Bolsonaro’s war on Brazilian democracy is not over

There is little reason to believe the far-right president will cease his attacks on Brazilian institutions standing between him and unchecked power.

Supporters of President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro gather as they wave flags during a demonstration during Brazil's Independence Day at Paulista Avenue on September 07, 2021 in Sao Paulo, Brazil [Cristina Szucinski/Anadolu Agency]

On September 7, Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro marked the country’s independence day by delivering two inflammatory speeches, one in the capital Brasilia and another in Sao Paulo, to mobilise his supporters against the judiciary.

“Either the head of this power gets in line or this power can suffer what we do not want,” the former army captain told thousands of his supporters at the pro-government demonstration in Brasilia, in what was widely considered a threat against the Brazilian Supreme Court. In return, his supporters chanted slogans against the courts, leftists, feminists and COVID-19 vaccines. Many of them also openly called for a military coup in support of the president.

Bolsonaro’s Independence Day attack on the judiciary was shocking, but not surprising.

In recent months, amid countless scandals, rising inflation, high unemployment and one of the world’s worst COVID-19 death tolls, Bolsonaro’s approval ratings have sunk to record lows. As opinion polls started showing that he will likely lose the presidential election scheduled for October next year, in an effort to gain renewed support, Bolsonaro heightened the intensity of his routine attacks against his perceived enemies: Brazilian institutions standing between him and unchecked power.

And today, of all Brazilian institutions, the Supreme Court appears to pose the greatest threat to Bolsonaro’s political ambitions. It has authorised numerous investigations into Bolsonaro and his allies’ alleged attacks on Brazil’s democratic institutions. In August, Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes sent prominent Bolsonaro ally and former member of parliament Roberto Jefferson to jail as part of an investigation into far-right groups spreading fake news. Many other right-wing bloggers and commentators have also been jailed for their alleged attacks on Brazilian institutions and democracy. So it was not an unexpected move for Bolsonaro to try and rally his supporters against the Supreme Court.

While the main target of Bolsonaro’s September 7 speeches was the Supreme Court, the president also used this opportunity to pressure Congress into accepting his wish for paper, not electronic, ballots to be used in the upcoming election. Brazil has used electronic ballots in elections for decades, and experts agree that they are much more secure, and easier to count, than paper ballots. The Congress voted on, and rejected, a proposal for returning to paper ballots last month. Many believe Bolsonaro is insisting on this change to give himself a better chance to contest the results of the upcoming election – and try to hold on to power even if he loses the popular vote.

“We cannot accept a voting system that does not offer any security in the elections, I can’t participate in a farce like the one sponsored by the head of the electoral court,” Bolsonaro said in Sao Paulo. “Only God will take me out of Brasilia,” he added.

With these Independence Day rallies, which he had been calling for weeks, Bolsonaro was hoping to show that he still has widespread popular support, mobilise his most radical and loyal supporters into action against his enemies, and intimidate independent Brazilian institutions into submission. But his ambitions were mostly not realised.

The protests were undoubtedly large – the largest organised by the far right since Bolsonaro took office – with more than 150,000 people in Brasilia and Sao Paulo alone taking to the streets to show their support for the president. Clad in the colours of the Brazilian flag, and chanting pro-Bolsonaro slogans, they made it clear that they still believe in their president and are ready to fight for him whenever necessary.

However, Bolsonaro and his allies were expecting not only thousands but millions of Brazilians to take to the streets in support of the president on that day. So, many in Brazil interpreted the lower than anticipated turnout as confirmation of what opinion polls have long been saying: Popular support for Bolsonaro is plummeting.

Moreover, despite the president’s best efforts, including his inflammatory speeches, the rallies had little effect on the Brazilian institutions resisting the excesses of the president and his allies. Indeed, Supreme Court Chief Justice Luiz Fux said on September 8 that “no one will shut down ” the Court and that he will not accept threats or intimidation. Those in Congress, meanwhile, once again voiced their determination to reject the president’s nominee for a vacant Supreme Court seat.

As it became clear that the Independence Day rallies not only failed to achieve their purpose but actually turned more Brazilians against the president, Bolsonaro went into retreat.

Just two days after the demonstrations, with his disapproval rating reaching an all-time high of 51 percent, the president released an open letter in which he apologised for his comments against the Supreme Court, and claimed that he made them “in the heat of the moment”.

The letter dropped like a bomb on the Brazilian political scene but did not have the positive impact Bolsonaro hoped for.

Both the president’s opponents and his supporters saw the letter as a show of weakness. And those who attended the protests, and cheered as Bolsonaro attacked the Supreme Court, saw the letter of apology as a betrayal.

To make matters worse, it was soon revealed that Bolsonaro had summoned former President Michel Temer to help him reduce the tensions he created with the other branches of government and wrote the apologetic letter under his guidance. This attracted much criticism from his supporters, as Bolsonaro has long been telling them that he has turned a page on Brazil’s problematic political past and started anew. Many felt that by turning to a former president for help at a time of crisis Bolsonaro showed that he is not at all disconnected from his predecessors.

In the end, what was supposed to be Bolsonaro’s greatest show of defiance and strength ended up exposing his growing weakness and isolation.

After the events of September 7, the cries for impeachment are mounting within several sectors of Brazilian society. However, they have not yet translated into mass mobilisations. On September 12, about 1,000 people came together in Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana to protest against the president. The demonstration was organised by right-wing movements that once enthusiastically supported Bolsonaro. While people from a few left-of-centre movements also attended the gathering, the Worker’s Party and other influential left-wing parties were absent.

The limited scale of the protest likely gave Bolsonaro some confidence that he can still turn things around. And many in Brazil believe that with his “letter of apology” Bolsonaro did not admit defeat, but merely took a step back to plan his next move.

“Bolsonaro is repeating what has long been a pattern of his – a criticise and praise dialectic,” political scientist Claudio Couto, who is coordinator of the professional master’s programme in public management and policy at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV), told me. “If he faces a backlash after an attack, he backs down and denies that he did what he did, as a way of protecting himself”.

But some suspect that this time Bolsonaro went too far in his efforts to protect himself, and alienated even his most loyal supporters with his apologetic letter. Therefore, he may need to embark on an even more outrageous attack on the Brazilian institutions resisting him to rebuild his image as a defiant and principled leader.

Only time will tell what Bolsonaro’s next move will be, but it is certain that he still is a threat to Brazilian democracy.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.