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LATIN AMERICA | 11-09-2021 10:20

Bolsonaro ‘politically isolated’ – despite the bluster

Brazilian leader marked Independence Day with huge rallies, but analysts say president is just seeking to sow chaos.

President Jair Bolsonaro flexed his muscle on Brazilian Independence Day with huge rallies, but despite his attacks on the establishment and veiled threats of an eventual power grab, he looks increasingly isolated, analysts said Wednesday.

The far-right leader drew seas of supporters decked out in Brazilian green, yellow and blue into the streets of major cities across the country Tuesday, railing against a Supreme Court and electoral system supposedly stacked against him and vowing to defend his backers' "freedom."

Authorities placed turnout at an impressive 125,000 people at the biggest rally, in economic capital São Paulo – though that fell short of Bolsonaro's vow to draw a crowd of more than two million.

It is also far from representative in this sprawling country of 213 million people, where Bolsonaro's popularity is at an all-time low of less than 25 percent, political analysts underlined.

The fired-up crowds, however, did make a mark on the national conversation, already consumed with the build-up to elections in October 2022 that polls put the embattled Bolsonaro on track to lose to leftist ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

"Despite his political isolation, the president showed he is still capable of mobilising a noisy minority," political columnist Bernardo Mello Franco wrote in newspaper O Globo.

The high-risk national day came off relatively smoothly, despite fears the rallies could descend into a Brazilian version of the January 6 attack on the US Capitol by backers of former US president Donald Trump, Bolsonaro's political role model.

Authorities reported few incidents, even as pro-Bolsonaro crowds of gun-rights advocates, evangelical Christians, anti-vax conspiracy theorists and motorcycle fanatics marched just miles from anti-Bolsonaro protests by leftist activists and labour movements.

However, analysts said Bolsonaro's new attacks on the Supreme Court and Superior Electoral Tribunal sound increasingly like a prelude to an eventual "power grab" if he loses next year's vote or refuses to take part in it.

"He practically declared war on the Supreme Court," said Edson Sardinha of the news site Congresso em Foco.

Bolsonaro, 66, notably warned he would no longer respect rulings by high court Justice Alexandre de Moraes, who has ordered the president investigated over accusations of systematically spreading fake news.

Chief Justice Luiz Fux said Wednesday that disrespecting a Supreme Court ruling would be an impeachable offence, and warned Bolsonaro: "No-one will close this court."

Bolsonaro also renewed his attacks on Brazil's electronic voting system, which he alleges – without evidence – is plagued by fraud. He said he refused to take part in an election "farce" in 2022.

"Bolsonaro constantly seeks to fuel crises. It's his style of governance, his means to rally his base," said Gaspard Estrada, a Latin America expert at Sciences Po in France.

 

'Any lengths'

Paradox abounded as Bolsonaro accused the Supreme Court of acting outside the constitution – then appeared to do the same himself, insisting that "only God" could remove him from office.

"Bolsonaro isn't going to let go of power easily. With his power-grabbing behaviour, he has shown he will go to any lengths – including sowing chaos in Brazil – to remain in the presidency," Estrada said.

Bolsonaro faces a series of investigations targeting him and his inner circle, including the fake news probe and a Senate inquiry into his controversial handling of Covid-19, which has claimed nearly 600,000 lives in Brazil.

With inflation and unemployment both surging, Tuesday's rallies only add to investor uncertainty over Latin America's economic giant, said Claudio Frischtak, president of consulting firm Inter.BConsultorio.

"It's very bad for the economy," he told TV Globo.

 

Army in spotlight

Bolsonaro, a former Army captain, is openly nostalgic for Brazil's military dictatorship (1964-1985), and has hinted the Armed Forces could intervene against the other branches of government to give him unfettered power.

It is unclear the military would do that, however, despite hundreds of officers holding government posts in his administration, including at the highest levels.

"The president doesn't have the leverage to pull off a military intervention" against Congress or the Supreme Court, said political analyst Oliver Stuenkel of the Getúlio Vargas Foundation.

The most likely scenario for the year ahead, he said, is "constant constitutional instability" and "a chaotic situation."

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