On Sept. 9, a rural worker was fatally stabbed during a political discussion with a supporter of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s far-right President, in the midwestern state of Mato Grosso do Sul. A little over a month ago, in the southern state of Paraná, an armed bolsonarista invaded a children’s birthday party and executed the child’s father in front of his entire family. The images of the crime, recorded by a security camera, shocked the country.
There are also cases where violence was only avoided by luck, or a lack of opportunity. A few days ago, while campaigning in the street, myself and my colleague Ediane Maria of the Socialism and Liberty Party, were threatened by an armed man who declared himself a Bolsonaro supporter when we passed him a pamphlet from our election campaign. The incident took place in São Bernardo do Campo, a city in the state of São Paulo, and is already under investigation by the Public Electoral Ministry.
These episodes, scattered across Brazil, are nothing new: they are just the latest in an extensive list of acts of political violence engendered by President Bolsonaro and his aggressive rhetoric toward those who disagree with him.
Long before reaching the presidency, Bolsonaro was already known in Brazil for his right-wing positions and for his ideological alignment with the military dictatorship installed by the 1964 coup that ousted the left-wing João Goulart, and which was backed by the U.S. government. Defending the shooting of left-wing opponents on the campaign trail in 2018 and saying in 2014 he “wouldn’t rape” a female colleague “because she didn’t deserve it” are just a couple examples that illustrate the authoritarian personality of Bolsonaro, an ex-soldier.
Aware of this history, Brazil’s economic elite still chose to back Bolsonaro in the 2018 elections, supporting the fraudulent arrest that year of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva that would bar him from the race. In doing so, they cleared the path for the election of a man that they thought they could control over the next four years.
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But since arriving in the Palácio do Planalto, Bolsonaro has only become more brazen in his authoritarian overreach. His aggressive and irresponsible speeches have escalated a climate of violence and encouraged millions of supporters across Brazil to violently confront those who disagree with them. In this climate, Lula, who has since been acquitted of the corruption charges and is Bolsonaro’s main rival in the upcoming October general elections, recently had to reinforce his security detail with snipers for a campaign rally, after identifying bolsonarista threats.
After four years of attacks on our institutions and values, it doesn’t seem surprising that Bolsonaro now threatens Brazilian democracy itself. In this, he is the image of his idol, former U.S. President Donald Trump. More than just an inspiration, Trump is the ideological north star of Bolsonaro’s political movement. Bolsonaro has repeatedly questioned the reliability of our internationally praised electronic voting machines, and said that he will only accept the result of the elections if they are “clean”; in other words, if he wins.
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Unlike Trump, however, Bolsonaro commands backing from some sectors of the military, many members of which serve in the President’s administration. Few people still minimize the risk of a Bolsonaro coup, though some still believe his worrying statements are just a big bluff. I fear that Bolsonaro, once he is defeated at the ballot box as polls expect, will seek to rupture our democracy—and resort to violence to do so. The whole question is whether he will have enough support to carry it out. Today, by all indications, he wouldn’t. But that should not make us underestimate the risk.
In recent weeks, Bolsonaro’s allies in the Armed Forces have managed to force the Superior Electoral Court to allow them to do a “parallel inspection” of the electoral process, opening the door for them to question, within a weakened institutional framework, a vote against the President on Oct 2.
At the same time, Bolsonaro and his sons are doubling down on his strategy. They have intensified their links with criminal militias, according to Brazilian newspapers. (Bolsonaro denies any ties to militia groups.) And they have also called on the President’s supporters to arm themselves, to unite in the streets and resist defeat in a vote that Bolsonaro has tried to sow doubt over.
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If that happens, there is one thing that can ensure democracy and prevent violence: social mobilization in the streets. We would have to lead and redouble peaceful protests until Bolsonaro leaves the presidential palace.
The streets are also key, at this moment, to increasing Lula’s margin of victory that will make it harder for Bolsonaro to spread lies about the legitimacy of the vote. By talking face to face with undecided voters, we will fight for victory—victory for a democratic and anti-fascist country, where differences are resolved through dialogue and not with bullets.
Only then will we put Brazil back on a path of democracy and social justice. Only then will the Amazon and our biodiversity be safe from the ravages of deforestation. Only then will Brazil be respected and admired on the international scene again. There are only a couple weeks left for the most important elections in our country yet.
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