There is something pathetic about a leader unable to recognize his limitations. Jair Bolsonaro has insisted for months that he could, if he so desired, break democracy in the largest country in Latin America according to his will.
With the president calling on his supporters to mobilize to take to the streets, September 7, Brazil’s Independence Day, was supposed to be a turning point. Instead, it revealed the distance between Bolsonaro’s perception of popular support and reality. Now that he has fallen in the polls and with mounting obstacles to expanding his political alliances, the president bet he could summon enough grassroots supporters to intimidate the political class and, in particular, the Supreme Court.
As expected, citing the novel by Gabriel García Márquez The general in his labyrinth, “there was no need for him to renounce his infinite capacity for illusion at the time that suited him best.”
Both Bolsonaro supporters and impartial analysts predicted a massive outpouring of public support for the president’s continued efforts to undermine democratic processes. It was even believed that September 7 could culminate in a takeover of the Supreme Court building similar to the raucous invasion of the US Capitol on January 6. A few days before Independence Day, Bolsonaro I call to the demonstrations an “ultimatum” for the judges of the Supreme Court and declared ominously “if you want peace, prepare for war.” Even hinted a break up [constitucional] that neither the people nor I want. ”
Why has Bolsonaro directed his anger at the judiciary and not at the legislature, as Donald Trump did? Because the Supreme Court – especially judges Alexandre de Moraes and Luís Roberto Barroso – is investigating the president and his relatives for their antidemocratic statements and actions, such as participating in a conspiracy to spread disinformation during the 2018 presidential elections. Likewise, the Court has refused to exempt from investigation Bolsonaro’s children, almost all of them involved in politics. By comparison, for Bolsonaro Congress is friendly territory.
Elections in 2022
The supposed turning point of September 7 left Bolsonaro and his most passionate followers wanting more. Thousands took to the streets in Brasilia, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere, but they were far less than expected and undoubtedly were far from being the critical mass necessary to convince other more cautious political actors to embark on the radical adventure led by Bolsonaro.
History is not a guide to the future but it can be instructive. The only Brazilian head of state to successfully carry out a “self-coup” to increase his power was Getúlio Vargas, the authoritarian statesman who is credited with laying the institutional foundations of modern Brazil. Anyway, we are not in the 1930s and Bolsonaro it’s not vargas.
Vargas was cunning and presented himself as the only rational actor in a system cracked by extremists on the right and left. Instead, Bolsonaro is the one who preaches the most radical far-right ideas, presenting his aggressive anti-institutionalism as the only way to break with a rigid political culture interested only in itself.
Meanwhile, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva meets with influential figures from across the political spectrum, seeking to end any equivalence between him and the president. Lula, a moderate ex-unionist who skillfully ruled for eight years, leads all the polls by a wide margin, even despite insisting on not being determined to seek a third term next year. Da Silva, the favorite to win the presidential elections next year, speaks of reconciliation and good governance. Bolsonaro and his allies point to the specter of Lula’s return as the main reason for his continued political relevance. However, a central problem for Bolsonaro is that, quite simply, the campaign rhetoric against him status quo He is not as powerful now as in 2018, when a wave of anti-left hysteria and anti-political anguish brought him to power.
Now Bolsonaro (and his sons) are at the top of authority, but they are hardly seen ruling, be it over the pandemic, the environment, the economy or foreign relations. In this context, their complaints seem more personal than political. In part, the turnout on September 7 was much lower than expected because most Brazilians are not committed to the battles chosen by the president. They simply do not share the president’s resentment against particular members of the other branches of government.
Caution in analysis
That said, there should be some caution in forecasting Bolsonaro’s political downfall.
After all, he managed to get thousands out of their homes and onto the streets during a pandemic. In fact, many of his supporters would be willing to push the protests further and fall into violence, just like the Trumpist crowd. Those people will not disappear and they are almost certainly out of reach of the other candidates who will compete next year to replace Bolsonaro. The persistent and popular replicas of Bolsonaro’s undemocratic exhortations are the real reason to worry. But we shouldn’t overthink it either: relative to the expectations of the president and his supporters, September 7 was a failure.
In the days following the disappointing demonstrations, Bolsonaro appeared to back down, insisting that he did not intend to end the separation of powers in Brazil. The vilified former president Michel Temer, eager to return to the political scene, helped mediate a conversation between the president and de Moraes.
For now, the political temperature has dropped, albeit at the cost of Bolsonaro not facing any consequences for his actions. Without a doubt, it will continue to stoke the most dangerous impulses in Brazil’s political actors, but it is difficult to see September 7 as anything other than a defeat for the president and a sign of hope: his days in power that have been left behind are more than those that lie ahead.
Andre Pagliarini is Assistant Professor of History at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, USA. He is working on a book on the politics of nationalism in modern Brazilian history.
Translation by Julián Cnochaert.