2022 Race

Radicalization of Sep. 7 demos hangs on Bolsonaro’s Rio speech

sep. 7 independence day protests Military parade in Brasília. Photo:: Marcello Casal Jr./ABr
Military parade in Brasília. Photo:: Marcello Casal Jr./ABr

Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro organized public demonstrations across the country today, on the 200th anniversary of Brazil’s independence from Portugal. After speaking to crowds in Brasília this morning, the head of state will travel to Rio de Janeiro to participate in another demonstration, while there is also the possibility of addressing a protest in São Paulo via video link.

Despite pumping huge sums of money into short-term economic measures to gain popular favor, Mr. Bolsonaro is still severely lagging behind frontrunner and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The September 7 demonstrations are seen as his last throw of the dice to prove his nationwide popularity.

The objective of the Bolsonaro campaign is to secure enough support to force the election to a second-round runoff, says José Mauro Nunces, a political marketing specialist at think tank Fundação Getúlio Vargas. With less than a month until the first-round vote, the gap to Lula seems insurmountable — however, forcing a runoff would give him an extra four weeks of campaigning.

“Showing that he has a lot of popular support in the streets can make a good impression. But care is needed. If it gets out of control, he could end up shooting himself in the foot,” says Mr. Nunces.

Compared to last year’s Independence Day rallies, this year’s event is more organized, says Ana Julia Bernardi, a researcher at the Center for Research in Latin America at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul.

She released a report on Tuesday showing that social media posts containing attacks on democracy and criticism of the Supreme Court had more reach than pro-democracy posts. 

These posts also increased as September 7 edged closer, and at times when the president saw himself cornered, such as an exclusive from the end of August showing his family bought a large share of its real estate assets in cash.

The protest narratives operate on four fronts: firstly, to reinforce the president’s image as “Brazil’s leader;” to portray the press and pollsters as liars; to push back against the Supreme Court, and to warn that a victory for Lula would spell the “return of corruption.”

While there is a radical element to today’s demonstrations — with some calls for military intervention — there are some appeals for the protests to remain civil and democratic, fearing that not doing so would harm the president’s election chances.

“There will be two different kinds of people on the streets. Radicalization will depend on the tone that Mr. Bolsonaro sets in the demonstrations,” says Ms. Bernardi.

The president’s allies encourage him to avoid anti-democratic conflict so close to Election Day. However, Mr. Bolsonaro is not known for being able to control his temper.

His speech in Brasília was largely perfunctory, with some veiled digs at the Supreme Court and polling institutes. What he says in Rio de Janeiro, later this afternoon, will define how this movement goes down in the history books.