On Brazil’s Bicentennial, softer rhetoric from a president
By Jack Nicas
On the 200th anniversary of Brazil’s independence, President Jair Bolsonaro had roughly half the country celebrating and half the country on edge.
Tanks rolled down the streets of São Paulo, the country’s largest city, on Wednesday. Warships paraded off the coast of Rio de Janeiro. Jets soared over the nation’s capital, Brasília. And more than 1 million of Bolsonaro’s supporters took to the streets across the vast nation, draped in the green and yellow of Brazil’s flag.
For months, the bicentennial had been billed as a test of Brazil’s democracy.
The left in Brazil feared that Bolsonaro would use the moment to declare war on Brazil’s democratic institutions and preview an attempt to hold onto power if he loses the presidential election next month. The right said it would simply be a peaceful Independence Day celebration — with a clear tilt toward the nation’s president — as it had been in years past.
In the end, the atmosphere was more of a party than an uprising. And Bolsonaro — who for months has made worrisome comments about the security of the elections and his willingness to accept the results — took a markedly softer tack in two speeches to his supporters.
He touted what he said were his accomplishments — cheap fuel, relatively low inflation — and focused on campaign promises, including keeping abortion and drugs illegal and fighting what he calls “gender ideology,” or the movement to reexamine the concept of gender.
Perhaps his most forceful comments were calling his political rivals “evil” and warning that they would try to break the laws in the constitution. “Wait for the reelection and see if everyone plays by the rules,” he said. At one point, he appeared to reflect on his past comments: “We all change. We all improve. We can all be better in the future.”
The shift in tone was in line with advice Bolsonaro has been receiving from some senior advisers, who have warned him that attacking the country’s elections systems and democratic institutions is not particularly popular with the moderate voters he needs to win over to prevail in October’s election, according to one senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential meetings.
There have also been recent signs of a truce between election officials and Brazil’s armed forces, which have backed Bolsonaro’s claims that Brazil’s elections systems are vulnerable.
Yet Bolsonaro has shifted tones frequently in the past. The morning before the bicentennial celebrations, he was casting doubt on Brazil’s voting machines in an interview with a right-wing news network. And last Independence Day, his speech caused a brief institutional crisis after he said he would not respect the decisions of one Supreme Court justice. Days later, he walked those comments back.
The election, pitting Bolsonaro against former leftist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, will be one of the most closely watched votes in Latin America in decades. Brazilians will cast their ballots Oct. 2 and, if no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote, again Oct. 30 in a runoff. Da Silva has held a steady and comfortable lead in the polls.
Bolsonaro, a right-wing nationalist, has made attacks on Brazil’s Supreme Court and its elections systems central to his political rhetoric for years. He has argued, with little evidence, that Brazil’s electronic voting machines are vulnerable to fraud, and he has accused several Supreme Court justices of political persecution.
Those judges cleared corruption charges against da Silva, freeing him from prison and allowing him to run in this year’s election. They have forced social networks to take down inflammatory or false posts from Bolsonaro and his supporters (as well as from da Silva). And they are investigating Bolsonaro and his allies in a number of cases, including for accusations of spreading misinformation and leaking classified information.
One judge, Alexandre de Moraes, who is also Brazil’s new elections chief, stoked tensions further last month when he ordered several prominent businessmen’s homes to be searched, their bank accounts to be frozen and some of their social media accounts to be blocked. His evidence supporting the action was a series of leaked text messages that suggested the businessmen would support a military coup if da Silva won the presidency.
Bolsonaro has called Moraes’ actions against the businessmen a gross abuse of power. On Wednesday, he said the men’s privacy was violated. Earlier in the day, one of those businessmen, Luciano Hang, the owner of a Brazilian department-store chain, stood between Bolsonaro and the president of Portugal for a period as they watched the military parade in Brasília.
Bolsonaro had called his supporters to the streets to celebrate “our sacred liberty.” Political analysts and leaders on the left had worried about the prospects of violence; a group of Bolsonaro’s supporters had tried and failed to get past the barricades of the Supreme Court during similar Independence Day celebrations last year.
Yet the festivities were peaceful. There were families with children, older people in wheelchairs, and vendors selling beer, snacks, Brazilian flags and shirts with Bolsonaro’s face. Authorities had increased security, including deploying snipers and drones, and there were few signs that supporters were planning to challenge the country’s institutions beyond chants that da Silva belonged in jail and that Moraes should be impeached.
Despite Bolsonaro’s toned-down rhetoric, his supporters still wanted to focus on the Supreme Court and the voting machines.
“The Supreme Court is supposed to be the guardian of the constitution, and yet every day they’re finding a new way to rip it up,” said Gabriel Miguel, 32, a real-estate lawyer draped in a Brazilian flag and wearing a camouflage hat. He accused da Silva’s party of cheating in past elections, and said there would be consequences if they attempted fraud this year. “They wouldn’t dare to do anything against democracy,” he said.
Many Brazilians on the left accused Bolsonaro and his supporters of co-opting Brazil’s bicentennial celebrations for a political event. Da Silva told his supporters to instead join him for a rally in Rio on Thursday.
Bolsonaro arrived at his speech in Rio on a motorcycle, leading a parade of motorcycles driven by supporters. Such “motociatas,” or motorcycle rallies, have been a hallmark of his political brand, featured prominently in his campaign videos, and his way of visiting areas of Brazil outside major population centers.
In Brasília, he watched the military parade from a stage with his wife, Michelle, and a phalanx of government and military officials. “We are here to fulfill God’s calling,” Michelle Bolsonaro told the crowd. “The enemy shall not win.”
In his speech there, Bolsonaro continued his strategy of making his masculinity a central part of his campaign. “I’ve been telling single men, singles who are tired of being unhappy, find a woman,” he said. “A princess. Marry her.” He then kissed his wife.
The crowd began chanting “imbrochável,” a slightly vulgar Portuguese word that translates roughly to “never limp” that Bolsonaro has adopted as part of his political brand.
Bolsonaro joined the crowd and chanted: “Never limp! Never limp! Never limp!”