Pro-, anti-Bolsonaro rallies on Brazil national day pose high risk

Supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro will take to the streets Tuesday in hundreds of cities across Brazil for a high-risk national holiday — but opponents of the far-right leader are hoping to frustrate him with massive counter-protests.

The pro- and anti-Bolsonaro demonstrations will make for an unpredictable Brazilian Independence Day. The president, who is fighting record-low poll numbers and seeking to fire up his base, has stated that “gigantic” crowds will turn out to support him.

Critics, however, will also turn out, likely chanting “Fora Bolsonaro!” (“Bolsonaro Out!”) as they march. The counter-protesters are worried about potential threats to democracy posed by Bolsonaro, 66, who has declared all-out political war on justices — including on the Supreme Court — whom he perceives as hostile to his agenda.

Heavy security measures have been implemented in major cities including Brasilia and Sao Paulo, to avoid any clashes, and if everything goes according to plan the two groups of protesters will not cross paths.

– ‘Ultimatum’ –

Bolsonaro, often compared to former US president Donald Trump, plans to attend rallies in both Brasilia and economic capital Sao Paulo on the day that marks 199 years since Brazil declared independence from Portugal.

A brief ceremony has been planned for 9:00 am (1200 GMT) Tuesday morning in Brasilia, when the Brazilian flag will be raised over Alvorada Palace, the presidential residence.

The pro-Bolsonaro march will then 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 to prevent any acts of vandalism inspired by the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.

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

In the afternoon, Bolsonaro has 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.

Pro-Bolsonaro groups on social media have been firing up supporters, who are expected to arrive in hundreds of buses.

The anti-Bolsonaro march will be held at the Vale do Anhangabau in the city center, also around three kilometers from where the president’s supporters will rally.

In a preview of what could happen on Tuesday, Bolsonaro backers who had arrived early in Brasilia tore down a police blockade Monday night.

Police said that hundreds of demonstrators “broke through containment barriers” and entered the Ministries Esplanade, closed to traffic as a security measure.

Videos posted on social media showed one protester shouting they would “invade” the Supreme Court Tuesday.

On Friday, Bolsonaro signaled that the Supreme Court judges should consider Tuesday’s rallies an “ultimatum” — the latest in a long list of ominous warnings aimed at Congress and the courts.

He went even further on Saturday, referring to the possibility of an institutional “rupture.”

The international community expressed its dismay Monday. 

More than 150 intellectuals and political figures from 26 countries — including former Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Zapatero and American philosopher Noam Chomsky — signed an open letter denouncing “the imminent threat to Brazil’s democratic institutions.”

– Protesting police –

In Brazil, security experts are concerned over the presence of armed military police during demonstrations.

According to a survey published Sunday by the daily O Globo, 30 percent of those officers intend to participate in the protests Tuesday, even though regulations prohibit them from taking part in political demonstrations, including on their days off.

Last week, Bolsonaro slammed judges and state governors who are considering punishing officers who will be present to support him during Tuesday’s marches.

“It’s a crime (to ban police demonstrations), worthy of a dictatorship,” he said.

With polls putting him 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.

“He knows that the success of the demonstrations could give him some respite,” said political scientist Geraldo Monteiro of Rio de Janeiro State University.

Bolsonaro, as well as his inner circle, is the subject of a series of investigations ordered by the Supreme Court, notably over allegations of systematically spreading fake news from within the government.

Meanwhile, the Senate’s Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry has for several months been scrutinizing Bolsonaro’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic in a country where more than 580,000 people have died of Covid-19.

The death toll is one of the worst in the world, but Bolsonaro has long downplayed the severity of the pandemic.

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