Bolsonaro goes all-in on Brazil national day rallies

Fighting record-low poll numbers, a weakening economy and a judiciary he says is stacked against him, President Jair Bolsonaro has called huge rallies for Brazilian independence day Tuesday, seeking to fire up his far-right base.

With polls putting Bolsonaro on track to lose badly to leftist ex-leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in next year’s presidential elections, Bolsonaro is hoping to use the rally to energize his supporters.

And September 7 is shaping up to be a turbulent day, with pro- and anti-Bolsonaro demonstrations scheduled in some of the country’s biggest cities.

“The time has come to declare our independence for good, to say we will not allow some people in Brasilia to impose their will on us,” Bolsonaro told supporters last week in a speech. “The will that matters is yours,” 

“Some people in Brasilia” was widely read as a reference to the Supreme Court, which has ordered a series of investigations into Bolsonaro and his inner circle, notably over allegations of systematically spreading fake news from within the government.

Bolsonaro has responded by declaring all-out political war on justices he perceives as hostile. He has signaled that the judges should consider Tuesday’s rallies an “ultimatum” — the latest in a long list of ominous warnings aimed at Congress and the courts.

– ‘All or nothing’ –

Bolsonaro plans to attend rallies in both Brasilia and economic capital Sao Paulo that day, which marks 199 years since Brazil declared independence from Portugal.

The 66-year-old ex-army captain, who is often compared to former US president Donald Trump, vowed to draw a crowd of more than two million to Sao Paulo’s Avenida Paulista.

That would be far bigger than his recent rallies, which have had turnout in the tens of thousands.

Bolsonaro is playing “all or nothing” in his fight with Congress, the courts and the electoral system, said political scientist Geraldo Monteiro of Rio de Janeiro State University. Bolsonaro has alleged that there is a risk of massive fraud in next year’s elections.

“Each side is looking to show what it’s got in its arsenal. The Bolsonaro camp is putting everything they’ve got into these rallies,” he told AFP.

“The question is whether they’ll get a significant number of people in the street. I think it will be a watershed moment. If the rallies are big, it will in some ways tip the scale in the president’s favor. If they’re not, the crisis will continue, but ‘Bolsonarismo’ might go into a downward spiral.”

– ‘Calculated risk’ –

Supreme Court Chief Justice Luiz Fux voiced concern Thursday over the tone, in which the rallies are being organized.

“In a democracy, demonstrations are peaceful, and freedom of speech should not be synonymous with threats or violence,” he said.

Hard-core Bolsonaro supporters at such rallies often include off-duty police and gun-toting fans of his tough talk, meaning there is a “real risk of violence,” said political consultant Andre Rosa.

“Bolsonaro supporters are very reactionary, they’re going to want to go to war,” he told AFP.

“The president can’t control it if there’s violence. He’s taking a calculated risk.”

Security officials are trying to ensure the rival camps stay apart.

The pro-Bolsonaro march in Brasilia will be held on the Esplanade of Ministries, the avenue leading to the square flanked by the presidential palace, Congress and the Supreme Court.

The square itself will be closed.

The anti-Bolsonaro march in Brasilia will depart from the capital’s iconic TV tower, around three kilometers (less than two miles) away.

In Sao Paulo, the anti-Bolsonaro march will be held in the city center, around five kilometers (three miles) from where the president’s supporters will rally.

It is a risky strategy for Bolsonaro at a time when polls put his approval rating at an all-time low of around 23 percent and soaring unemployment and inflation have hampered the pandemic recovery of Latin America’s biggest economy.

The president also risks alienating key allies, such as speaker of Congress Arthur Lira, who has so far shielded Bolsonaro from scores of impeachment attempts.

“If turmoil erupts, the president knows he’ll be the only one who loses,” Lira said.

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