BRAZIL – President Jair Bolsonaro is calling Brazil’s bicentennial on Wednesday a chance to celebrate the nation’s proud history, but critics say he has turned what should be a day of unity into a campaign event they fear he will use to derail next month’s election in the fourth largest democracy in Latin America.
Bolsonaro, who is trailing in the polls ahead of the Oct. 2 vote, called on Brazilians to flood the streets and tens of thousands of his supporters were expected to turn out in a show of force in Brasilia, Sao Paulo and his hometown of Rio de Janeiro. The military has planned demonstrations in the capital and in Rio with the participation of Bolsonaro.
The far-right nationalist has been on a mission to promote Brazilian patriotism for years and has adopted the national colors of green and yellow as his own. He staffed his administration with military officers and repeatedly sought their support, most recently to question the reliability of the nation’s electronic voting system without evidence.
His attacks on the voting system have sparked widespread concern among his opponents that he may follow in former US President Donald Trump’s footsteps and overturn the election results. Analysts said they would be watching for inflammatory comments on Wednesday.
“Bolsonaro and his supporters made this the most important day of the entire campaign. So he’s going to have to deliver some red meat,” said Brian Winter, vice president of policy at the American Society/Council of the Americas. “But everybody wants to know if he’s going to cross that line and create a real institutional crisis.”
After the military parade in Brasilia, Bolsonaro will attend another demonstration in Rio along Copacabana beach, where his supporters often demonstrate. The latter involves gun salutes, cannon fire, flyovers, paratroopers and warships anchored in the sea.
But Rio will not see what the president has announced will be a big parade instead of the annual nonpartisan downtown event. Instead, Rio’s mayor and military leaders settled for a more modest display on a beach designated by the president.
Bolsonaro, a former army captain and lawmaker for decades before winning the 2018 presidential election, spent much of his first term in contact with Supreme Court justices, some of whom are also top members of the electoral body.
He has accused some judges of holding back his administration and favoring former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, an election favorite seeking a return to the post he held from 2003-2010. This has effectively turned these figures and their institutions into enemies for Bolsonaro’s base, which is roughly one-quarter of the electorate.
When Bolsonaro announced his re-election bid on July 24, he asked supporters for a “final” show of support on Independence Day. “These few deaf people in black robes should understand what the voice of the people is,” he said, referring to the courts.
The National Guard will increase security outside the Supreme Court building on Wednesday, and police will search people at checkpoints around the esplanade, where the military display and later rally will take place.
Bolsonaro has softened his tone on Independence Day since the start of his campaign. Last week in the southern city of Curitiba, he ordered supporters to lower a banner demanding a military coup. And in a television spot released Tuesday, he urged people to come to the bicentenary “in peace and harmony.”
Carlos Ranulfo de Mello, a political scientist at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, said this likely reflects the campaign’s strategy to avoid fiery rhetoric and instead focus on improving the economy.
But Rodrigo Prando, a professor of political science at Mackenzie Presbyterian University in Sao Paulo, said he expected Bolsonaro to oppose the electronic voting system and the Supreme Court.
The president is known for unofficial antics. At last year’s Independence Day rally, he pushed the country to the brink of an institutional crisis, saying he would ignore the orders of a Supreme Court judge. He later recanted, saying his comments were made in the heat of the moment and simmering tensions boiled over.
There were concerns about political violence. Some of his die-hard supporters tried to storm the Supreme Court last year. In July, a federal prison guard killed a local official from the Workers’ Party da Silva while he was celebrating his birthday, and witnesses said he shouted support for Bolsonaro before pulling the trigger.
The newspaper Estadao de S. Paulo, among others, reported on August 19 that military intelligence had identified a risk of radical movements supporting Bolsonaro trying to infiltrate the bicentennial celebrations to provoke riots and defend military intervention.
“There is a movement that tries to legitimize a coup d’état if the result of the vote does not please the Bolsonaros,” said Ty Nalon, co-founder of the fact-checking agency AosFatos. “You didn’t have that in 2018.”
Members of Bolsonaro’s campaign hope he stays on message. Congressman Joao Augusto Rosa, deputy chairman of Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party, told The Associated Press he wants to see the president reach out to undecided voters, especially poorer Brazilians who have received increased welfare benefits under his administration.
“We have to show all the benefits we were able to win for them,” the congressman, better known as Captain Augusta, said by phone. “This is not the time to preach to the converted, but instead to those who may yet change their minds.”
Jeantet reported from Rio de Janeiro. Associated Press writer Mauricio Savarese in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.
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