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Brazil may have its own moment on January 6, or worse

On October 2, Brazil will hold its ninth democratic election since military rule ended in 1985. But this young democracy, the second largest in the Western Hemisphere, is under threat. The biggest threat comes from the current far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, who is seeking re-election.

Bolsonaro trails far behind his challenger Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, with recent polls showing just 31 percent of the electorate support him. But a Bolsonaro defeat does not mean that Brazil will immediately return to the path of democracy, prosperity or political sanity.

Bolsonaro enjoys a fervent fan base, many of whom are armed extremists, drawn from the army, the police and militias analogous to the Proud Boys in the United States. If he loses at the polls, there is an imminent risk that Brazil will experience something similar to the January 6 attack on the US Capitol. Or worse.

As president, Bolsonaro has used the highest office in the country to aggressively fan the flames of disinformation. This trend became tragically clear during the COVID-19 pandemic, when he personally promoted the use of unproven (and now disproved) treatments and opposed vaccination. As a result, Brazil suffered some of the highest mortality rates in the world.

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With his first term coming to an end, Bolsonaro has stepped up attacks on Brazil’s electoral system itself. He recently claimed that vote-counting machines are flawed, but did not present evidence. The Superior Electoral Court (TSE), responsible for electoral security, has strongly rejected Bolsonaro’s unfounded claims. But as voting day approaches, the president’s speech becomes even more radical, as he seeks to unite his base against the electoral institutions that are the backbone of Brazil’s democracy.

We are not suggesting that Bolsonaro would lead a traditional coup, with tanks rolling through the streets, as happened in 1964. But we see great threats to democracy and possibly an insurrection if, as expected, Bolsonaro loses at the polls. This is why.

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Bolsonaro entered the army in the 1970s, during Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-1985). He has spent much of his career defending this regime and positioning himself as an apologist for torture and genocide.

Bolsonaro is dangerously entangled with the armed forces, which continue to have a significant conservative bent, having not undergone any serious reform or purge after the end of the dictatorship.

His current vice president and his new running mate are high-ranking generals. According to watchdog groups, the number of military personnel on government duty has also doubled during Bolsonaro’s tenure.

Some retired generals hold security positions, but others have been strategically placed in positions for which they have no experience, such as the health ministry. Other quotes show how the Bolsonaro government has militarized its relationship with certain sectors of society. For example, of the 39 political appointees in Bolsonaro’s FUNAI, the government organization that interacts with Brazil’s indigenous people, most have police or military backgrounds. This makes the Bolsonaro government one of the most militarized in Latin America, only surpassed by the Venezuela of Nicolás Maduro.

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During his tenure, Bolsonaro has undermined Brazil’s democratic institutions and stifled dissent against the government’s anti-democratic turn, to the point that some of his generals refuse to defend the existing voting system before the polls.

One of the military appointees to the country’s Superior Electoral Tribunal was also suspended from participating earlier this month for making unsubstantiated claims of electoral fraud. This reveals the scale of doubts that are already being cast on the elections by forces close to the president.

If a pro-Bolsonaro insurrection were to occur, it would likely be carried out by the president’s armed base, which includes extremist armed police, soldiers and civilians. Many members of these professions embrace Bolsonaro’s radical positions and profess allegiance to him, possibly in defiance of the military chain of command to which they are subordinate.

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This predisposes them to undertake violent actions that subvert democracy if they believe that this is what Bolsonaro wants. All of this must also be understood within the context of the astronomically high levels of state violence in Brazil.

The most defining characteristic of Brazil’s police force is its lethality. In 2020 alone, according to Amnesty International, police killed 6,416 people. The state of Rio de Janeiro, where Bolsonaro served in Congress and spent most of his political career, has one of the deadliest police forces in the country.

That the police routinely kill people, especially low-income blacks, has become a horrible fact of life in the city. Bolsonaro has often praised violent police officers and even said they should receive medals for murdering criminals. It is easy to imagine how this mentality could be used against political protesters in the event of a mass mobilization to defend democracy.

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Bolsonaro’s hard-line rhetoric is not just appealing to the police. He resonates with a substantial segment of the population tired of the daily violence in Brazil and frustrated with the apparent inability of the government to address crime and social problems. Bolsonaro, while ironically heading the very government that fails to protect its citizens, has encouraged feelings of self-defense, especially by promoting gun ownership, which until recently was highly restricted in Brazil.

Bolsonaro has supported legal changes to facilitate access to weapons and has frequently promoted gun culture and violence. Between 2018 and 2022, gun licenses soared 473 percent. Bolsonaro frequently poses with his thumb and forefinger forming a pistol, especially on the campaign trail. In 2021, he told a group of supporters: “Everybody needs to buy a gun, man. Armed people can never be enslaved.”

“You can never be enslaved” is a frequent refrain, as Bolsonaro consistently frames Brazil as on the verge of becoming a communist country. He portrays political opponents not as democratic competitors, but as menacing enemies who must be defeated at all costs.

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He and his sons have frequently called for violence against the political left. During the 2018 elections, he urged his supporters to shoot Brazilians who voted for progressive candidates.

Unsurprisingly, this inflammatory rhetoric has had tragic consequences. In July 2022, one of Bolsonaro’s supporters did exactly that: he attacked a birthday party for Marcelo Arruda, a leftist political figure, and assassinated him. In demonstrations, Bolsonaro supporters have paraded through the streets with fake coffins bearing the images of some Supreme Court judges.

Many Brazilian institutions are mobilizing against Bolsonaro’s campaign to undermine electoral and democratic institutions. As election day approaches, the TSE has worked to bring greater transparency to the process, involving both military personnel and civil society representatives in oversight and reminding police commanders of their obligation to ensure order. and security during voting. In addition, various professional organizations, including bar and judge associations, have come out in public support of the TSE and the electoral process.

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The consequences for the election and the peaceful transition of power if Bolsonaro loses the elections remain to be seen. Even if Bolsonaro loses and an insurgency does not break out, the incoming president will need to remove the military from government, deal with an increasingly fascist police force and restrict access to weapons. None of this will be easy, but Brazil’s democracy depends on it.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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