As Brazil enters the final stretch of its campaign season, a spate of politically motivated death threats, physical attacks, and killings across the country are raising fears of more widespread violence after the Oct. 2 election.
Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as “Lula,” has widened his lead over right-wing incumbent Jair Bolsonaro in recent polls in the most polarized election since the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship in 1985. While violence against political candidates is not unprecedented in Brazilian elections—Bolsonaro himself was nearly killed after being stabbed by a mentally ill man during the 2018 campaign—officials and analysts say this election season has seen an unusual uptick in attacks between supporters and violent threats against public officials, ministers, and poll workers.
Cases of politically motivated violence against candidates, officials and government workers have spiked 23% since 2020, according to the Observatory of Political and Electoral Violence in Brazil. There have been at least 214 such cases this year, a number that includes 45 alleged homicides, according to their analysis.
Da Silva, a left-wing former union leader who served two terms as president from 2003 to 2010, has been appearing under tight security and wears a bulletproof vest to public events. His scheduled campaign kickoff event at an engine factory in August had to be cancelled due to security concerns raised by federal police. Bolsonaro, a right-wing former army captain, has also been wearing a bulletproof vest. Unlike in his 2018 campaign, he has been limiting his interactions with supporters in the crowd at his rallies, who are patted down before they can approach the stage.
Bolsonaro, who has already questioned the integrity of the election and cited unfounded claims of voter fraud, has warned that he will only leave office if he is “killed, jailed, or victorious.” On the campaign trail, he has told supporters to brace for a fight and declared that “if necessary, we will go to war.” His rhetoric has alarmed international officials and political violence experts, who warn of a “Stop the Steal 2.0.”
“This is not so common in Brazil,” Feliciano Guimarães, the academic director at the Brazilian Center of International Relations (CEBRI) in Rio de Janeiro, says about the recent uptick in attacks. “Although you have always had political violence near elections, it was very fragmented and more about local issues than national motivations.” And beyond the alarming trend of recent weeks, he says, “I think the challenge is yet to come.”
“It will depend on how the bolsonaristas react to a likely Lula victory, and how the police and military react if there are riots,” he says. Even if the worst fears don’t materialize, the election will have long-lasting effects, he says: “The new political polarization we have in Brazil now, and the active attacks on institutions, are very dangerous for the political system.”
The heightened security concerns were visible from the start. In July, Brazil’s federal police instituted security measures for presidential candidates that usually wouldn’t be put in place before the election season’s official start in mid-August. The move came after a policeman, who witnesses say was shouting pro-Bolsonaro slogans like “This is Bolsonaro territory!” and “Lula is a thief!”, killed a local official of da Silva’s Workers’ Party at a “Lula”-themed birthday party in the southern city of Foz do Iguaçu.
Since then, attacks among political supporters have escalated, with several reports of beatings, assaults, stabbings and even murders. Last week, a 39-year-old man was stabbed to death at a bar in the northeastern state of Ceara after declaring his support for Lula (the police report attributed the death to a “political discussion.”) A lawmaker belonging to da Silva’s Workers Party, Paulo Guedes, posted on social media that his car had been shot at three times by Bolsonaro supporters during a rally on Sept. 25. “How far does this hatred go?” Guedes posted on Twitter with the hashtag #BolsonaroKills and a photo of the bullets.
“The current scenario is unprecedented in the history of Brazilian democracy and increases the challenge of guaranteeing the physical safety of the candidate,” federal police guarding Lula wrote to senior colleagues in a classified memo in July reported by Reuters.
Several of Brazil’s political parties have asked the Superior Electoral Court to guarantee security measures on the day of the election and set up a hotline to report political violence incidents. While the court has authorized the country’s armed forces to be deployed to more than 560 municipalities on the day of the election, there are signs these measures may come too late for some worried voters.
In a recent survey by Datafolha, a prominent Brazilian polling firm, 40% of respondents said they believed there was a “high likelihood” of political violence during the election, and 9% of respondents said the fear of such violence would keep them from voting. This fear was twice as high among Lula supporters compared to Bolsonaro supporters.
According to another Datafolha survey of almost 6,000 Brazilians in 300 cities released this week, more than 67% of respondents said they feared becoming a victim of violence due to their political decisions during the election. In a sign of the spike in tensions, a researcher for Datafolha conducting one of the surveys was reportedly attacked last week by Bolsonaro supporters, who kicked and punched him and threatened him with a knife. The polling firm, which Bolsonaro has attacked at his rallies as “lying Datafolha,” says that it has tallied 43 cases of harassment and violence against its employees since Sept. 7. “We never faced harassment and attacks on the researchers on the streets until this year,” Datafolha’s Estevao de Souza told CNN.
“These episodes of political violence are a byproduct of this polarization,” says Nick Zimmerman, a Global Fellow at the Brazil Institute at the Wilson Center who served as director of the National Security Council’s Brazil and Southern Cone division in the Obama White House. “It’s not coming out of left field,” he says. The country has been on a path of deepening polarization for years, roiled by several corruption scandals, the Covid-19 pandemic that killed almost 700,000 Brazilians, and economic worries about rising poverty, inflation and social inequality. “They are reflective of an environment that has deteriorated in a lot of ways,” Zimmerman says, “In a country that already suffers from a violence problem to begin with.”
Da Silva is trying to stage a political comeback three years after the nation’s top court annulled his 2017 conviction for money laundering and corruption, which carried a sentence of 10 years in prison. The former union leader, who served as president during an economic boom in the early 2000s, has been campaigning on nostalgia for that era of prosperity when millions of Brazilians were lifted out of poverty.
Bolsonaro has been casting the election as a battle for Brazil’s soul, campaigning as an anti-corruption crusader and a defender of traditional family values. He has increasingly lashed out at political institutions, including the country’s highest court, which he has accused of being biased against him. Earlier this month, he was criticized for co-opting Brazil’s independence day celebrations marking 200 years of independence from Portugal by turning it onto a military parade that opponents say served as a political rally. The capital of Brasilia deployed more than 10,000 police officers before the event, shoring up the security of the Supreme Court, a frequent target of Bolsonaro’s.
“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,” Guilherme Boulos, a Brazilian politician and activist wrote in TIME earlier this month. Boulos says he himself was threatened by an armed Bolsonaro supporter while passing out pamphlets for the left-wing Socialism and Liberty Party.
When he was questioned about his role inciting the violence during a Sept. 24 television debate, Bolsonaro shrugged it off: “Trying to hold me responsible for this violence is not serious journalism.”
Analysts also say that Bolsonaro’s dramatic expansion of gun rights may be contributing to the violence. During his presidency, he has signed more than 40 presidential decrees making it easier for civilians to own firearms. As a result, the number of small firearms owned by civilians has nearly tripled from 2018 to 2021 according to the Igarapé Institute, a Brazilian think tank that focuses on security issues.
The tense atmosphere has also been exacerbated by political ads and disinformation on social media. A new report released Sept. 28 by nonprofit watchdog SumofUs showed that Meta, which owns Facebook, and YouTube were continuing to promote ads spreading election disinformation, including posts and videos attacking judicial authorities and promoting a military coup. “Some of the most alarming ads discovered by researchers incite violence against ministers and public officials and make direct attacks on the legitimacy and future of institutions like the Supreme Federal Court and the Superior Electoral Court,” the report says.
Brazilian officials and analysts worry all of this is raising the risk of potential violence in the aftermath of the Oct. 2 election. “We may experience an episode even more severe than the January 6 [attack] on the Capitol,” Edson Fachin, the head of the country’s Electoral Court, said earlier this month.
Lawmakers in the U.S. have expressed similar concerns. “President Bolsonaro’s reckless and dangerous rhetoric about electoral fraud raise serious fears that he will potentially impede a peaceful transfer of power if he loses,” a group of 39 lawmakers wrote in a letter to President Joe Biden on Sept. 9. “Having personally experienced the horrors of the January 6 insurrection, we know all too well the consequences.”
But with the latest polls showing an increasingly wide lead for Lula, indicating that he may even reach the 50% of valid votes needed to avoid a run-off, longtime Brazil watchers say they’re hopeful the worst of these fears won’t materialize.
“I’m feeling relatively optimistic that resilient democracy comes through,” says Zimmerman. “But it’s been a really difficult time for the country and I expect the remaining days, and weeks depending on what happens on Sunday, to be tumultuous.”
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Write to Vera Bergengruen at email@example.com