Pro-Bolsonaro rallies put Brazil on edge
Bryan Harris in Brasília and Michael Pooler and Carolina Pulice in São Paulo
The rallies, which took place in cities including capital Brasília and financial centre São Paulo, come as Bolsonaro has fired up his base in recent months with an aggressive campaign against several Supreme Court justices, whom he accuses of overstepping their authority.
The former army captain has also heaped doubt on Brazil’s electronic voting system, saying it is prone to fraud, and threatened to cancel elections next year if the system is not amended to include printed paper ballot receipts.
The tense political atmosphere had stoked fears the rallies might descend into violence or demonstrators might storm the Supreme Court in an echo of the assault on the US Capitol by supporters of former president Donald Trump this year.
Video footage on local news website Metrópoles appeared to show broadcast journalists being jeered and intimidated by protesters in Brasília, but there were no reports of other major incidents by Tuesday evening.
On Sunday, federal police arrested a supporter of the president who made death threats against Alexandre de Moraes, a Supreme Court justice who drew Bolsonaro’s ire after he ordered the president to be investigated as part of an inquiry into “fake news”.
“I warn the scumbags: I will not go to jail,” Bolsonaro told a crowd in São Paulo, estimated by military police to include as many as 125,000 people. “Any decision made by judge Alexandre de Moraes, this president will no longer obey.”
Ahead of the rallies, police had also expanded the security detail for Luís Roberto Barroso, another justice who has repeatedly clashed with Bolsonaro over the president’s unfounded claims of voter fraud.
Clad in the green and yellow colours of the Brazilian flag, thousands of the president’s most devoted supporters descended on Brasília on Monday, filling up hotels across the city. Parked along the inland capital’s broad boulevards were scores of double-decker buses, which ferried in supporters from remote towns and cities hundreds of kilometres away.
Bolsonaro surveyed the rallies in the capital from a helicopter on Tuesday morning, and later addressed the crowd from the top of a truck before travelling to São Paulo.
He had made liberdade — liberty — the theme of the day. His supporters say the Supreme Court is encroaching on their personal freedoms and have adopted the slogan: “It is the people who are supreme.”
They have also accused the court of unjustly ordering the arrest of rightwing figures for alleged antidemocratic declarations.
A former Trump aide, Jason Miller, was quizzed at Brasília airport on Tuesday after speaking at a conservative political conference in the capital over the weekend where Bolsonaro also appeared.
Miller, chief executive of alternative media platform Gettr, which sponsored the event, said in a statement on Twitter that he and his party were questioned for three hours.
“We were not accused of any wrongdoing, and told only that they ‘wanted to talk’,” he said. “We informed them that we had nothing to say and were eventually released to fly back to the United States”.
Despite the crowds on Tuesday, which is the national Independence Day holiday in Brazil, Bolsonaro’s popularity has been declining sharply, as his anti-democratic rhetoric has frightened many one-time supporters, notably those in the business community.
Opinion polls by the Atlas Institute on Monday showed the rejection rate for Bolsonaro stands at a record high of 61 per cent, while his approval rate is 24 per cent. Recent polling has also indicated that if elections scheduled for next October were held now, the rightwing leader would lose by a wide margin to his main political rival, leftwing former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
On São Paulo’s Faria Lima avenue, Brazil’s version of Wall Street, executives quietly admit that the political turbulence is hurting investor sentiment and damping appetite to invest in Latin America’s largest economy.
Political analysts say Bolsonaro intends to use the rallies to unite his base and show that he still has strong political support.
Alcio Burke, a former truck driver from the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, said he drove 2,000km to Brasília to show support for the president.
“They need to let him do his job. The STF [Supreme Court] is surpassing the limits of its responsibilities. They need to act within the four lines of the constitution,” he added.
Eliezer do Rosa Lorentz, who said he travelled 12 hours to reach São Paulo from the central-western agricultural state of Mato Grosso do Sul, said he wanted to see a new congress and the removal of Supreme Court judges.
“They don’t represent us in any way,” he added, as demonstrators filled the city’s main thoroughfare.
Silvio Salvitti, a small-business owner from São Paulo who carried a banner calling for military intervention at the Supreme Court, said the president had managed the pandemic well in spite of state governors working against him. “Bolsonaro may not be the best person for the job, but he definitely has the best intentions,” he said.
“We don’t want to end up like Venezuela. Our liberty is at stake,” said Edna Figueiredo from Brasília. “The Supreme Court does not work for the people, they create laws against the people.”