Fighting record-low poll numbers, a weakening economy and a judiciary he says is stacked against him, President Jair Bolsonaro is calling for huge rallies for Brazilian independence day on Tuesday, seeking to fire up his far-right base.
With polls putting Bolsonaro on track to lose badly to left-wing ex-leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in next year’s presidential elections, Bolsonaro is hoping to use the rally to energise his supporters.
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And September 7 is shaping up to be a turbulent day, with pro- and anti-Bolsonaro demonstrations scheduled in some of the country’s largest cities.
“The time has come to declare our independence for good, to say we will not allow some people in Brasilia to impose their will on us,” Bolsonaro told supporters in a speech last week. “The will that matters is yours.”
His words, “some people in Brasilia”, were widely read as a reference to the Supreme Court, which has ordered a series of investigations into Bolsonaro and his inner circle, notably over allegations of systematically spreading fake news from within the government.
Bolsonaro has responded by declaring all-out political war on justices he perceives as hostile.
He has signalled that the judges should consider Tuesday’s rallies an “ultimatum” – the latest in a long list of ominous warnings aimed at the legislature and the courts.
‘All or nothing’
Bolsonaro plans to attend rallies in both Brasilia and the economic capital Sao Paulo that day, which marks 199 years since Brazil declared independence from Portugal.
The 66-year-old ex-army captain, who is often compared with former US President Donald Trump, vowed to draw a crowd of more than two million to Sao Paulo’s Avenida Paulista.
That would be far bigger than his recent rallies, which have had turnout in the tens of thousands.
Bolsonaro is playing “all or nothing” in his fight with Brazi’s legislature, the courts and the electoral system, said political scientist Geraldo Monteiro of Rio de Janeiro State University. Bolsonaro has alleged without evidence that there is a risk of massive fraud in next year’s elections.
“Each side is looking to show what it’s got in its arsenal. The Bolsonaro camp is putting everything they’ve got into these rallies,” Monteiro told the AFP news agency.
“The question is whether they’ll get a significant number of people in the street. I think it will be a watershed moment. If the rallies are big, it will in some ways tip the scale in the president’s favour. If they’re not, the crisis will continue, but ‘Bolsonarismo’ might go into a downward spiral,” he added, referencing a term used to describe the Brazilian president’s ideological leanings.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Luiz Fux voiced concern on Thursday over the tone in which the rallies are being organised. “In a democracy, demonstrations are peaceful, and freedom of speech should not be synonymous with threats or violence,” he said.
Internationally, more than 150 left-leaning former presidents and party leaders signed an open letter criticising Bolsonaro for encouraging what they called an imitation of the deadly January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol.
The demonstrations are “stoking fears of a coup d’etat in the world’s third-largest democracy”, the letter warned.
Hardcore Bolsonaro supporters at such rallies often include off-duty police and gun-toting fans of his tough talk, meaning there is a “real risk of violence”, said political consultant Andre Rosa.
“Bolsonaro supporters are very reactionary, they’re going to want to go to war,” he told AFP. “The president can’t control it if there’s violence. He’s taking a calculated risk.”
Security officials are trying to ensure the rival camps stay apart.
The pro-Bolsonaro march in Brasilia will be held on the Esplanade of Ministries, the avenue leading to the square flanked by the presidential palace, Congress and the Supreme Court, which will be closed. The anti-Bolsonaro march in the capital, meanwhile, will depart from the capital’s iconic TV tower, about 3km (2 miles) away.
In Sao Paulo, the anti-Bolsonaro march will be held in the city centre, about 5km (3 miles) from where the president’s supporters will rally.
Security was reinforced in Brasilia on Monday and police started blocking access to the central mall. Some 5,000 police and military personnel will be on hand in the capital.
It is a risky strategy for Bolsonaro at a time when polls put his approval rating at an all-time low of about 23 percent and soaring unemployment and inflation have hampered the pandemic recovery of Latin America’s biggest economy.
The president also risks alienating key allies, such as speaker of Congress Arthur Lira, who has so far shielded Bolsonaro from scores of impeachment attempts. “If turmoil erupts, the president knows he’ll be the only one who loses,” Lira said.