Conflict Alerts # 437, 15 September 2021
In the news
On 12 September, hundreds marched in various Brazilian cities, including Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, to protest against President Bolsonaro. Organized by the Free Brazil Movement (MBL) and other conservative groups, protestors demanded the impeachment of Bolsonaro over his regime's disastrous response to the pandemic and attempts to subvert the country's democratic institutions.
Issues at large
First, Bolsonaro's unpopular policies and decisions. Even since assuming office in January 2019, President Bolsonaro has been embroiled in one controversy. This includes targeting indigenous peoples, deforestation and wildfires in the Amazon rainforest, disastrous handling of COVID-19 pandemic, which killed lakhs, efforts at undermining the country's democratic institutions and processes, and the faltering economy. The brewing discontent against him has been reflecting in his approval ratings, which have consistently fallen over the last few months.
Second, the polarisation in society. Aware of the rising sentiment against him, Bolsonaro led massive rallies on Brazil's Independence Day on 7 September in an attempt to drum up support among his right-wing constituency. On the same day, anti-Bolsonaro protests were also organized across the country. Elaborate security arrangements had to be placed to ensure both camps do not cross paths only reflect society's level of polarisation.
Third, Bolsonaro's tiff with the democratic institutions — judiciary, Parliament, and the electoral machinery. While Bolsonaro has shared an uneasy relationship with the judiciary since he assumed office, his attacks on the judiciary have become more intense this year. He has called on the Senate to impeach Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes, who has opened multiple investigations against him. He is also unhappy with the judiciary for exonerating former President Lula da Silva, making the latter eligible for the 2022 polls. This unhappiness was publicly displayed on 7 September when Bolsonaro and his supporters made attempts to intimidate the judiciary. Bolsonaro has also targeted the Superior Electoral Court (TSE), which is responsible for overseeing the upcoming Presidential elections in 2022, as well as the Congress. His call for a return to paper ballots from the currently used electronic voting system has been rejected by Brazil's Congress, while the TSE has launched a probe over Bolsonaro's allegations of election fraud.
Fourth, the upcoming 2022 elections. Speaking to his supporters on 7 September in reference to the 2022 polls, Bolsonaro asserted: "Only God can remove me. I'm only coming out of this jailed, dead or victorious." While his approval ratings have fallen, his main contender, former President Lula da Silva from the leftist Worker's Party (PT), has topped pre-election survey polls. The 12 September protests have complicated this two-way contest by advocating a third way embodied in the slogan: "Neither Bolsonaro nor Lula".
First, while the recent protests by conservative groups and their position on a third way bereft of Bolsonaro or Lula da Silva have added a new dimension to the 2022 elections, it is likely that the presidential race will largely remain a two-way contest. The 7 September protests drew a less than expected crowd due to the absence of Lula's PT is an early sign. Whether or not MBL will join forces with PT in the run-up to the 2022 elections is to be seen.
Second, Bolsonaro appears to have learnt a lesson or two from former US President Donald Trump, who lost the 2020 elections to Joe Biden. While Trump had intensified his 'elections were stolen' campaign only after his loss became evident, Bolsonaro has started preparing almost a year before elections take place in Brazil. It is likely that he may impede a peaceful transfer of power if he loses.
Third, Brazil has entered into a very tumultuous period with stark domestic polarization, intensifying rivalry between the executive and other institutions of democracy, devastating pandemic, faltering economy, environmental destruction and wildfires in the Amazon. The domestic situation is only going to get worse as the 2022 elections get closer.