Latin America

Brazilians fear Bolsonaro is preparing for military coup

independent.ie– In a television interview two decades ago, the fringe congressman didn’t hesitate to say it: If he were president, he would shut down the Brazilian congress and stage a military takeover.

There’s not even the littlest doubt,” Jair Bolsonaro said. “I’d stage a coup the same day [I became president], the same day. Congress doesn’t work. I’m sure at least 90pc of people would party and clap.”

Now the congressman is president of Brazil, and fears are mounting here that he could be considering how to make good on that plan. Mr Bolsonaro, a former army captain who has frequently lamented the collapse of Brazil’s military dictatorship, has in recent days wondered not only whether he will participate in next year’s elections, but also whether there will even be elections.

“Next year’s elections have to be clean,” he declared this month. “Either we’ll have clean elections, or we won’t have elections.”

Some of the most powerful political voices in the country, including that of former president Michel Temer, are expressing concern that Mr Bolsonaro could try to leverage unsubstantiated claims of electoral fraud to derail or overturn a vote he has lost.

“The situation is extremely worrying in Brazil,” said Marcos Nobre, a prominent political scientist at the State University of Campinas. “It’s very, very grave what is happening here.”

Mr Bolsonaro’s increasingly brazen comments escalate a months-long, Trump-style campaign to erode faith in the electoral system and transform its processes into a high-stakes political struggle.

Now, as Latin America’s biggest democracy girds itself for what is expected to be a tumultuous election, it confronts a paradox that will be familiar to Americans: The man leading the assault on its electoral process is the very person most recently awarded its highest office.

For years, Mr Bolsonaro has lodged unsubstantiated allegations of electoral fraud. Before the 2018 presidential election, he said the only way he would lose would be by fraud. He then claimed he had won by much more than the official tally showed. Last year, he parroted President Donald Trump’s allegations on the US election: “There was a lot of fraud there.”

But in recent months he has increasingly latched on to Brazil’s electronic voting machines, alleging without evidence that the system is pervaded by fraud. He says the country should switch to physical ballots and has repeatedly pushed the congress to make that change.

This week, he cast Brazil’s electoral process as part of a broader conspiracy by unnamed forces to return leftist politician Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to the presidency. Mr Lula, who was jailed on corruption charges and later released, is now leading Mr Bolsonaro in presidential polls.

In a statement, Mr Bolsonaro’s presidential office defended Mr Bolsonaro as an “active and tireless defender of democracy and the Brazilian constitution”. The officials said Mr Bolsonaro wants a verifiable process in which every vote is honoured.

Few think Mr Bolsonaro would have any real chance of undoing an election. His approval ratings have fallen to record lows. The coronavirus has killed more than 545,000 Brazilians, and congressional investigators are probing his government’s hands-off response to the pandemic. He is also being investigated on allegations he failed to report suspicions of government corruption in the purchase of an Indian vaccine.

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