Clad in Brazil’s national colors of yellow and green, thousands of citizens took to the streets of major cities across the country on May 1 to show support for the covid-denialist stances of President Jair Bolsonaro. The date was symbolic — on a day historically known for marches in support of worker rights, rightist citizens decrying “communism” claimed Brazil’s public spaces.

Many protesters called for a military coup supporting Bolsonaro, a typical rallying cry at right-wing demonstrations. It might sound strange to hear about a military coup to bolster a president in power, but Bolsonaro’s supporters see the military as an extension of the executive branch and a tool to wield in political conflicts. On Twitter, protesters used the slogan “Eu autorizo, Presidente” — in translation, “I authorize you, Mr. President.” In the capital, Brasília, Bolsonaro himself flew overhead in a helicopter to cheer his supporters.

Today, threats to democracy in Latin America do not come primarily from militaries itching to get their hands on the steering wheel of government. After military-led governments transitioned to democracy in the 1980s and 1990s, militaries in Latin America have largely come to accept that they cannot govern.

Instead, events in Brazil, along with the recent dismissal of five Supreme Court justices in El Salvador, reveal that the most serious threats to democracy in the region come from elected presidents who flaunt checks and balances that limit their power. Where do they get their support? Our research in Brazil explains how Latin Americans have empowered presidents with authoritarian ambitions.

The protesters were responding to Bolsonaro’s calls for support

What did Brazilian protesters think they were “authorizing” on May 1? The protesters mostly aimed to support Bolsonaro against other democratic leaders. Brazil’s mayors, governors, members of congress, the Supreme Court and some of Bolsonaro’s own health ministers (he has had four during the pandemic) have had conflicts with the president over his coronavirus vaccine skepticism, opposition to social distancing and embrace of hydroxychloroquine as a “cure.” Although the newest health minister has ramped up efforts to import vaccine doses, Bolsonaro continues to play down the pandemic and fight social distancing.

The slogan “I authorize you, Mr. President” is a response to an April statement from Bolsonaro. Mingling with supporters outside the presidential palace, Bolsonaro said he was waiting for the Brazilian people “to give a signal” before he would “take measures” against governors and mayors who closed businesses to combat the country’s current covid wave. “I just say one thing: I will do what the people want me to do,” he declared.

Bolsonaro didn’t explain what “measures” he might take. Brazil’s Supreme Court has already ruled that mayors and governors have constitutional authority to implement social distancing during the pandemic. In late April, Brazil’s Senate began an investigation of how the Bolsonaro government has handled the pandemic, which has killed more than 423,000 Brazilians.

Bolsonaro’s comments, however, fit within a pattern of threatening military intervention. In August, anonymous sources revealed that Bolsonaro and several Army generals nearly marched over to the Supreme Court to dismiss its occupants during an early pandemic confrontation.

Then in March, Bolsonaro precipitated a national crisis by dismissing the military heads of Brazil’s army, navy and air force. Military leaders loudly protested this as an effort to install loyalists who would take Bolsonaro’s side in an interbranch conflict. Although Bolsonaro defused the crisis by nominating respected career officers, experts worry that he is shoring up military support to hold on to power if the political tide turns against him.

Bolsonaro counts on support from citizens skeptical of democracy

Our research sheds light on how Bolsonaro’s supporters abet his authoritarian tendencies. Using an online survey, we interviewed more than 2,000 Brazilians five times during the 2018 presidential campaign and after Bolsonaro’s inauguration. Our goal was to understand how attitudes about democracy influenced the election results — but also changed during the campaign.

Analyzing our survey results and data from the nationally representative 2019 AmericasBarometer, we find that Bolsonaro attracted voters who were less supportive of democracy and more supportive of authoritarian violations like military coups and dismissal of the Supreme Court.

Following Bolsonaro’s victory and inauguration, his voters warmed up to democracy as an idea, but they were not willing to support foundational democratic institutions unconditionally. Instead, they became even more supportive than before of undemocratic actions like closing the Supreme Court, if that would enhance the new president’s power.

Previous studies argue that citizens whose candidate loses an election pose a threat to democracy when they believe outcomes are unfair. Our results, however, show that supporters of the winning side can be an even greater risk to democracy when an authoritarian candidate runs and wins.

Authoritarian presidents rely on citizen support in the streets

The signals citizens send political leaders matter. AmericasBarometer research shows that many Hondurans supported coups in the lead-up to the military’s ouster of President Manuel Zelaya in 2009. But in Ecuador, public support for coups fell before the 2010 failed police uprising.

Authoritarian regimes often mobilize pro-government rallies to show their strength and deter opposition. Leaders across Latin America have undermined the checks and balances of democracy, buoyed by popular electoral support. On May 1, for example, El Salvador’s newly inaugurated congress, led by authoritarian-leaning President Nayib Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas (“New Ideas”) party, voted to dismiss all five top Supreme Court justices and the attorney general. Bukele took to Twitter to rebut international criticism, arguing, “75% of the Salvadoran public voted in free elections for the change that we are seeing.” This response suggests voters’ anti-democracy preferences shape leaders’ actions.

Events in Brazil and El Salvador show how a democratically elected president with authoritarian ambitions can build popular support for attacks on democracy. Protecting democracy requires a commitment to checks and balances and democratic norms among voters and politicians alike.

Amy Erica Smith (@AmyEricaSmith) is associate professor in political science and a Carnegie Fellow at Iowa State University; she is author of “Religion and Brazilian Democracy: Mobilizing the People of God” (Cambridge University Press, 2019).

Matthew L. Layton is assistant professor in political science at Ohio University.

Mollie J. Cohen (@mollie_cohen) is assistant professor in international affairs at the University of Georgia and author of the book manuscript “None of the Above: Protest Voting in Latin American Democracies.”

Mason W. Moseley (@masonwmoseley) is associate professor in political science at West Virginia University and co-author of “Life in the Political Machine: Dominant-Party Enclaves and the Citizens They Produce” (Oxford University Press, 2020).