Pro-Bolsonaro Protests Were Supposed to Show His Strength. Instead, They Showed His Weakness.
Far from being ascendant in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right politics look increasingly isolated, especially after a failed showing in the streets this week. But even with a small, reactionary minority of support, Bolsonaro can wreak serious undemocratic havoc.
Pro-Bolsonaro protests in Brazil this week that some feared would be the first act of a coup turned out to be nothing of the sort. Not only that, but the president’s usual antidemocratic rhetoric could not mask the fact that his intended show of force was a bit of a flop. Yet the concerns over political violence in Brazil’s future may still be well-founded.
The September 7 protests, held on the national holiday to celebrate Brazil’s independence, were the most carefully organized and planned Bolsonarista demonstrations since his electoral victory in 2018. Bolsonaro had only a week prior declared that “the Brazilian people will never have as big an opportunity as on September 7.”
But Bolsonaro is increasingly encircled. The economy is in bad shape, and much of the country’s political and economic elite have turned against him. Popular living standards are being squeezed as food and fuel inflation bite amid high unemployment; his poll numbers, in turn, have plummeted. Bolsonaro, his family, and his entourage are also the subject of numerous judicial probes, some of them criminal.
But it is this weakness, combined with a fervent hardcore base that includes military and police forces, that make many feel this is a volatile moment. What if Bolsonaro supporters were to storm the Supreme Court or Congress? What if the police forces mutiny? What will the military do?
Though these questions still remain, and there is little indication that he would leave office peacefully should he lose the October 2022 election as predicted, his intransigence can’t make up for a basic fact: things do not look promising for Jair Bolsonaro.
The lead-up to this week’s demonstrations was discussed by local and especially international media as a possible repeat of the Capitol Hill riot in Washington, DC on January 6. Such comparisons are worse than useless. January 6 was never a real threat to democracy in the United States — but Bolsonaro could be.
January 6 has been much mythologized by those who stand to gain from talking up the Trumpian insurrectionist threat, like the Democratic establishment and the FBI. In fact, the latter found no evidence of a centrally planned plot, and there are no plans to charge those involved with seditious conspiracy. The Trumpists did not kill anyone, and the only violent death was a policeman shooting a pro-Trump protester at point-blank range. It was not a coup, nor even a respectable coup attempt. Instead, the whole administrative transition in the United States saw the great mass of the establishment upholding the election results. There was no risk of a military coup.
In Brazil, the situation is far more precarious. The elite has never been as wedded to institutionality as it is in the United States. After all, those elites backed Brazil’s 1964 military coup, with many of its political henchmen still in Congress. From the institutional coup against President Dilma Roussef of 2016 onward, democracy has been weakened ever further.
Since Bolsonaro took office, six thousand military personnel have come to occupy positions in the federal government, with the top brass strongly represented in the presidential cabinet. Up and down the country, military and police reservists have been elected to municipal, state, and federal offices. The risk of military and police forces lining up to launch a coup, with or in place of Bolsonaro, is worth seriously pondering.
The reality of the situation in Brazil, though, is that the conditions for a classic coup do not exist.
Unlike in 1964, there is no credible reference in Brazil to a moral majority — civil society, the bourgeoisie, the military — holding off communist infiltrators. The elite do not have a motive for a clean break with constitutional norms (they are okay with a steady deterioration), Bolsonaro’s relationship with the world’s greatest imperial power is not strong (it took over a month for Bolsonaro to recognize Joe Biden’s victory last year, and it’s not clear that US interests would be better served by a dictatorship than what can be achieved under current arrangements), and the majority of Brazilian citizens don’t support Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro instead speaks for an embattled minority. He claims that the establishment wants to bring back “the bearded one,” former president Lula da Silva.
So the political equation is radically different from the past. Bolsonaro isn’t standing with the establishment and “good citizens” against a minority. Even according to his own rhetoric, he himself is in the minority, being threatened by the establishment.
This was visible in the composition of the crowds on September 7. His hardcore support is made up of sectoral interests (especially midsize and large agribusiness, and independent truckers), the forces of repression (military and police), and various ideologically motivated groups. The largest of the latter are evangelicals, though they hardly constitute a unified bloc.
The various other rightist groups — monarchists, integralists, and followers of philosopher Olavo de Carvalho — form the activist core of Bolsonaro’s support. These may generate a lot of sound and fury on social media, but their ideas are not the basis on which Bolsonaro won the last election — and they won’t be in 2022 either. They are lost-causers and no-hopers. In 2018, anti–Workers Party sentiment (antipetismo) and a general revolt against the political class were decisive, in a way they are unlikely to be in 2022.
According to the latest polls, 64 percent of Brazilians reject Bolsonaro. If there were an election tomorrow, he would only garner 25 percent support in the first round, and little more in the second round — against 55 percent for Lula. Not only is Bolsonaro unpopular, he’s unable to reach beyond his hardcore base, even in a face-off with Lula. The antipetismo that got him elected three years ago would not save him now.
Yet Bolsonaro continues to insist — as he did at a rally a week ago, repeated at this week’s protests — that his endgame is “prison, death, or victory,” and that the electoral system is a “farce.”
Bolsonaro’s career-long sequence of antidemocratic postures is well known. But this year has seen an intensification of his saber-rattling against liberal institutions, as his support has fallen from last year’s highs, after the pandemic emergency support payments were terminated. Recently, his attacks have narrowed in on the voting system and the Supreme Court.
Bolsonaro is currently facing five different criminal investigations in the Supreme Court, two in the Superior Electoral Court, as well as over a hundred fifty separate impeachment motions in Congress. In March, Bolsonaro pressured the Brazilian Armed Forces to fly over the Supreme Court in Gripen fighter jets so as to cause a sonic boom that would blow out the building’s windows. After refusing, the commanders of the Army, Navy, and Air Force all quit — an unprecedented moment in the nation’s history. They were replaced by more amenable generals.
In April, a Senate hearings committee began investigating Bolsonaro’s disastrous handling of the pandemic. Such hearings often cause more smoke than fire; this is set to be the case again, as members of Congress use it as a stage to grandstand on. With a compliant prosecutor general, Bolsonaro was never likely to face investigation — but for a while, it kept Bolsonaro in the headlines, as he was held responsible for corrupt vaccine purchases and non-purchases.
After the Congressional recess over the winter months of June and July, Bolsonaro began pushing for Brazil’s fully electronic voting system to be supplemented by paper ballots. Though the system has never been subject to any credible allegations of fraud, Bolsonaro has made it a central concern of his, claiming that the 2018 election — which he won — was already fraudulent, and insisting that the same would happen in 2022 were there not an auditable paper trail. The facts of the matter are irrelevant, of course, for the intention is to demoralize citizens and faith in democracy.
On the day of the floor vote in Congress on August 10, when it looked like Bolsonaro’s paper ballot bill was heading to defeat, Bolsonaro ordered an impromptu parade of armored vehicles and tanks in Brasília in front of the Three Powers Square. Though widely mocked for featuring only forty old, decrepit vehicles — including tanks last seen used by American forces in Vietnam — the aim of intimidation was obvious.
The president then followed up four days later saying he would have two Supreme Court Justices, Alexandre de Moraes and Luís Roberto Barroso, impeached. On August 20, he made good on his threat to de Moraes. The Senate duly rejected the petition the following week.
Over his term, Congressional figures and justices have shied away from confronting Bolsonaro directly, restricting themselves to outraged denunciations and an insistence on moderation — all to little effect. In past weeks, that has begun to change. Justice de Moraes issued restraining orders against Bolsonarista activists, preventing them from approaching the Three Powers Square in Brasília while also blocking bank accounts of far-right groups.
Most recently, one of Brazil’s eleven Supreme Court justices, Ricardo Lewandowski, published a piece in the newspaper of record, Folha de S. Paulo, warning that Bolsonaro must not “cross the Rubicon”: the price to be paid for any violent intervention would be high.
What was striking about the whole circus was how little it implicates the majority of Brazilians. It is a drama played out between conservative justices, a conservative Congress, a far-right president, the military leadership, and at most the activist core of the president’s base in 25 percent of society. The general thrust of Bolsonaro’s barbs has not been against “communists,” the Left, human rights, and so on, but against the other branches of government.
Would the demonstrations change that? Just over a week ago, Bolsonaro held a rally with supporters in the provincial city of Uberlândia in the state of Minas Gerias, halfway between São Paulo and Brasília, and close to what could be seen as the epicenter of agribusiness interests, the last solid pillar of Bolsonaro’s capitalist support. He told the crowd: “I believe the time has come for us, on September 7, to become truly independent. And to say that we do not accept that one person or another in Brasília imposes their will. The will that matters is your [the crowd’s] will.”
Protest organizers planned two big demonstrations: one in the capital of Brasília, one in São Paulo. They claimed that they were expecting two million at each. Bolsonaro was explicit about the photo op that it presented him with: he wanted to be pictured with millions of supporters.
The stage seemed set for a major confrontation. When police suddenly allowed protesters, including trucks and vans, into the esplanade near Congress the night before the demonstration — something that was meant to be prohibited — some feared the worst.
Back to the Streets
In the end, they achieved maybe 5 percent of the promised numbers, around a hundred thousand to a hundred fifty thousand in each city. This was despite a strategy aimed at concentrating supporters in two locations, rather than holding demonstrations in every state capital. Supporters were bussed in from around the country at huge expense, bankrolled by agribusiness.
On Brasília’s massive open esplanade, the numbers looked disappointing. On São Paulo’s six-lane Avenida Paulista, it appeared much denser. A crowd of over a hundred thousand protesters is not negligible. But it’s far from millions.
It remains to be seen what Bolsonaro’s base takes from this. Will they be energized or fall into recriminations for an underwhelming showing?
At both Brasília and São Paulo events, Bolsonaro gave similar speeches. His speeches concluded, “we promise to respect our Constitution [but] whoever acts outside it should get in line, or ask to leave.” He added that he would no longer respect any action taken by Justice de Moraes. Indeed, in São Paulo, denunciations of the latter drew the loudest cheers, and the majority of placards were directed against the Supreme Court, with only the minority concerned with “communists” or demanding military intervention.
Bolsonaro’s eldest son, Flávio, a Senator, tweeted that their message “has nothing to do with attacking the Supreme Court or Congress.” It was all about defending the Constitution. He charged ten of the eleven Supreme Court justices with “resolving internally” the “destabilising element” — that is, Justice de Moraes, who is investigating the Bolsonaro clan in multiple probes.
In fact, the personalization of the attacks made the whole spectacle appear more about the president saving his own and his son’s skin than a political program for implementing dictatorship.
The Left’s Impasse
None of this is to say Brazilian democracy is vibrant, nor that it necessarily has a long-term future. Bolsonaro’s authoritarian restoration is further degrading an already fragile politics, while overseeing the destruction of state capacity and a fraying of society. Criminalization of opponents has become the main practice of politics, as Sabrina Fernandes has argued. Indeed, though the judiciary’s retaliation against Bolsonaro may bring some relief that the institutions won’t meekly accede to Bolsonaro’s threats, it was the judiciary becoming a major player in the democratic game that got us into this mess.
And yet the Left is drawn toward the passive insistence that institutions simply “do their job” — as in a recent manifesto signed by all the union confederations in the country, weakly declaring that “the legislature and judiciary at all levels . . . must take the lead in important decisions on behalf of the democratic rule of law.” This is of a piece with much of the Left’s stance throughout Bolsonaro’s term, offering little more than calling Bolsonaro a fascist and a genocidaire, and abstractly defending liberal institutions.
Moreover, the Left has had little to say to the masses. The precipitous fall in living standards has given it a leverage point on which to attack Bolsonaro — now dubbed Bolsocaro (expensive Bolsonaro) — but there is little in the way of an alternative vision or mobilization of the working class.
In particular among Workers’ Party supporters, the hope is that Lula will easily win the 2022 elections, bringing the good times back. But not only were the good times not that good, the conjuncture is now radically different, and the room for maneuver is significantly reduced.
Lula is hard at work building alliances with all and sundry, including the retrograde forces that trace their lineage back to the dictatorship and are keeping Bolsonaro in power, as well as seeking to appease the military that they do not stand to lose any privileges, real or symbolic, with him as president. Lula will owe a lot to many powerful figures and forces. Even if this strategy is electorally successful, it’s hard to imagine Lula being in a position to radicalize once in power.
What Might Still Happen to Bolsonaro
As for Bolsonaro, his strategy of provoking a reaction from institutions to force a confrontation may still continue. After all, since Bolsonaro took office, he has aimed to do little else than cause chaos; he rules through crisis, as he is unable to govern.
If he loses the next election, will he leave office? The joker in the pack is the Military Police. Already in the lead-up to yesterday’s demonstrations, there were worries that the police might mutiny. Active police forces are prohibited by law from any political manifestation. They can vote, but taking part in a protest or lending it vocal support is strictly forbidden.
In past weeks, several reserve and retired military police commanders made statements in support of the protests and of Bolsonaro. One ex-police commander in São Paulo — who previously made headlines claiming policing had to be different in Jardins, a posh central São Paulo neighborhood, compared to the periphery — called on veteran police to show up on September 7. Various others posted on social media, calling people to the streets to defend Bolsonaro or to “fight communism.”
One, a reservist and state congressman, even called himself a miliciano bandeirante (miliciano being a member of a criminal paramilitary gang with which Bolsonaro is imbricated, and bandeirante an early modern pioneer and enslaver of indigenous peoples). Most worryingly, an active police commander in the state of São Paulo in charge of five thousand troops called on his “friends” to be present at the demonstrations.
The obvious conclusion is that various police leaderships are willing to openly push antidemocratic ideas. One recent online poll carried out by the Atlas Inteligência institute, a big data agency, identified that 30 percent of police intended to go to the demonstration (versus 18 percent of general population). An earlier study had shown that 71 percent of police had voted for Bolsonaro and that 81 percent of those continued to support the president. The exact figures may not be totally reliable, but they show the direction of travel.
We will have to see if evidence of plainclothes police on the protests emerge in the coming days, but nothing yet indicates that they showed up en masse. Nevertheless, this is a serious concern that may well outlive Bolsonaro. After all, in early 2020, Military Police mutinied in the northeastern state of Ceará, which led to the shooting of a Senator. Despite a hundred thirty police having been accused — and police strikes being illegal — until today no one has been charged. We live in worry that such scenes will be repeated, at larger scale.
As for the military, it remains unclear where they stand. As Celso Rocha de Barros argued in Folha de S. Paulo in advance of the demonstrations, the protests were not likely to change matters much in this regard. Either the military has decided it does not want to rule directly, and Bolsonaro’s show of force — such as it was — wouldn’t change anything; or it has decided it does, which means the coup has already happened.
The fact may be that the military are burned from propping up Bolsonaro’s government and that they are ultimately more concerned with guaranteeing their privileges and reputation. If Lula can guarantee that — and he’s a proven himself a leader willing to make deals with former enemies — then why force a rupture with democracy?
Only during a situation of generalized disorder, in which police mutiny, might the military feel it is impossible not to step in. What happens then and how long might their “intervention” last is anyone’s guess. But even then, this Bonapartist moment would likely be carried out in Bolsonaro’s stead, rather than with him.
Ominously for Bolsonaro, impeachment has now started to look more likely. He has bought Congressional support by offering a morass of right-wing parties known as the Centrão offices and funds. He is in their pocket. But as markets become increasingly wary of political instability — and neoliberal reforms do not seem a presidential priority — there may be pressure on various center and right parties to get rid of him. In the few hours after the September 7 demonstrations, several such parties announced they were meeting to discuss impeachment.
Should that go ahead, it would have the added benefit, in their eyes, of clearing the path for a “third way” candidate. Until now, no mainstream right candidate has managed to poll in double figures, with the electorate polarized between Bolsonaro and Lula. Getting Bolsonaro out of the game would open up space for a more traditional center-right figure to try to recapture voters that were lost to the far-right surge in 2018.
Such an eventuality would then expose a complacent left strategy that consists in simply waiting for Lula. Popular mobilization, not deference to compromised bourgeois institutions; and an alternative program, not denunciations, are still found wanting.