Jair Bolsonaro Is Laying the Groundwork for a Coup in Brazil

Brazil marks two centuries of independence from Portugal today. Far-right president Jair Bolsonaro is using the occasion to help create the mood music for a coup against Brazilian democracy after an October election that he expects to lose.

Jair Bolsonaro speaks during the National Convention to formalize his candidacy for a second term in Rio de Janeiro on July 24, 2022. (Andre Borges / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Today, September 7, Brazil is celebrating two centuries of independence from Portugal. Soon afterward, on October 2, more than two hundred million Brazilians will elect their next president.

With rival challengers failing to gain traction, most voters will likely choose between two of Brazil’s best-known politicians: current president Jair Messias Bolsonaro, who is struggling for reelection after four tumultuous years, and former president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva of the left-wing Workers’ Party (PT), who is aiming for an unprecedented (and nonconsecutive) third term.

With Brazilian society deeply polarized between supporters of the far-right incumbent, who refuses to say whether he will accept an electoral defeat, and his center-left challenger, the election is certain to test Brazil’s weakened democratic institutions.

A Turbulent History

The forthcoming election, however, is far from being the first time that Brazilian democracy has faced an existential threat. Since its foundation in 1889, the Brazilian Republic has been playing a game of musical chairs among the elite, the military, and progressives.

A brief history of several past threats to Brazilian democracy can help us make sense of Bolsonaro’s likely attempt at a “self-coup” and its prospects for success should he lose the election to Lula, as nearly all polls are predicting he will. Such a brazen act of violent subversion would not only draw inspiration from Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn his loss in the 2020 US presidential election. Unfortunately, it would also be just the latest episode in Brazil’s long history of divisive elections, coups, and attempted coups.

In 1889, after slavery was abolished, the agrarian elite withdrew its support for the monarchy and allied with a disgruntled military to stage a coup that removed the emperor, Pedro II. This agrarian-military alliance established an oligarchic republic which they subsequently dominated to protect their interests.

This First Republic was in turn toppled by the “Revolution of 1930,” in which the urban middle class allied with disgruntled military officers led by Getúlio Vargas to wrest power from the agrarian elite. President Vargas’s authoritarian government was responsible for some progressive social reforms. Then in 1937, Vargas launched a self-coup to reinforce his grip on the country by imposing an anti-communist “corporatist” dictatorship, before he was himself ousted from power in 1945 by a growing democratic opposition.

Twenty years of unstable democratic rule followed until, in 1964, left-wing president João Goulart came under fire from the conservative elite that opposed his radical social reforms. Goulart’s increase of the minimum wage, expansion of labor rights, and plans for an agrarian reform (the first one in the country’s history) were more than enough to bring the elite and the military together to stage a US-backed coup promoted as a “defense against communism.”

The bloody dictatorship that held power from 1964 to 1985 tortured and murdered left-wing dissidents and massively increased the national debt. While doing so, it deflected from its crimes through the use of nationalistic rhetoric — rhetoric that Bolsonaro perpetuates, as we shall see.

It is against this decades-long backdrop of violent conservative reaction that the stage was set for the upcoming election. Although the current Brazilian republic, born in 1985, was founded on democratic principles, there should be no illusion that it is somehow immune to coups. With Bolsonaro having brought back the specter of military rule to the Brazilian political scene, much uncertainty now looms over the outcome of the forthcoming election.

Lula’s Rise

Lula’s first term as president from 2002 to 2010 saw the development of social programs in partnership with the private sector that quickly returned the economy to sustained 4 percent annual growth levels after years of neoliberal crisis. Programs like “Bolsa Família,” which established a universal basic income for families living below the poverty line, and “Fome Zero” (Zero Hunger), proved highly successful in combating poverty and improving education. Economically, Lula’s government was aided by high commodity prices, which enabled it to make large investments in sectors such as energy and infrastructure.

However, all was not roses in Lula’s government. In 2005, a large-scale bribery scandal broke in Congress. Dubbed “mensalão” (monthly payment), the scandal involved buying votes for federal programs with public money. The largest of its kind until then, the mensalão controversy damaged the PT’s image as being “outside” Brazil’s notoriously corrupt governing system. Nevertheless, by the time Lula left office, his personal approval rating had reached a record high of 87 percent.

Lula’s personal popularity did not rub off on his handpicked successor and long-term ally Dilma Rousseff. Much slower economic growth and increasingly partisan politics ultimately overshadowed Rousseff’s historic election as the first woman president of Brazil. Decidedly less pragmatic than Lula, Dilma became more isolated as she refused to go along with the patronage politics of PT-allied parties.

Following her reelection in 2014, the defeated right-wing opposition party, the ironically named Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), announced its refusal to accept the results. During Rousseff’s second term, she then faced an historically aggressive opposition bent on removing her by any means necessary.

Car Wash or Lawfare?

By 2015, with a full-blown economic recession under way, the Brazilian Congress, then mostly opposed to Rousseff, pounced on what was dubbed “fiscal pedaling.” This was a new term meant to describe the use of state-owned banks by one branch of the federal government to front funds required for paying general government obligations without officially declaring a loan.

Though it had long been a common fiscal practice, Congress now labeled such measures “unauthorized loans” that were not only economically irresponsible, but also constituted an impeachable offense. Rousseff’s subsequent removal appeared to be a coup in all but name, as her successor, the conservative vice president Michel Temer, moved quickly to undo many of the PT’s most successful social policies without an electoral mandate.

At the same time, Operation Car Wash, a federal operation authorized by the conservative magistrate Sérgio Moro, carried out an extensive investigation of government corruption. It led to the arrest of numerous politicians, almost all on the Left, even though right-wing politicians — including Temer — were also mired in corruption scandals. Indeed, Operation Car Wash’s principal target was Lula himself, who was arrested and charged almost in tandem with Rousseff’s impeachment.

There was scant evidence of wrongdoing in Lula’s case, with the chief prosecutor noting that “we don’t have evidence, but we have conviction [of his guilt].” Leaked messages offered strong evidence of blatant political bias on the part of Moro and his colleagues. This convinced many Brazilians that Operation Car Wash was little more than a purge of the Left.

By impeaching Rousseff, imprisoning Lula on trumped-up charges, and sweeping the PT’s impressive accomplishments under the rug while singling the party out as a den of corruption, the conservative reaction of the mid 2010s helped pave the way for far-right fringe politician Jair Bolsonaro to be elected president.

The Bolsonaro Phenomenon

The former low-ranking army officer turned politician made his career as a far-right polemicist. He has whitewashed the history of the military dictatorship, called for the arrest and torture of leftists, expressed hostility to protecting the environment (especially the Amazon rainforest, much of which has been destroyed), and otherwise embraced every conceivable reactionary talking point. The global trend of the 2010s of increased polarization, as “mainstream” conservative politicians lost ground to reactionaries, combined with a severe economic crisis to create the perfect conditions for Bolsonaro’s unlikely rise.

His campaign successfully painted the PT as a kleptocratic force guilty of impoverishing the country. Bolsonaro’s success in the second round of the 2018 presidential election, in a runoff against the PT candidate Fernando Haddad, was due less to widespread popular support for Bolsonaro than to a repudiation of the unfairly demonized PT.

The Bolsonaro storm was only possible because of Lula’s arrest in 2018, which shattered the long-standing balance between the center-left PT and the center-right PSDB that had existed since the 1990s. As Lula sat in jail during the run-up to that year’s election, the left electorate split three ways between Haddad, Lula’s hastily anointed successor, the pragmatist center-left figure Ciro Gomes, and the decidedly socialist Guilherme Boulos.

The Right did not experience the same level of division since the reactionary Bolsonaro overwhelmed all other brands of conservatism by becoming a unifying symbol of opposition to anything deemed “leftist” and therefore politically toxic. The turning point came when Bolsonaro was stabbed during a campaign rally, which immediately boosted his popularity not only on the Right, but also among millions of disaffected Brazilians.

Finally, social media — especially WhatsApp, which is highly popular in Brazil — played a major role in facilitating the spread of election disinformation. The result was that voters in the 2018 election cast a record number of null and blank ballots, which helped swing the election to the extreme right-wing demagogue.

Much has changed in the past four years. Bolsonaro has virtually no legislative achievements to boast about. Bolsonaro and his neoliberal treasury minister, Paulo Guedes, whose control of the government agenda resembles that of an Ottoman grand vizier, have been guilty of serious economic mismanagement. This has combined with a negligent, denialist response to the COVID-19 crisis to undermine public confidence in his administration.

Bolsonaro has also presided over a revolving-door cabinet which has seen ministers resign or be sacked at breakneck speed: there were four different health ministers in 2020 alone, as Bolsonaro sacked two of them for opposing his COVID denialist stance. With inflation now running at its highest in decades and poverty rates having risen for several years, the general feeling is one of chaos.

Following his disastrous handling of the pandemic, the president has been relying more and more on high-ranking military officers to lead government ministries. Treasury minister Guedes is the last one left of his original cabinet. His vice president, the army general Hamilton Mourão, fell out with Bolsonaro, who replaced him on the presidential ticket with a former minister of defense, General Braga Netto. Amid such instability, Lula has appeared as a phoenix rising from the ashes.

The New Lula

Lula was expected to run for president again as soon as he was released from prison in November 2019. His imprisonment in 2018, seen by many as a right-wing scheme that prevented him from regaining the presidency, all but doomed the PT’s electoral strategy and ensured Bolsonaro’s victory. Indeed, with Lula facing new levels of scrutiny, and with the PT having suffered years of right-wing disinformation and demonization, the path ahead for the liberated ex-president was not straightforward.

Rather than mounting a campaign based on political vindication, or the return of left-of-center governance, Lula has instead presented himself as the common-sense, stable solution to Bolsonaro’s ongoing political chaos. Lula has said on more than one occasion that “Brazil is [currently] without government.” In response, he has forged an anti-Bolsonaro coalition that has moved toward the center in the hope of appealing to a broad swath of voters who reject the current president’s far-right extremism.

Lula has made his centrist orientation crystal clear with his choice for running mate, Geraldo Alckmin, the former governor of São Paulo. Alckmin was one of the main pillars of the neoliberal PSDB long opposed to the PT. Once rivals, Alckmin and Lula have now joined forces, with Lula praising his former rival in a show of pragmatism that many had forgotten was possible in Brazilian politics:

In the 2000s, the opposition to my government were my adversaries, not my enemies. I dream of the polarization we had in the 2000s. A democratic Republic needs to have polarization. What it doesn’t need is hatred.

Though the move certainly displeased many on the Left, the prospect of defeating Bolsonaro has taken precedence for most. Lula has since consistently led in the polls, often by large margins, although the race has tightened somewhat as the election draws nearer.

For those of us on the Left, it’s obvious that the Lula of 2022 is not the same politician who won the presidency in 2002 — who, in turn, it must be acknowledged, was no longer the icon of Brazilian socialists in the 1980s and ’90s, when he first emerged as a trade union leader and national political candidate during the PT’s early years.

Undermining the Election

Much like Donald Trump falsely claiming that he would have won the popular vote had undocumented immigrants not been allowed to vote in 2016, Bolsonaro alleged that his victory in 2018 would have come in the first round were it not for supposed irregularities. Though multiple national and international electoral bodies have declared Brazil’s voting machines secure time and again, Bolsonaro continues to contend that voting with electronic machines only is unsafe, and that paper ballots are the sole way to ensure transparency.

On more than one occasion, he has ordered the armed forces to inspect electronic voting machines, albeit to no avail. This year, such unfounded accusations have continued to grow to the point of dominating Bolsonaro’s political discourse. Bolsonaro’s constant threats to democracy have placed him firmly against the nation’s judiciary, whose chief justices have, with few exceptions, all taken turns criticizing the president’s slew of public statements expressing authoritarian intent.

Such statements clearly reflect poll results showing Lula maintaining a comfortable lead over Bolsonaro. This raises an existential question for Brazilian democracy. What will happen the day after the election?

The questioning of electronic ballots is by no means the only way that Bolsonaro is threatening the democratic process. The presence of disinformation and electoral attack ads on social media apps such as WhatsApp have placed the courts on high alert for election day. Unlike in the United States, electoral ads in Brazil determined to contain disinformation can be legally targeted and removed. As of late August, dozens of ads have been removed from television, but the enforcement of such rules for social media remains more challenging.

A Sinking Ship

With the nation’s economy in turmoil and the executive branch in conflict with Congress, the judiciary, and itself, it is no wonder that many of Bolsonaro’s supporters have been deserting him. Multiple letters signed by private groups have been published, criticizing the president’s policies toward the economy and the pandemic.

One notable open letter criticizing Bolsonaro, “Manifesto for Democracy,” released by the State University of São Paulo, has been signed by over seven hundred thousand people, including agricultural lobbyists and representatives of many banking and financial institutions. Though some stalwarts of Bolsonarism remain faithful to the president — such as the reactionary owner of the retail giant Havan, Luciano Hang, who pressured his employees to vote for Bolsonaro in 2018 — many more figures have repudiated the incumbent and are even openly supporting the left-wing opposition they once despised.

Meanwhile, as Lula allies himself with centrist groups and former political rivals of neoliberal stamp, that opposition is looking and sounding increasingly less leftist. Indeed, it seems that the corporate elite, such an important player in Brazil’s political game, is abandoning Bolsonaro’s sinking ship. It is little wonder the president is growing desperate and has scheduled military parades in the major cities of Brazil to celebrate the bicentennial today.

For a country like Brazil, military parades are at best uncommon and at worst regarded as a distasteful form of nationalism that harkens back to oppressive times. Nevertheless, Bolsonaro has continued to do what he does best by equating the armed forces with patriotism and appropriating the Brazilian flag for his own reactionary purposes.

The Tell-Tale Heart

In August, Bolsonaro organized a special gala for the embalmed heart of Dom Pedro I, the first emperor of Brazil who proclaimed the country’s independence in 1822. Pedro I died in Portugal in 1834. The rest of his body was transferred to Brazil in 1972, but his heart was kept separately in a church in Porto, where it will be returned after the bicentennial.

There is much irony to this gesture. Back in 1824, Pedro dissolved the Constitutional Assembly tasked with producing a new constitution for independent Brazil. The document, in Pedro’s eyes, excessively constrained his executive powers, so he scrapped it, exiled some of the opposition, and wrote his own constitution.

What could be more to Bolsonaro’s liking than the story of independent Brazil’s first coup? Much of the Brazilian population and many institutions fear he will try to repeat it.

In a recent interview, Bolsonaro once again claimed that he will accept the outcome of the election only if it is “honest and transparent” — a form of doublespeak like that of Donald Trump. The allegation of fraud, the most likely pretext for a self-coup attempt, depends on how successfully Bolsonaro can sow doubt in the democratic process. If he can succeed in this task, he would then need the military’s support to accomplish an undemocratic seizure of power.

The US military command resisted Trump’s entreaties to support him in 2020, but we cannot count on the Brazilian army remaining impartial in such matters. With a president who has relied so heavily on the army, continually praises its institutions, elevates its members to high positions within his administration, and celebrates its history, it is not hard to imagine that Bolsonaro could enlist military support for his efforts.

The current political situation suggests that a coup attempt would be a desperate gamble, and likely to fail. Elite economic interests have drifted away from his administration, the Supreme Court has increasingly opposed him, and the memory of the military dictatorship is still seen in a negative light by all but his most hard-line supporters. Bolsonaro would be relying solely on the ability of the military to seize control of one of the world’s largest democracies.

And yet his chances of success in such an endeavor are still higher than zero. Bolsonaro has worked hard to turn the celebration of the bicentennial into a military affair and to ingratiate himself as much as possible with the army while trying to undermine the democratic process at every turn. Should the first round on October 2 prove close enough for Bolsonaro to convince enough Brazilians to question their legitimacy, he might yet succeed where Donald Trump has failed (so far) in the United States.