, which are wealthier and more conservative (although featuring extreme inequality and containing large low-income populations), while Haddad secured nearly all cities in the North and Northeast regions, traditionally poorer parts of the country which had benefited more from the welfare programs introduced by the Worker’s Party government. According to surveys conducted on the eve of the second round, Bolsonaro’s support was notably stronger among certain demographic segments, above all those who were middle-aged, white, male, with higher education, evangelical, heterosexual, with above average income and living in the South or Southeast regions. This profile accurately describes his core support base to this date.
Bolsonaro’s meteoric ascent atop a new majority coalition had been overlooked by many pundits, who dismissed him as a loudmouth with little name recognition.
Bolsonaro’s meteoric ascent atop a new majority coalition had been overlooked by many pundits, who dismissed him as a loudmouth with little name recognition. The political party that supported his candidacy, the Social Liberal Party, also had no national presence, made no significant alliances and had a budget strikingly smaller than that of other contenders. But Bolsonaro’s conservative agenda and his partnership with evangelical leaders raised his popularity with a highly mobilised and committed social base. At the same time, general animosity toward the Workers’ Party, which was drowning under accusations of corruption, gave him a crucial boost at the polls. Bolsonaro was able to capitalise on the discontent by portraying himself as the most outspoken opponent of left-wing ideology and “politics as usual”. The campaign #NototheWP (#PTNão) presented Bolsonaro as a face of renewal many Brazilians wanted.
Bolsonaro also became particularly deft at using online media as a way to reach his constituents directly. During President Rousseff’s first term, the Workers’ Party had invested heavily in creating a network of progressive digital influencers supporting the government. By way of response, between 2013 and 2015 a number of new media outlets and social media channels displaying unabashed hostility toward the government and the political left began to appear. Bolsonaro not only became a reference point for this new right-wing virtual activism, but also raised an army of influencers and digital profiles to act as vehicles for his communication strategy.
On his road to victory in 2018, Bolsonaro morphed into the candidate best able to articulate the values of major constituencies across Brazil, even though his claim to represent these principles might not have always stood up under scrutiny. His tough line on security, including overt support for the actions of death squads, has proven consistent. Less convincing was his self-portrayal as a politician driven by religious belief, since he had never formally been a member of the evangelical caucus. He claimed to be a political outsider, in spite of having spent almost 30 years as a member of Congress, and a committed opponent of the Workers’ Party, even though at one point he was part of the coalition supporting Lula’s presidency. Despite his track record of favouring nationalist policies and an interventionist state, in the campaign he positioned himself as an economic liberal.
Bolsonaro’s supporters, however, saw in him a candidate willing to break the mould of Brazilian politics and deliver on his promises. They respected him as a man with simple tastes, unlike most politicians with their lavish lifestyles, and as a leader unafraid to speak his mind. They considered him incorruptible. A senior military officer described Bolsonaro as “an honourable man who, despite his past controversies, has shown that he was different from the common politician. He has shown that he was not afraid to put his life in danger to defend the country [from the left and corrupt politicians]”.
In the final analysis, the linchpin holding these different positions together would seem to be a general Brazilian patriotism combined with a renewed fear of communism and its allegedly insidious spread through society. Patriotism and anti-communism in effect became the foundation of the bolsonarista movement. Bolsonaro was able not only to appropriate Brazilian national symbols, which protesters used in the 2016 campaign to impeach Rousseff, but also able to revive the dormant Cold War bogeyman. He argued on the campaign trail that communism is Brazil’s most significant threat, endangering the country’s future as well as society’s core values. According to a supporter, “Bolsonaro has been fighting communism since he was a teenager in his hometown. He has a history of defending the country, in the army and now at the presidency. Nobody understands better than him [the danger of communism]”.
Since assuming the presidency, Bolsonaro’s controversial opinions and collisions with prominent figures have reshaped his social base. Moderates have tended to abandon him, particularly as a result of his mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, but devoted supporters remain unreservedly loyal, while he has cultivated new sympathisers in the poorest parts of Brazilian society.
In the three years since becoming president, Bolsonaro has largely lost the support of voters attracted by his anti-corruption message, many of whom did not care for the extreme planks of his platform but were keen to punish the Workers’ Party for its mistakes in government. The president’s claim to probity was undermined when the courts filed corruption charges against one of his sons, and then again, when Justice Minister Sergio Moro resigned in protest after Bolsonaro interfered in police appointments bearing on cases of misinformation involving others in his family. These events weakened Bolsonaro’s grip on the lavajatistas – supporters of the lava jato probe of the Workers’ Party government – who regard Moro as a hero for defying the former ruling party and arresting Lula. According to a member of the lava jato prosecution team, “[Bolsonaro had] the worst possible stance … aggravated by his desire to interfere in the Rio Federal Police, a sign that he intends to subordinate the public interest to his private, understandable but irrelevant interest of protecting his son”.
Meanwhile, Bolsonaro’s anti-democratic tendencies have alienated centrist supporters. Over the course of the pandemic, the president has participated in several marches calling for the closure of Congress and the Supreme Court. The protesters demanded the arrest of several lawmakers and Supreme Court justices for allegedly impeding Bolsonaro’s rule. They pressed as well for the military’s return to government and the reintroduction of authoritarian legislation from the military dictatorship era.
Bolsonaro has questioned the 2018 election results more than once, claiming that he should have won in the first round, and complained as well that Brazil’s electronic voting system suffers flaws that cast doubt upon the final tally’s accuracy – giving him fewer votes than he deserved. He has expressed unease about the integrity of the 2022 vote, which he says will most probably be rigged, and has suggested the election will be invalid if authorities do not use paper ballots and include public scrutiny of the count, or allow the armed forces to verify it in parallel. A constitutional reform that would have made paper ballots mandatory for all elections, proposed by Bolsonaro loyalist Bia Kicis, was rejected by the lower house of Congress in August 2021. The proposal’s defeat means that the state can no longer make major reforms to the voting system in time for the October poll, though similar bills may emerge in the legislature before then. The push for electoral reform, along with Bolsonaro’s constant spats with members of Congress and the judiciary, has sown division among his right-wing supporters.
Yet it is Bolsonaro’s stance against social distancing measures and lockdowns to control the spread of COVID-19 that has been the most divisive issue of his tenure, placing him at odds with most state governors and city mayors. He has also faced resistance from medical authorities after raising doubts as to the effectiveness of vaccines and defending the use of medicines such as hydroxychloroquine to treat coronavirus patients, against the World Health Organisation’s advice. Brazil has the world’s second highest death toll from COVID-19 (over 660,000) and one of the highest mortality rates for countries with populations of 30 million or more. The president’s tendency to dismiss appropriate public health measures and downplay the disease’s risks; his constant interference in the work of the Health Ministry, which has seen four different ministers since 2020; and accusations of a major corruption scheme to buy overpriced vaccines prompted Congress to create a commission of inquiry to investigate the government’s responsibility for the devastation that the pandemic has caused.
[The private] sectors see in Bolsonaro an ally helping keep business afloat in contrast to the politicians who favour lockdowns.
But if the president has seen moderate constituencies abandon him, he has shored up support elsewhere. He has managed to win some backing from the private sector, largely because of his concern with economic conditions and resistance to closing businesses even at the peak of contagion. His business friends include large firms, but also middle-class small entrepreneurs who have limited cash reserves and were already struggling. These sectors see in Bolsonaro an ally helping keep business afloat, in contrast to the politicians who favour lockdowns.
Bolsonaro’s popularity has also risen among the poorest Brazilians thanks to a series of cash transfer initiatives, even though the president had been a fierce critic of these programs when they were developed under the Lula administration. In April 2020, the government announced an emergency welfare scheme (Auxílio Emergencial), lasting to the end of the year, to compensate for income lost in the pandemic. The program’s generous terms helped boost support for Bolsonaro after many families saw the economic gains they had made in Lula’s tenure erased during the first weeks of the pandemic. In 2021, the program was cut back and subsidies halved, leading to a sharp rise in poverty rates. Subsequently, the government increased basic welfare support and rebranded Lula’s successful cash transfer scheme, Bolsa Familia, as Auxílio Brasil, although the handouts have not been enough to offset steep rises in living costs. These measures helped Bolsonaro gain ground among the neediest Brazilians, though recent polls show that 63 per cent of the poorest voters support Lula, while 23 per cent back the incumbent.
According to a recent study, the president’s most loyal supporters make up 11 per cent of the electorate (down from 17 per cent in 2020) and, importantly, show signs of moving rightward in their political positions. The predominant characteristics of the bolsonaristas have remained the same since the president started his campaign for the top office: they are typically white males, older, wealthier and more educated than the Brazilian average. Evangelicals still compose a third of the president’s base and he retains strong support among the armed forces, police and the private sector.
The connection between Bolsonaro and his adherents goes beyond a shared agenda: they have established an emotional link, strengthened by the perception that the president is the only “authentic” politician. “We needed a mad man in politics”, said a senior official in the armed forces. “Someone who was brave or crazy enough to stand up against the powerful. No other politician has the guts to speak his mind, whatever it takes. He is not afraid to tell the truth”. As his supporters see it, Supreme Court justices, academics and media figures attack Bolsonaro due to his determination to clean up Brazil’s venal politics. General Augusto Heleno, head of the Institutional Security Office of the Presidency, declared via social media that: “You either trust Captain Bolsonaro, who had the vision and courage to … take on the system and give us hope of change, or you can keep attacking him and hand Brazil back to the left in 2023”. Referring to Argentina’s 2019 polls, in which Peronist Alberto Fernández prevailed over the centre-right Mauricio Macri, he added, “Argentina is right over there to prove me right”.
Alongside the perception that Bolsonaro is uniquely equipped to purify Brazilian politics and block the left from returning to power, many of his supporters also see in the president a champion of their particular conception of freedom, a term he uses frequently. Bolsonaro’s interpretation of liberty revolves around an absolute freedom from restrictions. It comes in striking contrast to his embrace of a tough law-and-order approach. In effect, he appears to believe that those persons or groups he deems to be in the right should enjoy undiluted freedom; others should face the harshest penalties possible. For instance, he has defended illegal loggers razing forests in the Amazon as acting within the permissible bounds of economic liberty. At the same time, a hungry person who steals food is, according to Bolsonaro’s reasoning, a thief who should feel the full weight of the law.
This selective conception of freedom is undeniably attractive to parts of Brazilian society, not least low-income groups (especially those working in the informal sector) who sometimes feel that officialdom impinges upon their ability to earn a living with burdensome regulations, while doing little to protect them from violent crime. The idea of unrestricted liberty extends to other parts of the president’s agenda, such as the right to own and carry weapons. Bolsonaro has advocated for more ordinary citizens to have weapons so that they can better defend themselves from criminals with easy access to guns.
With the presidential vote approaching in October, Bolsonaro’s hostility toward institutions that oppose his policies, ambivalence toward democratic norms and scepticism about the integrity of the country’s election system have raised concerns that he may seek to thwart or subvert the electoral process. His low standing in opinion polls until mid-2022 intensified these concerns, while the presence of numerous senior military officers in the government, as well as the president’s vocal support for the former military dictatorship, has heightened fears that he may seek to embroil the armed forces in an effort to retain power. Risks of unrest or instability will likely hinge on the stance taken by his most loyal supporters.
Bolsonaro’s contempt for democracy is well documented. On more than one occasion, he has stated that he would only leave the presidency “dead, arrested or victorious [in the 2022 elections]… and I will never be arrested”, or that “only God could remove him from Brasilia”. He has not shied away from praising the military dictatorship, which he has associated with honest rule, economic dynamism and an orderly society. He has also said democracy opened the floodgates to myriad problems, such as endemic corruption and economic mismanagement, while enabling former criminals and terrorists to run the country. Bolsonaro regularly curtails transparency (he often classifies non-essential government information), attacks the rights of minorities and human rights, and shows little basic civility to political opponents. On one occasion, he suggested that former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso should face a firing squad for trying to privatise some of Brazil’s state-owned companies.
Much of this anti-democratic posturing has taken clear aim at institutional targets, particularly the Supreme Court and the Supreme Electoral Court. Brazilian law states that attempts by the executive to curtail the free exercise of the powers of the courts or of Congress constitutes a “responsibility crime”, which could lead to impeachment. Even so, Bolsonaro has continuously clashed with Supreme Court judges and has tried to find ways to skirt their decisions. When the Court, for example, tried lawmaker Daniel Silveira for his verbal attacks on the judges, the president announced he would not accept a decision unfavourable to his ally. After the sentencing, he signed a decree pardoning Silveira, which according to many lawyers is an impeachable offence.
President [Bolsanaro] has repeatedly made false claims aimed at whipping up hostility to the [Supreme Electoral] Court.
In a letter sent by 80 Brazilian lawyers to the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, the jurists claim that Bolsonaro has used informal and formal mechanisms to assail the courts. The president has repeatedly made false claims aimed at whipping up hostility to the Court, saying, for example, that Judge Roberto Barroso (who was then chief justice of the Superior Electoral Court) defended paedophiles. Formal mechanisms used to weaken the Supreme Court include an attempt to impeach one of the judges and mobilising his supporters in Congress to lower the mandatory age for the retirement of judges, which would have allowed him to select two new members to the court.
His supporters have blamed the court for overreach and for undermining the president: “If the Court had not gotten in his way so much, Bolsonaro would have governed much better and would have done so much more. The members of the Court … are against the current government and they are harming the country. They don’t have the country’s wellbeing as a priority; they respond to the political forces that elected them. They are just a problem”. Bolsonaro has also attacked the Electoral Court on numerous occasions, directly accusing judges of manipulating votes despite having no proof of wrongdoing.
This disregard for democratic values and mechanisms could become perilous if Bolsonaro decides to go outside the bounds of constitutional procedure in order to achieve his political and ideological goals. Some of his loyalists argue that “exceptional actions” are needed to save the country: “This is the only way to fix the system. One cannot make omelettes without breaking some eggs”, said a supporter.
So far, Brazilian institutions have a mixed record in the face of the president’s attacks. Some have shown a certain degree of resilience, fending off some of his accusations: the Supreme Electoral Court, for instance, created a transparency committee to address charges of fraud in the electoral system. Yet in other regards, these institutions have proven more circumspect and reluctant to confront the president and his backers. Lawmakers have lodged a total of 143 impeachment requests in Congress, yet none has moved beyond the stage of initial assessment. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal has also backed down from its invitation to the European Union to send electoral observers for the October poll, reportedly after the government expressed its aversion to the move. That said, analysts consulted by Crisis Group said that, while the judicial and legislative institutions have backed down at times to avoid escalating confrontations with Bolsonaro, any brazen attempt to thwart the democratic process is likely to meet a firmer response.
Even if Bolsonaro does not seek or manage to overturn democratic decisions to seize power, his fierce criticism of the electoral system, which he has not yet backed up with substantial proof, has already served to corrode the public’s trust in the electoral system.
The bonds linking the military and police with Bolsonaro have strengthened since he came to power. His calls for law and order, attacks on progressive causes and defence of gun ownership for “good citizens” have resonated with members of the security forces. Many officers profess strong attachments to Bolsonaro’s conservative values, patriotism and preference for tough law enforcement. They also see Bolsonaro as the first politician who treats them as favoured partners rather than an “enemy”. “Police officers die a lot in Brazil, their salaries are generally very low and, in many states, their working conditions are terrible”, said one former officer. “Bolsonaro, and later his sons, knew how to exploit this feeling of abandonment of the police, above all the military police”.
The president has been assiduous in his efforts to build loyalty in the police and armed forces. He has regularly attended graduation ceremonies for police and military recruits, and he has sought to provide tangible material benefits for officers. Wages for the Federal Police have risen, while programs such as Pra Viver aim to reinforce the social safety net for police officers. Bolsonaro has also been a firm supporter of “qualified immunity” (excludente de ilicitude), a proposal which would offer a legal safeguard to police officers who kill on duty. A police strike in 2020 in the state of Ceará enjoyed Bolsonaro’s veiled backing.
More significantly, the armed forces also now have major political and material stakes in the government, with serving and retired officers reported to occupy over 6,000 civilian federal positions. Military personnel have benefited from wage hikes, special pension schemes and a low-interest housing program.
The military itself provided a public demonstration of the alliance in August 2021, when the navy organised a parade in Brasilia, including dozens of armoured cars, while Congress was debating the return to paper ballots in the 2022 election, a move that Bolsonaro defended stoutly. Although the official reason for the parade was to deliver to the president an invitation to a military exercise, the unusual display was widely read as a show of force.
[The military’s] privileged status has fuelled concern as to how the armed forces might react in the event that Bolsonaro clings to office or contests an apparent electoral defeat.
This privileged status has fuelled concern as to how the armed forces might react in the event that Bolsonaro clings to office or contests an apparent electoral defeat. Several political figures, including Lula but also two other former presidents, José Sarney and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, have asked generals for reassurances that the military will not intervene if Bolsonaro loses at the polls.
That said, concerns that the military as an institution could exercise a decisive intervention on a defeated Bolsonaro’s behalf are probably unwarranted. The top brass is adamant in rejecting the notion of taking part in a coup and support within the ranks for a rupture in Brazil’s constitutional order appears to be scant. As a senior army officer put it, “It is true that some more extremist individuals, especially in the police, might cause trouble, even violence. But not the institutions. Both the army and the police are aware of their duty and their hierarchies are solid”.
A more realistic concern is the chance that the military and police might not respond if called upon to contain violence or even an attempted uprising by Bolsonaro loyalists, perhaps including members of these forces. Some police and military personnel have openly misused their authority to political ends. On occasion, police officers have not only taken part in protests in support of the president, but also favoured bolsonarista protesters by letting them breach police blockades while responding violently to anti-Bolsonaro protests. “I can see some policemen dragging their feet a little if they face a protest in favour of Bolsonaro, especially if the election is stolen from us”, said a former Rio de Janeiro police officer. “He’s certainly not bashing those who are protesting for him when he cannot”.
This concern is all the greater because the military and police appear to share Bolsonaro’s distrust of the electoral system, at least to an extent. As part of the Su-preme Electoral Court’s transparency commission deliberations, the armed forces sent a document demanding assurances that the election would be secure and pro-posing changes to the system.The perception that someone will likely tamper with the results seems to be widespread in the ranks, and a significant number of officers appear to have been won over by Bolsonaro’s mistrust of the voting system. The day after Bolsonaro assured U.S. President Joe Biden, at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, that he would not interfere with the election, his defence minister said the courts were not properly acknowledging the military’s concerns and published 29 recommendations the security forces think are indispensable to guarantee electoral transparency. The security forces’ reaction to a Bolsonaro defeat will likely be guided by the response of not only the president, but also his hardcore supporters and the media outlets that sympathise with him.
The highest risk of violence around the election at present seems to rest on the possible reaction of Bolsonaro devotees in the event of an adverse electoral result or a decisive challenge to his political authority.
Demonstrations of support for Bolsonaro have not yet become violent, but his backers have used intimidating tactics both on social media and in the streets. On social media, they have called for removing Supreme Court justices, among other things. In April, the Court sentenced a pro-Bolsonaro lawmaker to over eight years in jail for “coercion, incitement to violence, violations of the rule of law and democratic institutions and attempting to prevent their operation by serious threat”. On 7 September 2021, Brazil’s Day of Independence, tens of thousands of bolsonaristas gathered in response to the president’s call. The turnout was far lower than the millions many had expected, but neither the protestors’ number nor their message were innocuous: they demanded that the president close Congress and the Supreme Court, which they accused of constraining his ability to govern. Sending a message to Bolsonaro, an activist said ahead of the protest: “This is the last chance you have to save your country. This is the last opportunity to put your country in its rightful place”. Many evangelical pastors backed the marches as defending voting on paper ballots and freedom of expression.
Brazil does not yet have large-scale militias geared toward right-wing objectives, such as the Oath Keepers in the U.S. or former paramilitary groups in Colombia. But there are several groups that might conceivably turn pro-Bolsonaro disturbances violent in the event that the president disputes the election result. One is the neighbourhood militias that have imposed their coercive version of security on parts of Rio de Janeiro plagued by gangs and drug trafficking since the 1990s. Exasperated by crime, residents and politicians alike viewed these outfits favourably at first – in 2006, Rio’s mayor described them as “the lesser evil”– but many have changed their minds as the militias evolved into another set of criminal groups vying for territorial control. The suspects in the assassination of outspoken left-wing councillor Marielle Franco and her driver in 2018 are believed to have had ties to the militias in Rio, although progress in solving the case has been slow. Media reports and judicial probes point to links between Bolsonaro’s family and the militias, though the president has denied any such connection.
A number of signs suggest that Bolsonaro’s anti-democratic vitriol may at some stage congeal into justifications for acts of violence.
A number of signs suggest that Bolsonaro’s anti-democratic vitriol may at some stage congeal into justifications for acts of violence. Between 2018 and 2021, a study conducted by a local NGO identified more than 2,500 Brazilian websites promoting hate speech. Disinformation on social media has challenged the reliability of the electronic voting system in keeping with the widespread perception among Brazilian far-right groups that the 2020 U.S. presidential election was stolen. Distrust in the electoral process has become a near consensus among bolsonaristas, who could follow the example of Trump supporters in trying to overturn the election result if they felt there was enough evidence of fraud. Bolsonaro, in fact, said in interviews following the 6 January 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol that distrust in the Brazilian electoral system was such that “in 2022 the situation could be worse than it is in the U.S.” Early in 2022, he said in a speech that “if needed, we will go to war”.
The Brazilian right wing’s apparent search for inspiration from the U.S. as to how to disrupt a peaceful transfer of power has alarmed observers. A study of almost 94 million posts on Parler, a social media platform attracting the hard right, revealed a network of right-wing profiles from Brazil second only to the U.S. in terms of organisation. These groups, which openly support the attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, have pushed the notion that fraud in Brazil’s October election is inevitable. Rising levels of gun ownership, following Bolsonaro’s efforts to dismantle restrictions on bearing arms and give tax breaks to weapons importers, have also stoked fears that heightened partisan tensions could lead to acts of lethal violence. Gun rights have always been at the core of Bolsonaro’s political platform and groups such as the Pro-Weapons Movement claim that this issue is central to the concept of freedom held by the president and his followers.
Even so, the risks of far-right backlash are mitigated by the brittleness of loyalties to Bolsonaro, making the prospect of a coordinated response to an electoral setback unlikely. Several of his more bellicose followers, such as Sara Giromini, leader of the hard-right group 300 do Brasil, already feel betrayed by Bolsonaro because the justice system has targeted them for alleged crimes while he was president. Likewise, even as Bolsonaro was trying to whip up support for the 7 September marches, he called on an association of truck drivers to lift its blockades along the highways of several states, which it had set up to demand the removal of Supreme Court justices. Bolsonaro reportedly feared that the economic damage caused by the blockade could affect his public standing.
Aware of the risks surrounding the elections, the army has taken the unprecedented step of altering its schedule to conclude all its normal exercises by September. A senior officer said the army has been “practising since March for the elections. In September, we … will rally almost everyone [soldiers] to be part of the operation … We have been conducting drills to make sure nothing serious will happen, such as checkpoints, patrols, all to guarantee security on election day”. As in 2021, Brazilian Independence Day, on 7 September, could be an important moment to gauge the country’s political temperature, as Bolsonaro may try to use the occasion to galvanise support a month before the polls.
Increasing polarisation, greater availability of weapons and growing distrust of Brazilian institutions among a mobilised and ideologically committed part of the population pose dangers. In this highly charged environment, the eventual expansion of right-wing militias cannot be entirely discounted. One group wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the president’s visage was recorded in 2020 discharging weapons and chanting Bolsonaro’s name. The president’s second son, Carlos, shared the video on social media.
Though Bolsonaro has gained some ground, most surveys still indicate a comfortable margin of victory for Lula da Silva, meaning that the president may very well face the choice of whether to accept defeat or dispute the result. His rhetoric to date gives every indication that he could opt for the latter. The precise nature of a possible challenge is harder to foresee. Bolsonaro could seek to emulate Trump’s behaviour in the U.S. and denounce the election as a fraud. He might contest the result in court, though he would have a difficult task since (unlike the U.S.) Brazil has a dedicated Superior Electoral Court outside the normal judiciary. This court is independent from the government and is headed by a Supreme Court justice on a rotating basis; in 2022, it will be overseen by Alexandre de Moraes, the most frequent target of Bolsonaro’s ire among the judges. Efforts to reverse the election outcome through lawsuits or pressure on the courts are thus unlikely to gain traction.
A refusal by Bolsonaro to hand over power, or even an effort to engineer a full-fledged coup, appears at present to pose a somewhat lesser risk. A course of open confrontation would incur fierce opposition from nearly all state and judicial institutions and large parts of society, not to mention foreign powers, among whom Bolsonaro has few friends. On the balance of evidence, the military – who represent the president’s closest allies – would not support an overt violation of the constitution. Still, Bolsonaro seems unlikely to go quietly. It is completely plausible that he will incite his devotees to take to the streets, maybe even before the polls if he senses that defeat is unavoidable. How his supporters react to such a call could determine whether the election is peaceful or not.
Firm responses from Brazil’s judicial and state institutions will be vital to containing a potential fracas.
Firm responses from Brazil’s judicial and state institutions will be vital to containing a potential fracas. The Supreme Electoral Court, which has the primary responsibility for overseeing the election, should react swiftly to any groundless bid to contest the process or results. Other institutions, such as the Congress and the Federal Prosecution Office, will also have to remain vigilant and act rapidly in responding to any disruption. As the electorate could be agitated, the media should seek to identify misinformation, especially if it is distributed by state authorities.
Social media platforms will also have a part to play in curbing “fake news” and denying a platform to baseless accusations of fraud. They have already made progress. Eight social media platforms, among them Facebook, Twitter and TikTok, have signed a deal with Brazil’s Supreme Electoral Court to work with electoral authorities to remove disinformation. In response to criticism during the 2018 elections, Facebook and WhatsApp, both owned by parent company Meta, have cracked down on Bolsonaro’s ability to spread misinformation. Facebook has more aggressively removed misleading posts by the president – including a livestream in which he speculated that the COVID-19 vaccine causes AIDS – and WhatsApp has instituted forwarding limits that make mass-texting misinformation more difficult. Bolsonaro has responded by encouraging his supporters to abandon these platforms in favour of less regulated sites like Telegram and niche far-right forums.
Still, platforms should strengthen their responses to any potential misinformation campaigns. During the 2018 election, Facebook put in place a change that would boost “trusted sources” to a higher ranking on its news feed, which could help slow the spread of harmful content. It should now make this change permanent. Making it slightly more laborious to share content related to elections – for example, by prompting users to click on links before they share them – can help reduce the reach of misinformation. As Telegram becomes increasingly important to Bolsonaro, it should join with other social media platforms in signing an agreement with the electoral authorities to remove false content, particularly from the president’s own account.
Military or police support for the president in a coup attempt appears to be a remote prospect, but that does not remove all risk that members of these forces might pose. It remains possible that both military and police officers would drag their feet in responding to violence or unrest perpetrated by the president’s supporters. Dialogue between Congress, the Supreme Electoral Court and the Supreme Court, on one side, and the military and police, on the other, in order to establish a common understanding of how to handle an escalating electoral dispute and curb risks of violence, will be essential to the country’s stability. These institutions should also keep open communication channels with the military high command.
Meanwhile, the top brass of the three branches of the armed forces will have to remain vigilant toward the lower ranks, where Bolsonaro has for long cultivated his highest levels of support. Active-duty soldiers could participate in political events, following the example of a former health minister, General Eduardo Pazuello, who joined a rally with Bolsonaro, for which he was not reprimanded by the army commander; some might attempt more forceful displays of support. Other cases have also gained attention, such as that of army major João Paulo da Costa Araújo Alves, who was arrested for spreading propaganda in favour of Bolsonaro and for claiming to be a candidate for Congress even though he was still on active duty. Curbing such actions and prosecuting each case according to the law and internal military rules will be vital to deterring further misconduct.
Ensuring the political neutrality of police forces will be harder due to their decentralised nature. Officers could transgress norms in various ways, from taking part in political activities, standing by in the face of provocation by Bolsonaro’s supporters or even responding abusively to those of his rivals. State governors and their respective security secretaries will remain the chief conduits to police commands, and they will need to monitor their forces’ actions closely. Likewise, NGOs, the media and civil society organisations will have roles to play in identifying and denouncing any wrongdoing.
The most volatile constituency is Bolsonaro’s hardcore supporters. [It is] hard to anticipate how they might react to an electoral setback or to a presidential incitement to protest.
Nonetheless, the most volatile constituency is Bolsonaro’s hardcore supporters. Their diversity makes it hard to anticipate how they might react to an electoral setback or to a presidential incitement to protest. The sense of betrayal that some of their number felt following Bolsonaro’s ostensible retreat from confrontation in September 2021 might discourage them from acts of aggression. But it is quite possible that individuals or small groups who are convinced that fraud has taken place, and have access to weapons, might assume a more combative posture. The Federal Police should keep close watch on far-right groups, conducting investigations into their financing and practices and, if evidence comes to light that they have violent designs, making arrests that could result in these groups being dismantled. Furthermore, state police should prevent participants in demonstrations from carrying weapons and act swiftly to contain flare-ups of violence while rebutting malicious narratives surrounding such episodes.
Last but not least, Brazilian institutions will need firm support from foreign governments, both in Latin America and farther abroad, in the event that Bolsonaro or his backers attempt to disrupt the October electoral process. Along with international bodies, these governments should quickly and unequivocally denounce any such effort.
The 2022 election is a milestone for Brazil, marking an acid test of the country’s democratic stability in the face of a campaign likely to be dominated by two political veterans, coloured by ideological polarisation and conducted through vicious verbal attacks. Preventing unrest in the months ahead will pose a challenge for state and judicial institutions, especially those whom President Bolsonaro has either cultivated as close allies, such as the military and the police, or branded as enemies of his government, such as the Supreme Court.
While the risks of a full-fledged breakdown in Brazil’s constitutional order appear remote at present, lesser dangers are still acute. Bolsonaro’s rhetoric over the past few years and his ambivalence toward democratic norms are ample reason to fear he may not accept his defeat and that his supporters could take to the streets. The government’s stout defence of conservative social norms as well as his embrace of tough law enforcement without doubt remain popular across much of Brazil, but his contempt for medical science has trimmed the size of its support base. That in turn appears to have galvanised Bolsonaro’s remaining devotees and pushed them farther right. Acts of provocation or violence by his loyalists could accompany any effort by the president to prevent or dispute a fair election, putting strain on the military and police forces where support for Bolsonaro tends to run high.
Respect for the law in responding to cut-throat electoral rhetoric will be required in Brazil’s courts, political elite, media and armed forces. Yet even if the elections end peacefully, and without major trauma, the currents reinforced by Bolsonaro’s government may not be so easy to dampen. The increasing number of groups professing a hard-right ideology, with easy access to guns and a pointed sense of grievance, could pose a continuing threat of unrest, even if Bolsonaro is a diminished force in the country’s politics. Sympathies for these beliefs among military and police personnel complicate matters further. Avoiding unnecessary friction with Brazil’s conservatives while keeping, via the courts and Federal Police, a watchful eye on these groups will be crucial to ensuring that the Bolsonaro-era vitriol does not lead to more serious perils in the years ahead.
Rio de Janeiro/Bogotá/Brussels, 16 June 2022