Brazil’s Bolsonaro seeks show of strength, risking backfire

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro arrives for a flag raising ceremony at Alvorada Palace presidential residence on Independence Day in Brasilia, Brazil, Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

BRASILIA, Brazil — Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro got a rousing reception from tens of thousands of people gathered in the capital Tuesday in an Independence Day show of support for the right-wing leader embroiled in a feud with the country’s Supreme Court.

Bolsonaro, in an address inaudible to many in the crowd far from the loudspeakers, lashed out at the high court and said the nation can no longer accept what he characterized as political imprisonments — a reference to arrests ordered by Justice Alexandre de Moraes.

He warned that the court could “suffer what we don’t want.”

The crowd began chanting, “Alexandre out!”

His speech followed a helicopter flyover, with those on the ground seized with euphoria at the sight. They shouted, “Legend!” and “I authorize!” — a slogan widely understood as blanket approval of his methods. Some carried banners calling for military intervention to secure Bolsonaro’s hold on power.

Bolsonaro has called on the Senate to impeach de Moraes, who has jailed several of the president’s supporters for allegedly financing, organizing or inciting violence or disseminating false information.

In Sao Paulo, where the president was scheduled to speak in the afternoon, Bolsonaro supporters crammed into the broad Avenue Paulista downtown for a significantly larger rally than the one in Brasilia, while in Rio de Janeiro, they gathered on the road alongside Copacabana beach. All three cities also featured smaller protests against the president.

Bolsonaro spent almost two months calling on supporters to take part in rallies across the country on Independence Day that could show his continuing political appeal despite slumping poll ratings and a string of setbacks.

Critics feared the demonstrations could take a violent turn. Some said they were afraid Bolsonaro could be preparing a tropical version of the Jan. 6 riot in Washington, where supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol, alleging he had been robbed of a reelection victory.

Like Trump, Bolsonaro was elected on a pledge to go after a corrupt, entrenched political class. He has also said he might reject the 2022 election results if he loses.

Along Brasilia’s esplanade, there was a festive mood, with cold drinks and the scent of grilled meat.

At least 100 military police with riot shields stood in front of Congress, and several dozen formed two lines behind barricades on the road leading to the Supreme Court. At least twice, groups of demonstrators tried to get past the barriers, but officers repelled them with pepper spray.

About 10,000 officers were scattered around the area for the demonstrations, security officials said.

Regina Pontes, 53, stood atop a flatbed that advanced toward the police barriers. She said the Brazilian people have every right to enter the area.

“You can’t close the door to keep the owner out,” she said.

The world’s second-highest COVID-19 death toll, a drumbeat of accusations of wrongdoing in the government’s handling of the pandemic, and surging inflation have weighed on Bolsonaro’s approval ratings.

Polls show his nemesis, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, could trounce him in a runoff if he enters the race.

Tuesday’s demonstrations “may show that he has millions of people who are ready to stand up and be with him even when Brazil’s economy is in a bad situation, inflation near 10%, the pandemic and all that,” said Thomas Traumann, a political analyst.

“If Bolsonaro feels he has the support of millions of Brazilians, he will go further in his challenging of the Supreme Court,” Traumann added.

Bolsonaro’s clash with the Supreme Court has raised fears among his critics, given his frequently expressed nostalgia for the nation’s past military dictatorship.

On the eve of Tuesday’s protest, he signed a provisional measure sharply limiting social media platforms’ ability to remove content, restrict its spread or block accounts.

A 69-year-old farmer from Minas Gerais state, Clever Greco, came to Brasilia with a group of more than 1,000 others. He said Brazil’s conservatives back Bolsonaro’s call for the removal of two Supreme Court justices by peaceful means. But Greco also likened his trip to deploying for war.

“I don’t know what day I’ll go back. I’m prepared to give my blood, if needed,” Greco said. “We’re no longer asking; the people are ordering.”

The U.S. Embassy in Brasilia last week warned Americans to steer clear of the protests.

“The risk we see scenes of violence and an institutional crisis that’s unprecedented in Brazil’s recent history still remains and is considerable,” said Paulo Calmon, a political science professor at the University of Brasilia.