Brazil’s Bolsonaro follows the Trump playbook
For the past half-decade, the comparisons wrote themselves. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and former president Donald Trump were birds of an ultranationalist feather. Both rose to power on a wave of anti-establishment anger. Both exulted in their reputations as loudmouthed, politically incorrect mavericks. Both tapped into a right-wing culture war, while adopting policies that helped boost a clutch of wealthy elites and erode international efforts on climate action. Both fumbled as the coronavirus pandemic claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in their countries.
And when faced with reelection, both chose to scaremonger over alleged fraud and cast doubts over the integrity of their nations’ democratic processes. Trump continues to do so, even out of office. Bolsonaro, who is slumping in the polls ahead of next year’s presidential vote, is essentially reading from Trump’s playbook.
In recent months, Bolsonaro has raged against Brazil’s electronic balloting system, touting unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud. He wants to push through measures that would require the electronic machines to print out paper receipts of the ballots, which he argues would make voting more transparent. If those measures do not pass, he warned last month, he and his supporters may not accept the October 2022 election results.
“The idea sounds innocent enough, but experts say it’s devious nonsense,” noted Frida Ghitis in a Washington Post op-ed. “Former and current Supreme Court justices who sit on the election tribunal, as well as countless political observers, believe Bolsonaro wants the printouts as a way to unleash a torrent of fraud claims, along the lines of the barrage of lawsuits and recounts waged by Trump and his supporters.”
So far, Bolsonaro’s evidence of potential rigging is nonexistent. Brazil has also successfully audited elections conducted with electronic machines in the past. His attacks on the agencies that preside over it came to a head last week, when the country’s high court and top electoral tribunal launched investigations into his statements, suggesting that the president could be guilty of abuse of office, improper use of his official communication channels and a number of other potential crimes. Unbowed, Bolsonaro went on to call Luís Roberto Barroso, the judge who is the electoral tribunal head and who also sits on the Supreme Court, a “son of a whore.”
“To defile the public debate with disinformation, lies, hatred and conspiracy theories is undemocratic conduct,” Barroso said in response.
Critics argue that the president, like Trump, is attempting to sow doubt around the upcoming election ahead of a potential defeat. It’s not a particularly surprising state of affairs given the demagogic leader’s stated admiration for the country’s former military dictatorship. On Tuesday, his government staged a military parade in Brasilia in an apparent show of strength as lawmakers in the National Congress prepared to vote a bill mandating that voting machines print electronic receipts.
The stunt, involving a procession of armored vehicles and at least one tank, was greeted with widespread derision and outrage on Brazilian social media. “Ridiculous. Grotesque. Pitiful. Needless. Banana Republic stuff,” tweeted Brunno Melo, a Brasilia-based journalist.
“It’s unbelievable … The only explanation is that they are trying to convince congress they need more money for equipment,” noted José Roberto de Toledo, a political journalist from the magazine Piauí, according to the Guardian. “Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined they were capable of something so pathetic."
The lower house of Congress rejected the paper receipt proposal Tuesday night.
But the prevailing atmosphere is no laughing matter. Bolsonaro commands considerable support from the country’s security forces and numerous former military men (the president himself was an army captain) hold key political posts. Talk of a potential coup may be overblown, but Bolsonaro has a long record of speaking wistfully about taking steps outside the bounds of Brazil’s constitution and a critical mass of supporters who cheer such politically dangerous rhetoric.
“The situation is extremely worrying in Brazil,” Marcos Nobre, a prominent political scientist at the State University of Campinas, told my colleagues last month. “It’s very, very grave what is happening here.”
On Friday, the leading newspaper Folha de S.Paulo published a front-page editorial that described Bolsonaro as a “president against the constitution” and warned that “he commits serial madness in his flight into tyranny and must be stopped by the law he despises.”
The heavy toll of the coronavirus pandemic and a weakening economy have tanked Bolsonaro’s approval ratings. Recent polling had him trailing his main challenger, former leftist president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, by some 20 points. His current posturing may reflect a degree of desperation.
“Few think Bolsonaro would have any real chance of undoing an election,” my colleagues recently wrote. “If anything, analysts say, his rhetoric betrays his political weakness. His approval ratings have fallen to record lows. The coronavirus has killed more than 545,000 Brazilians, and congressional investigators are probing his government’s hands-off response to the pandemic. He’s being investigated on allegations he failed to report suspicions of government corruption in the purchase of an Indian vaccine.”
The Biden administration, meanwhile, has taken a far cooler attitude to Bolsonaro than its predecessor. On a visit last week to Brazil, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan reportedly warned his Brazilian counterparts not to disrupt their country’s elections. “We were … very direct, expressing great confidence in the ability of the Brazilian institutions to carry out a free and fair election with proper safeguards in place and guard against fraud,” Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council’s senior director for the Western Hemisphere, told reporters during a briefing Monday. “And we stressed the importance of not undermining confidence in that process, especially since there were no signs of fraud in prior elections.”
Bolsonaro mustered no public response. But his son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, who is also a politician, tweeted a fawning message of support for Trump on Monday, replete with pictures of him alongside the former U.S. president. In his message, he celebrated the “convergence of ideals” shared by such “men of unblemished reputation and moral authority” in Brazil and the United States. An array of opponents in Brasilia and Washington beg to differ.