Brazilians celebrate Independence Day amid fears Bolsonaro election loss could lead to unrest

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro calls Wednesday's Independence Day a chance to celebrate the country's proud history, but critics say he has transformed what should be a day of unity into a campaign event they fear he will use to undermine next month's election.

President has sought to discredit electoral system ahead of vote on Oct. 2

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro and his wife Michelle Bolsonaro arrive for a military parade in Brasília to celebrate the bicentennial of Brazil's independence from Portugal on Wednesday. Bolsonaro's attacks on Brazil's electoral system and courts have fuelled fears he may refuse to leave office if he loses October's election. (Eraldo Peres/The Associated Press)

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro calls Wednesday's Independence Day a chance to celebrate the country's proud history, but critics say he has transformed what should be a day of unity into a campaign event that they fear he will use to undermine next month's election in Latin America's largest democracy.

Bolsonaro, who trails in polls before the Oct. 2 vote, has urged Brazilians to flood the streets, and tens of thousands of his supporters were expected to turn out in Brasilia, São Paulo and his hometown of Rio de Janeiro in a show of strength. The armed forces were putting on military displays in the capital and in Rio, with Bolsonaro attending.

The far-right nationalist has for years made a mission of encouraging Brazilian patriotism and co-opted the national colours of green and yellow as his own.

He stacked his administration with military officers and repeatedly sought their support, most recently to cast doubt on the reliability of the country's electronic voting system.

His attacks on the voting system have prompted widespread concern among his opponents that he may follow former U.S. president Donald Trump's footsteps in rejecting election results.

Opponents of Bolsonaro march in Rio de Janeiro during the country's Independence Day celebrations on Wednesday. (Bruna Prado/The Associated Press)

"Bolsonaro and his supporters have built this up into the most important day of the whole campaign. So he'll have to deliver some kind of red meat," said Brian Winter, vice-president for policy at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. "But everyone wants to know if he'll cross that line and create a genuine institutional crisis."

Bolsonaro arrived to the day's first event, the military display in Brasilia, accompanied by his wife — as well as some of the business executives who allegedly participated in a private chat group that included comments favouring a possible coup and military involvement in politics.

The crowd, decked out in green and yellow, chanted against former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the poll front-runner who is seeking to return to the post he held in from 2003 to 2010.

Speaking at a rally immediately afterward, Bolsonaro made no reference to Brazil's struggle for independence and instead focused on his achievements while slamming da Silva's Workers' Party.

A few thousand demonstrators also gathered on Sao Paulo's main downtown boulevard. Due to a downpour and the fact Bolsonaro wasn't scheduled to appear, turnout was a fraction compared to last year.

Later, Bolsonaro will attend another military display in Rio along Copacabana beach — where his supporters often hold demonstrations.

Supporters of Bolsonaro celebrate Brazil's 200th anniversary of independence along Paulista Avenue in Sao Paulo on Wednesday. (Miguel Schincariol/AFP/Getty Images)

That display — and a public celebration — had been moved from downtown, where Independence Day parades are usually held.

The president initially announced there would be a parade this year, too, but Rio's mayor and military leaders settled on the more modest display at the beach site the president designated.

Attacks on judges, electoral system

Bolsonaro, a former army captain and lawmaker for decades before winning the 2018 presidential election, has spent most of his first term locking horns with Supreme Court justices, some of whom are also top members of the electoral authority.

He has accused some judges of hamstringing his administration and favouring da Silva. That has effectively turned those figures and their institutions into enemies for Bolsonaro's base, which represents roughly one-quarter of the electorate.

Supporters wait for Bolsonaro to arrive for a military parade in Brasilia on Wednesday. (Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images)

When Bolsonaro launched his re-election bid July 24, he asked supporters for "one last" show of support on Independence Day. "Those few deaf people in black robes have to understand what the voice of the people is," he said, referring to the justices.

The National Guard will beef up security outside the Supreme Court building Wednesday, and police will search people at checkpoints around the esplanade where the military display and a later rally will take place.

Since his campaign began, Bolsonaro has softened his tone regarding Independence Day. In the southern city of Curitiba last week, he told supporters to lower a banner demanding a military coup. And in a TV spot released Tuesday, he urged people to turn out for the bicentennial "with peace and harmony."

Carlos Ranulfo de Melo, a political scientist at Federal University of Minas Gerais, said this likely reflects a campaign strategy to avoid fiery rhetoric and instead focus on the improving economy.

But Rodrigo Prando, a political science professor at Mackenzie Presbyterian University in São Paulo, said he expected Bolsonaro to rail against the electronic voting system and the Supreme Court.

Supporters of Brazilian presidential candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva look out as Bolsonaro's supporters gather ahead of a rally at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday. (Ivan Pacheco/AFP/Getty Images)

Political violence fears

The president is known for off-the-cuff outbursts. At last year's Independence Day rally, he pushed the country to the brink of an institutional crisis by proclaiming he would ignore rulings from a Supreme Court justice. He later backtracked, saying his comments came in the heat of the moment, and the boiling tension was reduced to a simmer.

There have been concerns about political violence. Some of his die-hard supporters attempted to storm the Supreme Court last year. In July, a federal prison guard killed a local official from da Silva's Workers' Party as he celebrated his birthday, and witnesses said he shouted support for Bolsonaro before pulling the trigger.

The newspaper Estadão de S. Paulo, among others, reported Aug. 19 that military intelligence had identified risks of radical, pro-Bolsonaro movements attempting to infiltrate bicentennial celebrations to provoke turmoil and defend military intervention.

Military personnel stand by cannons before a military parade in Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday. Some of Bolsonaro's radical backers have called for a military coup if he loses next month's election. (Andre Borges/AFP/Getty Images)

"There's a movement that tries to legitimize a coup if the result from the ballots doesn't please the Bolsonaristas," said Tai Nalon, co-founder of fact-checking agency AosFatos. "You didn't have that in 2018."


  • A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Brazil was Latin America's fourth-biggest democracy. It is Latin America's largest democracy.
    Sep 07, 2022 11:16 AM ET