Jair Bolsonaro is greeted by supporters during the Independence Day celebrations in Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday
Jair Bolsonaro is greeted by supporters during the Independence Day celebrations in Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday © Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

President Jair Bolsonaro rallied tens of thousands of supporters in cities across Brazil on Wednesday in a pre-election show of force that featured displays from the country’s armed forces.

Paratroopers landed on Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beach and air force jets flew over the waterfront in a spectacle ostensibly to mark Brazil’s bicentennial anniversary of independence, but which critics said was co-opted by the populist president to coincide with an election rally in the same location.

Brazilians go to the polls on October 2, with Bolsonaro trailing his main rival, leftwing former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, by about 10 percentage points.

A former army captain, Bolsonaro has unnerved people by repeatedly refusing to say whether he would accept the results of the election if he loses. It has stirred fears that Brazil might face a situation similar to the US in 2020, when Donald Trump claimed the presidential election was fraudulent.

Over the past two years, Bolsonaro has threatened to invoke military might, claiming that the armed forces would not accept “absurd decisions” by the nation’s Supreme Court or Congress.

“Our battle is a fight between good and evil,” the 67-year-old leader said on Wednesday in a more moderate speech than expected.

His close relationship with the armed forces was underlined by the military manoeuvres, which the president had ordered to occur alongside his rally.

“The fact is that Brazil is at risk of a democratic rupture. The election will be a referendum on democracy in Brazil,” said Orlando Silva, an opposition lawmaker who supports Lula.

“My impression is there will be turmoil in the electoral result because I think the current president is going to be defeated, and it will be a great stress test for Brazil’s institutions,” he added.

While few expect any kind of military intervention, opposition politicians and analysts are concerned about what might happen if Bolsonaro simply refuses to accept the election result.

The populist leader commands support from more than 20 per cent of the electorate, many of whom are willing to take to the streets and are loyal to his conservative ideals and agenda. The possibility of a riot akin to the January 6 attack on the US Capitol in 2021 should not be discounted, pundits said.

“The president himself has already signalled the possibility [that he may not accept the results]. He has with him a radicalised base, which does politics in an aggressive way,” said Carlos Melo, a political scientist at Insper, a university in São Paulo.

Valter Brandão, a 51-year-old security professional who attended the rally alongside tens of thousands of others, said: “The country was running the risk of becoming communist under Lula.”

“Lula destroyed Brazil” during his two terms in office between 2003 and 2010, he said, adding that Bolsonaro shared his conservative values, including faith in family and God.

Mirroring Trump, Bolsonaro has also sought to cast doubt on the integrity of Brazil’s electronic voting machines, alleging fraud in past elections — including the one he won in 2018 — without offering any proof. Opponents believe it is a ploy to undermine the credibility of the poll in case of defeat.

He has previously demanded printed vote receipts, arguing that a paper audit trail is required if a result is disputed. The proposal was rejected by Congress last year.

In recent months, the military has also raised questions about the voting system that echo some of the president’s criticisms, suggesting some within the top brass are sympathetic to his narrative.

Thousands of active and reserve members of the military serve in Bolsonaro’s administration — including more in the executive branch than during the country’s 1964-85 dictatorship.

In response to the military’s overtures, Brazil’s superior electoral court has included a general on a newly created transparency committee and is considering its suggestion for the use of voter biometrics.

Carlos Fico, a professor of history at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, said he did not believe the armed forces “would promote any kind of institutional rupture”.

“[But] Bolsonaro is trying to show he has their support,” he said.

In recent weeks, Bolsonaro has notably reduced the intensity of his attacks on the electoral system, a development that analysts said reflected his failure to convince society of the fraud allegations.

After he assembled a group of foreign diplomats in Brasília to publicise his claims, the US state department issued a note underlining its confidence in the Brazilian system.

Civil society has also responded to the president’s attacks. Last month, thousands of public figures, artists and business executives — who once supported him — launched a campaign in defence of democracy, calling the nation’s elections “an example to the world”.

“All this reduces the chances of him successfully contesting the election,” said Melo at Insper. “Of course, the chance still does exist, but it is smaller today than in the past.”

Additional reporting by Carolina Ingizza

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