Members of Brazil’s lower house of Congress have voted down a plan by far-right President Jair Bolsonaro to alter the country’s voting system despite an unusual display of military hardware by the armed forces.
Politicians of all stripes called the parade of tanks, armoured personnel carriers and amphibious vehicles a form of intimidation hours before legislators voted on Tuesday on a constitutional amendment backed by Bolsonaro.
Brazil’s lower house of Congress voted down the proposal with 229 votes in favour, 218 against and 1 abstention, with dozens of legislators absent. The vote fell 79 votes short of the three-fifths majority needed to approve a constitutional amendment.
The Navy said the parade had been planned long before the vote in the lower house of Congress was scheduled and it was meant to invite the president to an annual military exercise on Sunday.
The presidential media office did not respond to a request for comment on the parade.
With his popularity flagging amid the world’s second-deadliest COVID-19 outbreak, Bolsonaro has insisted in recent weeks on adding paper ballots for the 2022 election, based on unproven claims of fraud in Brazil’s electronic voting system.
He has threatened not to accept the results of next year’s presidential election, which polls show him losing to former left-wing president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Neither man has officially announced his candidacy.
Flashback to dictatorship
Flanked by the commanders of the armed forces, Bolsonaro stood outside the Planalto presidential palace as the military parade passed by. A Navy officer in combat gear walked up the ramp to hand him the invitation.
The sight of tanks by the presidential palace unsettled Brazilians who lived under the 1964 to 1985 military dictatorship.
Legislator Arthur Lira, the speaker of the lower chamber of Congress, called the military parade ahead of a crucial vote a “tragic coincidence”, and he did not accept an invitation to attend the armed forces’ exercise.
Other politicians said the unusual military presence in front of the presidential palace was meant to intimidate them.
“Tanks in the street, precisely on the day of the vote on the paper ballot amendment, is real, clear and unconstitutional intimidation,” Senator Simone Tebet of the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement party said on social media.
“Bolsonaro has turned a military training exercise into a political spectacle,” said left-wing Congresswoman Perpetua Almeida, calling it a show of force in reaction to his dropping poll numbers.
“This shot will backfire,” she wrote on social media.
Political scientist Mauricio Santoro of Rio de Janeiro State University told the AFP news agency that Bolsonaro was using the tank parade “to try to intimidate Congress and the Supreme Court”.
“He wants to show the armed forces are on his side.”
Soldiers arrested a group of protesters who tried to block the convoy.
A small crowd of Bolsonaro supporters also attended, some carrying signs calling for the military to intervene to “save Brazil”.