Election banners in the Brazilian capital of Brasília.

Election banners in the Brazilian capital of Brasília.

Foto: Nick Hannes / Panos Pictures

Bolsonaro Seeks Re-Election A Vote for the Future of Brazil

With the election in Brazil approaching, public opinion polls indicate that incumbent Jair Bolsonaro could lose. But if he does, will he go quietly? Many in the country fear a replay of the violence seen in the United States when Donald Trump lost.

On a recent August morning, two months before the election, the past catches up to the former judge Flávio Bierrenbach. Forty-five years ago, Bierrenbach was here in this courtyard of the law school at the University of São Paulo. He was standing next to the elevator guarding the only escape route as his comrade-in-arms Goffredo Telles read out a letter to the nation in which he demanded that Brazil’s military rulers turn away from dictatorship.

DER SPIEGEL 37/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 37/2022 (September 10th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

Telles’ words, published in newspapers across the country, would go down in Brazilian history. They marked the beginning of the country’s democracy and are a link to the present day – to a moment when the country’s political achievements suddenly appear to be in danger.

Which is why Bierrenbach has now taken the stage himself at this historic site, a frail, 82-year-old who insists that the red color of the tie he is wearing beneath his gray suit is not a political statement. Bierrenbach fiddles briefly with the sheet of paper on the podium in front of him, before finding his voice and reading out a new letter to the nation, one which had been signed by hundreds of thousands of Brazilians on the internet in the preceding days.

"We are experiencing a moment of great danger," Bierrenbach intones, his words echoing through the courtyard. "Attacks, both unfounded and unproven, haven't just cast doubt on the integrity of our voting system, but also the democracy we fought so hard for." Bierrenbach looks up briefly.

Almost a thousand people have crammed in among the arcades on this morning of overlapping epochs, including professors from the institute, their students, former ministers, lawyers, bankers, artists, representatives of the industrial association in business suits and union members wearing red baseball caps.

Fundamental principles are at stake, as is the question as to what kind of country Brazilians want to live in.

They are united by a shared fury over a president who has spent most of the last four years trampling all over the Brazilian state. A man who has nothing but disdain for the country’s democratic institutions and whose "authoritarian zeal" reminds Bierrenbach and many others of the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., in 2021. Like all the others who read out parts of the letter, Bierrenbach doesn’t mention Jair Bolsonaro by name, but that is, of course, who he means when he says that there is no room in today’s Brazil for coup fantasies. "Dictatorship and torture are in the past," he says.

Such is the situation in the final weeks leading up to the first round of voting in the presidential election on Oct. 2. As a concerned civil society raises the alarm, Bolsonaro merely gripes about their "little letter" – yet another gesture helping to explain why many see the approaching vote as the most important election in the country since the end of the military dictatorship. Fundamental principles are at stake, as is the question as to what kind of country Brazilians want to live in.

Everything currently seems to indicate that the election is nothing short of a stress test that will determine just how resilient Latin America’s largest democracy still is after four years under the leadership of Jair Bolsonaro.

If the surveys are to be believed, then the race is boiling down to a duel between the incumbent and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former president who, after several difficult years overshadowed by corruption allegations, has once again thrown his hat into the ring at the age of 76. Pretty much all relevant survey institutes currently have Lula in the lead, with some even indicating that he may win outright in the first round of voting. But that isn’t the primary focus of attention for many Brazilians.

Instead, they are wondering how Bolsonaro might react if he does end up losing. Whether he would concede a loss at the polls or opt to plunge the country into chaos. They are wondering if the situation in Brasília might end up being worse than what happened in Washington, as Bolsonaro has hinted.

Similar to his idol Donald Trump, Bolsonaro has spent several months doing all he can to erode trust in Brazil’s voting system. His primary focus has been on the voting machines that replaced fraud-prone paper ballots in the mid-1990s. Although the machines aren’t connected to the internet, Bolsonaro insists that they are vulnerable to hackers. He has no proof, of course, but many have nonetheless come to believe the nonsense he is peddling.

During a recent appearance on the Brazilian broadcaster Globo, Bolsonaro told millions of viewers that he would honor the results of the vote – before then qualifying his pledge by saying it depended on whether the election was fair. He didn’t say, however, who would make that determination.

The doubts sown about the voting machines have been joined by a slew of curious surveys currently circulating on the president’s social media channels predicting a landslide victory for Bolsonaro. Should his supporters be caught off guard by a different result, there would likely be only one logical explanation they would accept: election fraud.

And what would happen then?

Nobody knows how security personnel would react if radicalized Brazilian voters were to actually storm the National Congress or the Superior Election Court. The police officers who protect these institutions tend to be Bolsonaro supporters and it is unclear whose side they would take if the president were to claim the election was stolen from him. The military is also a question mark, with Bolsonaro having appointed so many generals to key positions in the state apparatus that political scientist André Singer already refers to the administration as a "military government."

Because military commanders have remained silent on the issue, Brazil has been gripped by an atmosphere of tense uncertainty. And yet, all of the scenarios that analysts are discussing daily in the Brazilian press pay little attention to the country’s rather gloomy present. Some 33 million Brazilians are now facing food insecurity, in part because food prices are climbing by the week. Furthermore, millions of jobs have been lost in the country as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and the clearcutting of the Brazilian rainforest continues to accelerate because the Bolsonaro regime has systematically slashed the budgets of environmental monitoring agencies. In the Education Ministry, reactionary evangelicals are in charge of establishing the public-school curriculum. And universities, fine arts schools and theaters – places that are home to critical thinking – are being starved of funding, with Bolsonaro lambasting them for being hotbeds of communism.

On top of that is a developing hatred that has left deep fissures through the middle of many Brazilian families, one that makes enemies out of political rivals and has increasingly led to deadly violence – in part because Bolsonaro has issued discreet decrees making it easier for citizens to acquire firearms. The fear that something could happen at any moment has become so great that even Lula, who loves working the crowds, is primarily campaigning in closed arenas with audience members undergoing careful screening before being allowed to enter.

Homeless men in Brasília: New statistics show that 33 million Brazilians are facing food insecurity.

Homeless men in Brasília: New statistics show that 33 million Brazilians are facing food insecurity.

Foto: Nick Hannes / Panos Pictures

"Somebody is needed who can pacify the country," former Brazilian President Michel Temer says in comments to DER SPIEGEL. Someone who can build bridges to bring the two camps closer together, reduce the intensity of the debate and steer the countries into calmer waters after four years of crisis.

The question is whether Lula could be that person.

The people who have found their way into the stands of a sports arena in Rio de Janeiro on this Sunday in late July would likely answer that question in the negative. Thousands have arrived this morning to see Bolsonaro’s first large appearance of his reelection campaign. Many are wearing yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the words "God. Fatherland. Family. Freedom." Some are holding up Trump signs. As bearded men in combat boots and camouflage pants make their way to the coffee booth, Bolsonaro’s party hacks strut across the stage like gladiators.

Former Science Minister Marcos Pontes is here, a former astronaut who, out of consideration for the flat-Earth adherents in Bolsonaro’s orbit, regularly dodges the question as to whether the Earth might, in fact, be round. Or parliamentarian Daniel Silveira, who was sentenced to several years in prison this spring for having called on several occasions for attacks to be committed against members of Brazil’s highest court. Silveira is here today because Bolsonaro pardoned him by presidential decree.

Those who believe in God, screams an MC on stage, should raise their hand. The audience screams in approval and hands shoot up into the air. "A round of applause for Jesus!"

A country duo then plays a song praising Bolsonaro as a God-fearing leader of the Brazilian people. The crowd sings along, warming up for the appearance of a man who embodied their fury four years ago with the corrupt political establishment. Even though Bolsonaro spent decades in parliament before his first run for the presidency, many saw him as a clean, politically incorrect outsider who wasn’t afraid to agitate on the right even as most conservatives in the country held their tongues.

Because of country’s experience with dictatorship, taking right-wing positions in public used to be considered taboo, and those who did voice such positions did so in the anonymity of the internet. But then came the years of tortuous recession that Brazil experienced under Lula’s successor Dilma Rousseff, along with the corruption scandal surrounding the state-owned petroleum company Petrobras, mass demonstrations and, ultimately, Rouseff’s impeachment. Over time, anger at the country’s political leadership coalesced into a movement that united forces behind Bolsonaro – and it is members of that movement who are gathered here this morning to see their hero. "Mito," they call him, meaning "legend."

When Bolsonaro appears on the stage a short time later wearing a shapeless, white shirt, he recalls the times when he used to speak to an empty plenary hall as an unknown backbencher. With his slight lisp, which many younger politicians in the country have begun imitating because it is thought to convey authenticity, he tells the story of a conversation he had several years ago while on the stump in a rural backwater. Bolsonaro says he was unable to sleep one night, so he began chatting with the man at the reception desk, who asked him why he was in town. Bolsonaro told the receptionist that he was campaigning to become president.

"We burst out laughing," says Bolsonaro. "And then I asked him: What do you think is more likely? Me becoming president or you buying this hotel? And he said: I’m buying this hotel." It was, a dream come true, Bolsonaro calls out to his laughing audience, who can identify with such underdog stories. The question, though, remains whether it will be enough for him to be voted in for a second term.

Bolsonaro is fully aware that, having been in office for four years already, he must do more than just tell stories – so he discusses a couple of large infrastructure projects and mentions the country’s murder rate, which has dropped slightly because, as Bolsonaro would have it, potential criminals are afraid now that more guns are in circulation. Most of all, though, he focuses on a multibillion welfare package that he has just recently pushed through Congress.

Some 20 million needy families will be receiving the equivalent of 100 euros each month until the end of the year, with vouchers also being made available for bottles of cooking gas. To counter potential allegations that he is merely throwing money at poor voters to boost his poll numbers ahead of the election, he then announces that he plans to continue the programs if he is reelected. Aside from that, he doesn’t seem to have many fresh ideas.

It has been difficult, Bolsonaro tells his audience. During his time in office, there has been a pandemic, a drought and, most recently, a war in Ukraine. On top of that, he complains, he has been repeatedly thwarted by a high court that has thrown out many of his decrees. In Bolsonaro’s narrative, he is the victim of a witch hunt. Last year, after the investigating magistrates had a blogger arrested for flooding the internet with right-wing propaganda, Bolsonaro attacked them on Independence Day as "vermin" whose verdicts he would ignore in the future. Now, at this August campaign appearance, he talks himself into a rage and calls out that "these deaf people in their black robes" should hear one last time the voice of his people, who will not tolerate election fraud.

Suddenly, the rhythmic sound of marching soldiers can be heard over the loudspeakers. Bolsonaro’s voice grows sharper as he calls on "my army" to demonstrate one last time in September on the 200th anniversary of Brazil’s independence. "Never will a communist sit in my seat," he yells before prompting the audience to repeat after him: "I swear that I will give my life for freedom."

Prior to Bolsonaro, his wife Michelle spoke for 10 minutes. In her high-necked, shiny-green dress, she looked like a character out of the American series "The Handmaid's Tale." The Brazilian first lady told the crowd that after her husband finishes work every Tuesday, she sits at his desk and prays. God, she said, made a promise to Jair Messias Bolsonaro. He has a destiny for Brazil, she said, and it will be fulfilled.

Jair Bolsonaro with his wife Michelle

Jair Bolsonaro with his wife Michelle

Foto: Mauro Pimentel / AFP

"Only God will get me out of here," is how Bolsonaro himself has frequently formulated it, meaning his office. That's how he speaks on the "Marches for Jesus," in which he has regularly participated of late, and in the evangelical churches that he and his wife frequently visit in order to appeal to Brazil’s growing number of evangelical voters. He has also sought to elevate his mandate to a holy mission, an effort that raises a number of questions in a country whose constitution mandates a strict separation of church and state.

"But that’s how it is," says Damares Alves, who was in charge of the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights until a short time ago and is now campaigning for a seat in the Senate. "If God doesn’t want him to remain in office, then he won’t be reelected. We are Christians and that is what we believe."

Nobody embodies the religious zeal of this government to a greater extent than this 58-year-old, black-clad pastor, who suddenly became famous in early 2019 when she insisted in an internet video that the new era in the country would see boys wearing blue and girls pink.

In essence, Alves says, the separation of church and state is "hypocrisy." "I'm also not able to keep Jesus outside when I walk into my office. He lives inside of me. Why are only labor unions allowed to talk about politics?"

Such is the narrative that Alves is seeking to disseminate: that the government she was part of gave a face to the invisible. That her ministry reduced child mortality by investing in youth aid programs that no longer existed in many places. "Management is the recipe," she says, "not corruption."

What Alves doesn't say is that corruption is only uncovered when there is an interest in looking for it. And there have been plenty of instances of late when such a search could have borne fruit – relating to vaccine purchases, for example, or allegations focused on the Education Ministry. Bolsonaro's eldest son Flávio bought himself a new villa that seems far too expensive for his salary as a Senator.

"There is no proof," says Alves. Her "thermometer of support" is the street, she says, and given the affection she claims to encounter, it is impossible for her to trust the public opinion polls. And that is precisely the reason why Bolsonaro is demanding a transparent counting of the votes, she says. He wants to prevent the left from voicing doubts if Bolsonaro should win in the first round of voting.

Computer scientist Rafael Azevedo, who heads up the technology department at the Election Court in Brasília, has a different story to tell. In the election year of 2018, Azevedo says, Bolsonaro visited the court to learn more about the security of the voting machines. As the computer scientist showed him how the system worked using one of the machines, Bolsonaro asked a few questions. At the end of his presentation, Azevedo wanted to know if Bolsonaro still had his doubts. Bolsonaro shook his head, before then saying that the voters now had to be convinced.

COVID vaccinations being carried out in Brasília. Bolsonaro told his country that the coronavirus only caused a "light flu."

COVID vaccinations being carried out in Brasília. Bolsonaro told his country that the coronavirus only caused a "light flu."

Foto: Nick Hannes / Panos Pictures

His actions, says political scientist André Singer, have become completely divorced from reality. Just like Donald Trump and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, says Singer, Bolsonaro has created his own reality in which he masquerades as a warrior against a system that stands opposed to him and his followers. "The fact that nobody can say for sure what this system really is," says Singer, "plays no role in their delirium. That is what they want."

Singer, 64, is sitting at his small desk in the heart of São Paolo, the walls full of books swallowing up the noises of the city. Bolsonaro's primary goal, he says, is the destruction of the system. It's the only thing he knows, says Singer: attack, conflict and chaos, where he can constantly pose as the savior.

In the pandemic, Bolsonaro referred to the coronavirus as a "light flu," and he referred to people who wore masks as "fags." He made sure that people continued going to work to keep the economy running and praised the malaria medicine chloroquine as a cure for COVID-19. Later, he hesitated in purchasing the new mRNA vaccines, justifying his failure in his weekly YouTube addresses by saying that he didn't want to turn into an alligator. On another occasion, he said that the vaccines increased the risk of contracting AIDS.

Whereas Bolsonaro decreed that his own vaccine passport be kept secret for 100 years, almost 700,000 people in Brazil died from the coronavirus. "And what of it?" he said in April 2020 when a reporter asked him about the number of deaths, which were unusually high even then.

He seems completely unaffected by the suffering of others. There have been a number of moments that the Brazilians have voiced their disapproval by banging pots at their windows, but each time, the protests subsided and nothing happened.

A Divided Country

For several weeks, DER SPIEGEL reporters Marian Blasberg and Jens Glüsing followed Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his challenger Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on the campaign trail. They spoke with a former cabinet member of Bolsonaro’s along with several of his confidants, they interviewed historians and analysts and they accompanied Lula on a trip to the town where he was born in northern Brazil. Along the way, they saw firsthand just how deep is the fissure running through Brazilian society.

Bolsonaro has been able to cement his hold on power by installing loyalists in sensitive positions in the state apparatus. Two men in particular are to thank for the fact that Bolsonaro is even in a position to run for reelection. One is Prosecutor General Augusto Aras, who has been careful to suppress uncomfortable investigations. And the other is Arthur Lira, who, as president of the Chamber of Deputies, has blocked impeachment proceedings.

Indeed, Lira has thwarted fully 130 impeachment petitions. He has pursued none of them. But it is a favor that has come at a price to Bolsonaro.

Along with around 300 other members of Brazilian parliament, Lira belongs to a group known as Centrão, parties that pursue no political ideology, and without whose support, it is impossible to govern in Brasília. Politicians like Lira are there to create majorities, and they charge a hefty price for the favor. Bolsonaro had originally pledged to get rid of this political cattle market, but instead, he has used it to his advantage.

What that meant could be seen once politicians loyal to the regime suddenly had access to the budgets of various ministries and could finance projects in their electoral districts. And it is Lira who makes the decision as to which politician receives how many millions for what purpose. In recent weeks, long lines have developed out in front of his office.

Critics refer to the practice as the largest corruption machine of all time. And many Brazilians no longer believe that Bolsonaro is serious about taking on the bribery and malfeasance. They are also furious that he refused to listen to scientists during the pandemic.

The question now is how they will channel their anger. Will they throw their support behind a man who Bolsonaro describes in his speeches as an ex-con? Or is that a bridge too far?

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva spent 19 months behind bars. Corruption investigators accused him of having accepted gifts from various construction companies during his presidency, including a three-story condo in a beachfront town near São Paulo. Lula was not allowed to run in the 2018 campaign, even as he was leading in the polls from his jail cell – and by the time he was released in November 2019, Bolsonaro had long since taken over the presidency. The judge who convicted Lula was later declared to have been biased after leaked audio files demonstrated that he had conspired with the investigators. All investigations and indictments against the former president were suspended as a result.

Lula hesitated for quite some time in deciding whether he wanted to go through the strain of a campaign one more time. But as he stands on a stage in Brazil’s poor northeast for a morning appearance in August, his age isn’t noticeable. His voice is rougher than it used to be, but he is just as alert and quick-witted as he was 12 years ago, when he left office with approval ratings that no other president had ever achieved.

It is no accident that Lula is launching his campaign here in Garanhuns. In the hours prior to his appearance, he led a group of companions to the place where he was born. Members of his family have carefully restored the clay shack, situated between grazing pastures and fields of manioc – complete with the wood-burning stove in the kitchen and the outhouse in the courtyard.

Lula was a metallurgist and a union leader. In the final years of the dictatorship, he participated in the founding of the Workers' Party. When the Brazilians elected him in 2002 to become the first president from the working classes, it marked the beginning of a golden era for the country. Fueled by the global hunt for raw materials, Brazil’s economy experienced a boom – and it is this era that Lula now focuses on in his campaign speeches. On stage in Garanhuns, he recounts that cleaning ladies were suddenly able to earn enough money to afford an airplane ticket. And that young blacks from the simplest of circumstances were able to study at university.

Will he be able to trigger another boom and correct the accident of history, which is how Lula views the years under Bolsonaro? If he is given another chance, he won’t just have to deal with largely empty state coffers and a post-pandemic world struggling with a new war, but also with millions of people who will believe that he stole the election. Indeed, it isn’t likely that Bolsonaro will simply give up. And his followers aren’t going to just disappear either.

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