SÃO PAULO, Brazil – For weeks, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has been urging his supporters to take to the streets. So on September 7, Brazil’s Independence Day, I half expected to see crowds of armed people dressed in yellow and green jerseys, some wearing fur hats and horns, storming the building. of the Supreme Court – our own imitation of the Capitol Riot.
Fortunately, this is not what happened. (The crowds eventually made their way home and no one tried to sit in the chairs of the Supreme Court justices.) But the Brazilians were not spared the chaos and dismay.
For Mr. Bolsonaro, it was a show of force. In the morning, addressing a crowd of around 400,000 in Brasilia, he said he intended to use the size of the crowd as an “ultimatum for everyone” in all three branches. of the government. In the afternoon, during a demonstration in São Paulo of 125,000 people, the president called the upcoming elections in 2022 a “farce” and declared that he would no longer respect the decisions of one of the Supreme Court judges. “I let the scoundrels know,” he bellowed, “I will never be jailed!” “
It seems to be part of a plan. In particular battling with the Supreme Court – which has opened several investigations into him and his allies, including his role in a potentially corrupt vaccine-buying program and his efforts to discredit Brazil’s voting system – Mr. Bolsonaro tries to sow the seeds of an institutional crisis, in order to retain power. On September 9, he tried to back down a bit, stating in a written statement that he “never intended to attack any branch of government.” But his actions are clear: he is indeed threatening to carry out a coup.
This may be the only way out for Mr. Bolsonaro. (Apart from governing the country well, something which apparently does not interest him.) The antics of the president, in difficulty in the polls and threatened by the prospect of impeachment, are a sign of despair. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be successful.
Mr. Bolsonaro has good reason to be desperate. The government’s mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in the deaths of 587,000 Brazilians; the country faces record rates of unemployment and economic inequality; and he is also afflicted by soaring inflation, poverty and hunger. Oh, and there’s also a huge energy crisis going on.
This had negative consequences for Mr. Bolsonaro’s position with the Brazilians. In July, its disapproval rate rose to 51%, its highest score on record, according to the Datafolha Institute. And before the presidential elections next year, things are not looking rosy. In fact, the polls suggest he will lose. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the center-left politician and former president, far exceeds Mr. Bolsonaro. As it stands, Mr Bolsonaro would lose to all of his possible rivals in a second round.
This explains Mr Bolsonaro’s eagerness to push baseless fraud allegations into Brazil’s electronic voting system. “There is no way to prove whether the elections were rigged or not,” he said of past elections (including the one he won), on a two-part TV show. hours in July, without providing any evidence to support its claims. He has repeatedly threatened to call off the election if the current voting system remains in place – and although Congress recently rejected his proposal to require paper receipts, he continues to question the voting process. (Does this sound familiar, anyone?)
Then there is corruption. A growing number of corruption charges have been brought against the president and two of his sons, both of whom hold public office. (One is a senator, the other sits on the Rio de Janeiro city council.) Prosecutors suggested that the Bolsonaro family participated in a scheme known as “rachadinha,” which involves hiring close associates or family members as employees and then pocket part of their salary.
For Mr. Bolsonaro, who was elected in part for his promise to rout corruption, these investigations cast a long shadow. Against this backdrop of incompetence and scandal, the events of September 7 were an attempt to distract and, of course, to cement divisions.
Efforts to remove Mr. Bolsonaro by parliamentary means have stalled. Although the opposition has filed 137 impeachment requests to date, the procedure must be initiated by the president of the lower house, Arthur Lira, who does not seem inclined to accept them. (This is not particularly surprising: Mr Lira is the leader of a group of center-right parties, known as the ‘centrão’, to whom Mr Bolsonaro has handed over important government posts, in the hope to protect themselves from impeachment proceedings.) Only huge public demonstrations can break the deadlock.
There’s no time to lose. The protests of the past week were not simply a political spectacle. It was another move to strengthen Mr Bolsonaro’s position with a view to a possible takeover before next year’s elections. He didn’t get exactly what he wanted – the numbers, while substantial, were far lower than organizers hoped – but he will continue to try.
September 7 now marks another defining moment in Brazilian history – when our President’s totalitarian goals became unmistakably clear. For our young democracy, it could be a matter of life and death.