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There is something pathetic about a leader who cannot recognise his limitations. For months, Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has insisted that he could bend democracy in Latin America’s largest nation to his will if he so desired. Brazil’s independence day, 7 September, was supposed to be a watershed moment, as the president mobilised his supporters to take to the streets. Instead, it revealed the distance between Bolsonaro’s perception of the popular support that he enjoys and reality. Sinking in the polls and with mounting obstacles in the way of broadening his political alliances, the president bet that he could compel enough of a grassroots backing to intimidate the political establishment, and the supreme court in particular. Unsurprisingly, to quote Gabriel García Márquez’s novel The General in His Labyrinth, the president “could not renounce his infinite capacity for illusion at the very moment he needed it most”.
Bolsonaro backers and dispassionate analysts alike predicted a massive public outpouring of support for the president’s ongoing efforts to undermine democratic processes. It was thought that 7 September might even culminate in a takeover of the supreme court building akin to the raucous invasion of the US Capitol building on 6 January. Days before independence day, Bolsonaro called the planned demonstration an “ultimatum” for supreme court judges, and declared ominously that “if you want peace, prepare for war”. He even hinted at a constitutional “rupture that neither I nor the people want”.
Why has Bolsonaro targeted his ire at the judiciary rather than the legislative branch, as Donald Trump did? Because the supreme court, especially judges Alexandre de Moraes and Luís Roberto Barroso, is investigating the president and those close to him for anti-democratic words and deeds, including taking part in a vast conspiracy to disseminate fake news during the 2018 presidential election. The court has also refused to shield Bolsonaro’s sons, almost all of whom are involved in politics, from investigation. By comparison, Congress is friendly territory for Bolsonaro.
But the purported showdown set for 7 September left Bolsonaro and his most ardent followers wanting. Thousands took to the streets in Brasília, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere, but far fewer than was expected, and certainly nowhere near the critical mass needed to convince other more cautious political actors to embark on a radical escapade led by Bolsonaro. History is no guide to the future but it can be instructive all the same. The only Brazilian head of state who successfully carried out a “self-coup” to increase his power was Getúlio Vargas, the authoritarian statesman credited with laying the institutional groundwork of modern Brazil. This is not the 1930s and Bolsonaro is no Vargas.
For one thing, Vargas cannily presented himself as the only rational actor in a system riven by extremists on the right and left. By contrast, Bolsonaro is the one preaching the most radical far-right ideas, framing his aggressive anti-institutionalism as the only way of breaking through a sclerotic and self-interested political culture. Former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, meanwhile, is meeting with influential figures from across the political spectrum, seeking to blunt any equivalence between himself and the president. Lula, a moderate former trade unionist who governed ably for eight years, leads the pack by a wide margin in every poll – even as he insists he has not yet made up his mind about pursuing a third term next year. As the favourite to win in next year’s presidential elections, Lula is talking about reconciliation and good governance. Bolsonaro and his allies point to the spectre of Lula’s return as the main reason for their continued political relevance. A major problem for Bolsonaro, however, is that his rhetorical campaign against the status quo is simply not as potent as it was in 2018, when he rode a wave of anti-left hysteria and anti-political angst to power.
Now, Bolsonaro (and his sons) are at the pinnacle of authority, and yet can hardly be seen to be governing at all, on everything from the pandemic to the environment, economy and foreign affairs. In this context, his grievances appear more personal than political. The turnout on 7 September was far lower than expected in part because most Brazilians are not currently invested in the fights the president is picking. They simply do not share the president’s resentment against individual members of other branches of government.
That said, there should be some caution against forecasting Bolsonaro’s political demise. After all, he still managed to spur thousands to leave their homes and take to the streets during a pandemic. Indeed, many of his supporters were reportedly eager to take their protests further and descend into violence like the Trumpist mob. Those people aren’t going away and are almost certainly beyond the reach of the other candidates vying to replace Bolsonaro next year. The lingering popular aftershocks of Bolsonaro’s anti-democratic exhortations are the real cause for concern. But we also mustn’t overthink things: relative to expectations set by the president himself and his followers, 7 September was a failure.
In the days after the underwhelming street demonstrations, Bolsonaro appeared to backtrack, insisting that he had no intention of disregarding Brazil’s separation of powers. The widely reviled former president Michel Temer, eager for a return to political prominence, helped mediate a conversation between the president and De Moraes. For now, the political temperature has been turned down, although this has been at the expense of Bolsonaro facing any consequences for his behaviour. He will certainly continue to stoke the most dangerous impulses in the Brazilian body politic, but it is hard to see 7 September as anything but a defeat for the president – and a sign of hope that he has more days behind him in power than ahead.
Andre Pagliarini is an assistant professor of history at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. He is working on a book about the politics of nationalism in modern Brazilian history.