In September, Brazil’s far-right President Zaire Bolsonaro delivered two inflammatory speeches on the country’s Independence Day, one in the capital Brasilia and the other in Sao Paulo, to rally his supporters against the judiciary.
In a pro-government protest in Brasilia, the former army chief told thousands of his supporters, “Either the head of this power is aligned or this power can enjoy what we do not want.” Supreme Court. In return, her supporters chanted slogans against the court, leftists, feminists and the Covid-1 vaccine. Many of them publicly called for a military coup in support of the president.
The attack on the judiciary on Bolsonaro’s Independence Day is shocking, but not surprising.
In recent months, amid numerous scandals, rising inflation, high unemployment and the world’s worst Covid-1 death toll, Bolsonaro’s approval ratings have plummeted. Opinion polls began to show that he was likely to lose the presidential election in October next year, in a bid to gain renewed support, Bolsonaro stepped up his routine attacks against his alleged enemies: Brazilian institutions standing within him and of uncertain power.
And today, of all the institutions in Brazil, the Supreme Court has emerged as the biggest threat to Bolsonaro’s political ambitions. It has approved numerous investigations into alleged attacks on Bolsonaro and his associates in Brazil’s democratic institutions. In August, Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Maurice jailed prominent Bolsonaro ally and former MP Roberto Jefferson as part of an investigation by right-wing groups into spreading false news. Many more right-wing bloggers and commentators have been jailed for attacking Brazil’s institutions and democracy. So it was not an unexpected move for Bolsonaro to try to rally his supporters against the Supreme Court.
The main target of Bolsonaro’s September speech was the Supreme Court, and the president also used the opportunity to pressure Congress to use the ballot, not the paper, in the upcoming election. Brazil has been using electronic ballots in elections for decades, and experts agree that they are much safer and easier to calculate than paper ballots. Congress voted and rejected the proposal to return to the paper ballot last month. Many believe Bolsonaro is pushing for the change to give himself a better chance of competing in the upcoming election – and try to stay in power despite losing the popular vote.
Bolsonaro said in Sao Paulo, “We cannot adopt a voting system that does not provide any security in the election. I cannot take part in a farce like the patronage of the head of the electoral court.” “Only God will bring me out of Brasilia,” he added.
With this Independence Day rally, which he has been calling for for weeks, Bolsonaro hopes he still has widespread popular support, with his most radical and loyal supporters taking action against his enemies and intimidating independent Brazilian institutions. But his ambitions were largely unfulfilled.
The protests were no doubt huge – the largest organized by the right since Bolsonaro took office – and more than 150,000 people took to the streets alone in Brasilia and Sao Paulo to support the president. Dressed in the colors of the Brazilian flag, and with pro-Bolsonaro slogans, they made it clear that they still believed in their president and were ready to fight for him whenever needed.
However, Bolsonaro and his allies hoped that not thousands but millions of Brazilians would take to the streets in support of the president that day. So, many in Brazil have explained less than expected turnout, which opinion polls have long said: Popular support for Bolsonaro is declining.
Moreover, despite the best efforts, including the President’s inflammatory speech, the rallies had little effect in resisting the aggression of the President and his allies in Brazilian institutions. In fact, Supreme Court Chief Justice Louise Fox said in September that “no one will close the court” and that he will not threaten or intimidate. Meanwhile, those in Congress have once again expressed their determination to reject the presidential nominee for a vacant seat in the Supreme Court.
As it became clear that the Independence Day rallies not only failed to achieve their purpose but actually turned the Brazilians against the president, Bolsonaro retreated.
Just two days after the protests, with his dissent rating reaching an all-time high of 51 percent, the president released an open letter apologizing for his remarks against the Supreme Court and claiming he had “heated up” the moment.
The letter dropped like a bomb on the Brazilian political scene but did not have the positive impact Bolsonaro had hoped for.
Both the president’s opponents and his supporters saw the letter as a sign of weakness. And those who took part in the protests, and cheered that Bolsonaro had attacked the Supreme Court, saw the apology letter as a betrayal.
To make matters worse, it was soon revealed that Bolsonaro had called former President Michel Temer to help ease tensions with other branches of government and wrote a letter of apology under his direction. This drew a lot of criticism from his supporters, as Bolsonaro had long told them that he had turned a page about Brazil’s troubled political past and started anew. Many felt that Bolsonaro had turned to a former president for help in times of crisis, showing that he was not entirely isolated from his predecessors.
In the end, what was supposed to be Bolsonaro’s greatest show of disobedience and strength revealed his growing weakness and isolation.
September Since the events of September, the cry for impeachment has been growing in various sectors of Brazilian society. However, they have not yet translated into mass solidarity. On September 12, about a thousand people gathered in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, to protest against the president. The protest was organized by a right-wing movement that once enthusiastically supported Bolsonaro. People from some leftist movements also attended the rally, but the Workers Party and other influential leftist parties were absent.
The limited scale of the protests probably gave Bolsonaro some confidence that he could still turn things around. And many in Brazil believe that Bolsonaro did not concede defeat with his “letter of apology”, but took only one step to plan his next move.
“Bolsonaro has been repeating it for a long time, which is a controversial critique and appreciation,” political scientist Claudio Couto, who coordinates the Professional Masters program in Public Management and Policy at the Getlio Vargas Foundation (FGV), told me. “If he encounters any reaction after an attack, he retreats and denies what he did as a way to defend himself.”
But some suspect that this time Bolsonaro went too far in his efforts to defend himself, and even isolated his most loyal supporters with his apology letter. Therefore, he may need to launch more aggressive attacks on Brazilian institutions that resist him in order to rebuild his image as a defendant and policy leader.
Only time will tell what Bolsonaro’s next move will be, but it is certain that he is still a threat to Brazilian democracy.
The opinions expressed in this article do not reflect the author’s own and not necessarily the editorial position of Al Jazeera.