President Jair Bolsonaro Threatens Democracy in Brazil | Opinion

Days after calling the president of the Brazilian Superior Electoral Court a "son of a bitch," President Jair Bolsonaro organized a military parade through the streets of Brasilia, the country's capital. That was the same day Congress was discussing a proposed constitutional amendment to change the electoral system and the way elections are conducted. The president is attacking electronic votes in hopes of facilitating distrust in election results—results that may not be in his favor.

Facing an election next year, Bolsonaro seeks to show strength with the armed forces on his side, defending the idea that printed ballots only yield secure elections. He directly threatened Brazilian democracy by putting tanks on the streets to pressure politicians to vote for his proposal to change the electoral system.

He ultimately lost the vote but continues sending threats.

Bolsonaro doubled down on attacks against the Brazilian Supreme Court—formally calling for the impeachment of Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes who requested the arrest of Roberto Jefferson, a close ally of Bolsonaro, for threatening Brazil's democracy.

What Bolsonaro thinks is a show of strength—several presidents of political parties described the military parade as "reprehensible, unjustifiable and an attempt to generate fear"—is actually a show of weakness amid his plummeting approval ratings. Now 64 percent of the population reject his government.

The military parade was openly mocked by international correspondents who called Brazil a "banana republic," and featured outdated and even scrapped war tanks and armored vehicles, generating a wave of memes on social networks.

But memes aside, his threats are real, and his weakness may lead him to retaliate.

The president is being investigated by the Supreme Court for spreading fake news and for leaking a secretive investigation by the Federal Police. Brazil's Congress is also scrutinizing the way he and his government have handled the pandemic. Bolsonaro seeks by all means to survive, even if it means threatening democracy.

This wasn't the first time Bolsonaro used the armed forces to demonstrate power. He tried putting tanks in the streets and have fighter jets fly over the Supreme Court. The army and air force chiefs at the time refused and were subsequently fired. Their replacements are now aligned with Bolsonaro.

As Brazil's independence celebrations approach Sept. 7, fears are growing that his supporters may plan a violent action or that Bolsonaro might even ignite a coup. In fact, on Aug 14, the president himself used WhatsApp to call his supporters to prepare for a "counter coup" against the Supreme Court.

The Brazilian Senate, in retaliation against the request for impeachment of the Supreme Court justices, refused to vote on the nomination of a new member of the same court made by the president. André Mendonça, who was Brazil's attorney general, was the second appointment made by Bolsonaro to the Supreme Court. He is controversial, chosen to please the conservative base and was considered by the president himself as "terribly evangelical."

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro sits during the celebration of National Volunteer Day. EVARISTO SA/AFP via Getty Images

Despite his low popularity, the president still enjoys wide support among members of the Armed Forces and Military Police as well as artists and influencers who have mobilized to create a climate of fear and social tension in view of the upcoming Independence Day celebrations.

Brazilian country singer and former congressman Sérgio Reis defended the president and in a leaked audio called on the powerful class of truck drivers to stop traffic in the country via roadblocks. He also threatened the Supreme Court.

"I will tell the president of the Senate that they have 72 hours to approve the printed ballot and remove all the ministers of the Supreme Court. This is not a request, it is an order," said Reis.

After the repercussions, he found himself the target of an investigation. His house was searched by the Federal Police by order of Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes.

Meanwhile, General Augusto Heleno, chief minister of the Cabinet of Institutional Security, in an interview with Rádio Jovem Pan, a far-right media outlet close to the president, raised the tone against the Supreme Court and reinforced the pro-coup discourse of the government and supporters.

Bolsonaro behaves similar to other authoritarian leaders around the world. From Viktor Orbán in Hungary, through Poland and its persecution of Supreme Court justices (the target of harsh criticism from European Union countries), to Donald Trump and his authoritarian demeanor that led to the invasion of the Capitol by far-right groups that supported him.

Bolsonaro is accused—and is under investigation—for maintaining digital militias. He has the support of organized fascist groups on the streets who last year protested in front of the Supreme Court with torches and masks.

As much as it is not unprecedented, since Bolsonaro mimics other authoritarian leaders, it is not possible to dismiss the danger that his speeches and threats present to Brazil's fragile democracy. If it is true that much of Bolsonaro's speeches are aimed at cheering up his own supporters and keeping them engaged, it is also a fact that at some point the institutions will have to react or they will submit to a president who will move from words to actions in the face of the blockade forming against him.

The president's intentions are clear: to intimidate the Brazilian judiciary and Congress. His advisors admitted it. These same institutions are slow to react and when they do, the reaction is usually not enough. For much less former President Dilma Rousseff underwent an impeachment, while Bolsonaro has already committed countless crimes—many of them investigated by the Supreme Court and others ignored by Congress.

Dozens of impeachment requests rest in the lap of the president of the Lower Chamber. When they wake up, it might be too late.

Raphael Tsavkko Garcia is a Brazilian journalist based in Belgium. He holds a PhD in human rights from the University of Deusto (Spain).

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