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LATIN AMERICA | 06-09-2021 13:54

Brazil on edge as Bolsonaro tells his base to take to the streets

President Jair Bolsonaro has urged Brazilians to come out in force on Tuesday to show their support for his government. It’s shaping up to be an all-or-nothing gauge of his chances of re-election.

President Jair Bolsonaro has urged Brazilians to come out in force on Tuesday to show their support for his government. It’s shaping up to be an all-or-nothing gauge of his chances of re-election that has Brazil bracing for potential clashes.

Brazil’s banking and industry groups have issued calls for calm, as Supreme Court Justice Ricardo Lewandowski wrote a newspaper article pointing out that any action against the constitutional order by armed groups, civilian or military, constitutes a crime. The Senate president cancelled his attendance at an event in Austria to monitor the demonstrations.

Bolsonaro sees September 7 — Brazil’s Independence Day — as an opportunity to rally his base and demonstrate that he retains the backing of large numbers of voters, according to four people who have access to the president and his sons. It’s a chance to show that he’s not alone in tackling the country’s greatest challenges, the people said.  

One of Bolsonaro’s family aides says the president’s goal is to prevent the further erosion of his base. Even as his approval rating hit a low of 20 percent, the Bolsonaro family believes he still has the core support that would allow him to make it through to a run-off against Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former president who leads the polls for the 2022 ballot.

“September 7 will be a milestone in the renewal of hope in Brazil because Bolsonaro is loved, followed and supported by the population,” Labour Minister Onyx Lorenzoni, one of the Cabinet members closest to the president, said in an interview. “There is no president in the world nowadays more popular than him.” 

Bolsonaro may be “unbreakable,” as Lorenzoni asserted, but his gamble could still backfire: a low turnout would be an embarrassment for the president at a time when his troubles have been multiplying. Inflation is soaring, support from the business and agribusiness lobbies is flagging, a water crisis has raised Brazilians’ energy bills, gas prices are through the roof, and a probe into his erratic handling of the pandemic continues to uncover nuggets of scandal.

Against such a turbulent background, Bolsonaro has used insinuations of democratic disruption to inflame his loyalists and attack the country’s institutions, especially the Supreme Court. Insinuations of doubt over the impartiality of the electoral system by which he won office have become one of the rallying points for Tuesday’s demonstrations.

These efforts have heightened the apprehension of local political authorities across the country, who fear that Latin America’s largest economy could become a stage for violent confrontation.

The president’s ambivalent rhetoric has done nothing to dispel such concerns. Last week he said that the presidential election will either result in his victory, his arrest or his death. 

“No-one need fear on September 7,” he said Thursday during a speech at the presidential palace, adding that force cannot be used to whip up aggression. Then on Friday, he said that the message of those on the streets will serve as an “an ultimatum” to two Supreme Court justices whom he has singled out for criticism. 

“Understand that you two are on the wrong path,” he said, without naming the justices. If someone wants to play outside the Constitution, he added, “we will show that we can play too.”   

The presidency didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Lawmakers, justices and even members of his Cabinet say they will be watching Bolsonaro to see how far he is willing to go to escalate the political crisis in the country, with Tuesday’s protests an important indicator of sentiment. 

“Demonstrations are a spasm of a desperate, unpopular, incompetent and cornered government,” said Alessandro Molon, the opposition leader in the lower house. While referring to Bolsonaro’s call to take to the streets as “one more step of an authoritarian escalation,” he said that unlike in 1964 when the military took control, “today there is no support for a coup d’état in Brazil.”

Bolsonaro will host a pared-down ceremony first thing in Brasilia in front of the presidency’s official residence. The traditional military parade has been suspended due to the pandemic.

The president has said that he will then participate in a demonstration in the capital. Local government said it expected 16 separate groups in the city center — 13 in favour of the president and 3 against — increasing the risk of confrontation. Some 5,000 police officers will be present.

Later in the day, Bolsonaro will go to São Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, for another protest.

The Supreme Court “remains attentive and vigilant on September 7 in favour of Brazil’s democracy,” Chief Justice Luiz Fux said in a speech last week.

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by Daniel Carvalho & Simone Preissler Iglesias, Bloomberg

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