How Likely is a Brazilian Coup? | Opinion

On Sept. 7, 2022, the Bicentennial of Brazil's independence from Portugal, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro greeted many thousands of his acolytes in Rio de Janeiro, hoping to boost his chances for re-election to the Brazilian presidency. Yet, in an interview he gave just the day before, he was casting doubt on the reliability of the nation's voting machines and issuing dire warnings of "a rigged vote." For months, Bolsonaro had been trying to head off his expected loss in October's presidential election. Before a single vote was cast, he was suggesting that he might not accept the results of the election which most polls predicted he would lose decisively in a runoff with former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula).

On this and many other issues, Bolsonaro has been borrowing from the playbook of former U.S. President Donald Trump, whom he has called his "idol." Trump, after all, had also cast doubt on the results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election months before it even took place, and has continued to do so to this day.

Trump's behavior following the 2020 election, which he lost to Joe Biden by over 7 million votes, is well known. Despite being told by his campaign advisors, his lawyers, and others in his administration that there was absolutely no evidence of fraud sufficient to overturn the election results, he persisted in loudly proclaiming that the Democrats had cheated him out of a win. Trump has uttered more than 150 claims concerning fraudulent ballots and other purported election irregularities. "It was a catastrophe that election," he said in July 2022 in his first return to Washington following Biden's inauguration. Some analysts explain Trump's post-election behavior as resulting from his intractable fear of being labelled "a loser."

Bolsonaro has taken a similar tack. He has insisted for months—without any evidence—that Brazil's voting machines are prone to fraud. Unlike in the U.S. where voting machines and voting procedures vary from state to state, in Brazil electronic voting machines are uniform and have been in use nationwide since 2000. Election results there are announced within hours of the polls closing. Nevertheless, Bolsonaro labels Brazil's widely respected voting infrastructure "a farce" and says that he might not accept the results of the election unless Brazil's computerized system is replaced by printed ballots, an impossibility at this late date.

Bolsonaro has not only questioned the accuracy of the upcoming vote, but he has also called the election "a battle between good and evil," and has demanded that "leftists" be "eradicated from public life." Critics fear that such discourse has incited his most rabid followers and has increased political violence. In September, a rural worker was stabbed to death by a "bolsonarista," and other violent incidents have occurred ahead of the upcoming October vote. In a September poll, over two-thirds of Brazilians polled indicated that they were afraid of being physically assaulted because of their political positions. A related concern is the proliferation of firearms in private hands after Bolsonaro loosened the nation's strict gun control regulations.

Uncanny similarities between Bolsonaro and Trump supporters suggest the possibility of post-election violence in Brazil akin to the Jan. 6 insurrection in the United States.

How are the followers of the two men alike? In Bolsonaro's case, his supporters are part of what Brazilians call the "BBB bloc"—shorthand for boi, Bíblia, and bala—beef, Bible, and bullet bloc—a reference to his rural voters, evangelical Christians, and pro-gun groups. They are reminiscent of what Hillary Clinton termed Trump's "deplorables," which, like Bolsonaro's, included residents of rural areas and small towns, born-again Christians, and supporters of gun rights.

Brazilian President and re-election candidate Jair Bolsonaro
Brazilian President and re-election candidate Jair Bolsonaro greets his supporters during a rally in Santos, Sao Paulo state, Brazil, on Sept. 27 2022. NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP via Getty Images

Other Trumpist elements also have entered Brazil's election scene. One of Bolsonaro's sons has close ties to Steve Bannon, Trump's former political strategist, and many fear that Bolsonaro will emulate Trump's "Big Lie" rhetoric if he loses the election.

It is also true that Bolsonaro is desperate to stay in power because, while in office, he is exempt from prosecution. And, if he loses, it is likely that he will be prosecuted for the many allegations of corruption that encircle him and his family as well as for his gross mismanagement of the COVID-19 epidemic which left Brazil with a mortality rate second only to that of the United States.

Bolsonaro himself has said he sees only three alternatives in his future: winning the 2022 presidential election, prison, or death. But then, he suggests hopefully: "God will get me out." Aside from the deity, other elements of Brazilian society may take up the cause for a second Bolsonaro term no matter what the outcome of the election. In August, Brazilian police carried out search warrants targeting a small cabal of very wealthy businessmen who allegedly participated in a private chat group that speculated about potential electoral fraud and discussed a possible coup and military intervention if Bolsonaro loses the election.

There are also concerns in Brazil about what role, if any, the nation's military may play if Bolsonaro loses the election. These worries increased after Bolsonaro named a retired general, a former Defense minister, as his running mate. Even so, several analysts suggest that the strength of Brazilian institutions makes a coup unlikely.

What of the future, then? There is a real danger that violence comparable to that of Jan. 6, 2020, in Washington, D.C., might occur. But like the scenario with Trump and Jan. 6, an actual coup is unlikely to succeed. In contrast to the military takeover of the country in 1964, Bolsonaro lacks the critical support of Brazilian business and media elites. While there is a real risk of violence in Brazil, it is unlikely to result in the overturning of the election.

Maxine L. Margolis, professor emerita of anthropology at the University of Florida, is author of Goodbye Brazil: Emigrés from the Land of Soccer & Samba.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.