In a television interview two decades ago, the fringe congressman stated unequivocally that if he were president, he would dissolve the Brazilian congress and stage a military takeover.
Now that the congressman is president of Brazil, there are fears that he is thinking about how to carry out that plan. Bolsonaro, a former army captain who has frequently lamented the fall of Brazil’s military dictatorship, has recently questioned not only whether he will run in next year’s elections, but whether elections will be held at all.
Some of the country’s most powerful political voices, including former President Michel Temer, are concerned that Bolsonaro will try to use unsubstantiated claims of electoral fraud to derail or overturn a vote he lost.
Bolsonaro’s increasingly brazen remarks are part of a months-long, Trump-style campaign to undermine trust in the electoral system and turn its processes into a high-stakes political battle. Now, as Latin America’s largest democracy braces itself for what is expected to be a tumultuous election, it faces a familiar paradox: The man leading the assault on its electoral process is the very person most recently awarded its highest office.
Bolsonaro has been making unsubstantiated claims of electoral fraud for years. Prior to the 2018 presidential election, he stated that the only way he could lose was through fraud. He then claimed he had won by a much larger margin than the official tally indicated. Last year, he repeated President Donald Trump’s claims about the 2016 U.S. election: “There was a lot of fraud there.”
However, in recent months, he has become increasingly fixated on Brazil’s electronic voting machines, alleging without evidence that the system is rife with fraud. He believes the country should switch to paper ballots and has repeatedly urged Congress to do so.
This week, he painted Brazil’s election as part of a larger plot by unnamed forces to re-elect leftist politician Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to the presidency. Lula, who was imprisoned on corruption charges before being released, now leads Bolsonaro in presidential polls.
Bolsonaro’s presidential office defended him as a “active and tireless defender of democracy and the Brazilian constitution” in a statement. According to officials, Bolsonaro wants a transparent process in which every vote is counted.
Few believe Bolsonaro has a realistic chance of undoing an election. Analysts argue that his rhetoric reveals his political weakness. His approval ratings have plummeted to all-time lows. More than 545,000 Brazilians have died as a result of the coronavirus, and congressional investigators are looking into his government’s inaction in the face of the pandemic. He is being investigated for failing to report suspicions of government corruption in the purchase of an Indian vaccine.
However, in a country that was only liberated from the yoke of a military dictatorship in 1985 and has been wary of the military’s involvement in politics ever since, there is a sense that anything is possible.
Bolsonaro has amassed an unprecedented number of military officials in his administration. His policies are widely supported by security forces. A segment of his base has repeatedly urged him to stage a military takeover, which he has fueled by attending their rallies. After Trump supporters in the United States attempted to overturn the election results, Bolsonaro warned that if Brazil did not change its electoral system, it would face a “even worse problem.” Braga Netto, his defense minister, reportedly threatened to cancel the elections if the country did not use paper ballots — a newspaper report Netto denied Thursday morning.
A sustained assault on the legitimacy of the election in a country polarized by Bolsonaro’s presidency could undermine democracy for years to come. Millions of people could feel cheated after the election, as has happened in the United States.
According to Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, an anthropologist at the University of Sao Paulo and a visiting professor at Princeton, Brazil today is haunted by the “specter of a dictatorship.” But it isn’t the lingering effects of decades under a military regime, she claims, but rather the fear of Bolsonaro’s apparent authoritarian tendencies.