The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Stop the ‘steal’? Brazil’s Bolsonaro looks poised to start it.

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The parallels between Brazil’s demagogic leader Jair Bolsonaro and President Donald Trump were obvious since the former took office. Both emerged from polarized political environments and appealed to angry nationalist bases. In power, the two leaders waged relentless culture wars and anti-liberal grievance campaigns. They pandered to corporate business interests and evangelical Christians. They railed against the international consensus on climate change and stood out as skeptics of the public health risks posed by the coronavirus.

Now, ahead of Brazil’s national elections in October, it appears that Bolsonaro may finish his term in ways similar to Trump. In opinion polls, Bolsonaro trails the leftist former president Lula Inacio da Silva by a wide margin. And so, for months, he has essentially dipped into the Trump playbook, casting doubt on the legitimacy of Brazil’s electoral process and, by extension, its democracy.

Last week, Brazilians were faced with the surreal spectacle of a nearly hour-long telecast of Bolsonaro lecturing dozens of foreign diplomats about the shoddiness of his own country’s voting systems from the capital, Brasilia. Not unlike Trump, he views electronic machines as suspect and vulnerable to rigging, although he has little to no evidence to prove his incendiary claims.

He has repeatedly harped on a 2018 data breach of the country’s election agency by hackers as evidence of lingering vulnerabilities, but electoral authorities have insisted throughout that the voting machines themselves were not compromised. They issued a 20-point fact check debunking some of the falsehoods put forward by Bolsonaro, who was also rebuffed by former legislative allies.

Rodrigo Pacheco, president of Brazil’s Senate, said that the country’s Congress, “whose members were elected with the current and modern electoral system, is obligated to tell the population that the electronic voting machines will give the nation a trustworthy result.”

The abiding impression is that Bolsonaro and his supporters are preempting defeat with their own version of “Stop the Steal” — the slogan invoked by Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in a bid to interrupt the peaceful transfer of power in Washington. In Brazil, the prospect of violent clashes now looms over the upcoming vote, with the president and his allies having laid the kindling with a torrent of conspiratorial fearmongering and ax grinding at perceived foes, from the political left to the country’s top justices.

“Many diplomats at the event were shaken by the presentation, including Bolsonaro’s suggestion that the way to ensure safe elections was through deeper involvement of Brazil’s military, according to two diplomats at the event who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conservations,” noted the New York Times. “Those diplomats worried that Bolsonaro was laying the groundwork for an attempt to dispute the ballot results if he lost.”

Many in Brazil are urging the international community to pay attention to what’s at stake. This week, a delegation of Brazilian civil society leaders, coordinated by the Washington Brazil Office, a human rights organization, is touring the American capital city and pressing U.S. officials to back Brazil’s democratic institutions. On Tuesday, they had meetings at the State Department and called on Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). They will also meet with Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the House panel investigating the Capitol riot.

“Like Trump, Bolsonaro is attempting to undermine democracy in Brazil, the largest country in Latin America,” Sanders told me. “It is important that the Biden administration and the U.S. Congress stand for democracy and support the results of the upcoming election. The enemies of democracy are working together across borders, and supporters of democracy must do the same.”

Bolsonaro and his allies have been full-throated in their continued support for Trump. Last month, Flavio Bolsonaro, one of the president’s sons and a Brazilian senator, defended the former president’s stance and echoed his false claims of electoral irregularities surrounding the 2020 U.S. vote. ″In my view, Trump didn’t send anyone there [to attack the Capitol],” he said. “People saw problems in the U.S. electoral system, were outraged and did what they did.”

He said that his father would never dispatch supporters to conduct a similar raid on the cradle of Brazilian democracy, but he also seemed to wave away responsibility should violence take place. “How can we control it?” he told O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper.

The president is already calling on supporters to take to the streets on Sept. 7, Brazil’s national day. That day last year was occasioned by heated scenes as pro-Bolsonaro crowds in Brasilia attempted to push past police barriers and march on the Supreme Court but were ultimately thwarted and dispersed.

Bolsonaro’s critics want to ensure that he is restrained and held accountable. “All the elements are on the table showing that he will disrespect this fundamental pillar of our electoral system,” Camila Asano, director of programming at Conectas, a Brazilian human rights organization, told me.

“We can see again something similar to what you had in Jan. 6,” Asano added, imploring that “immediate recognition” by the international community of the result of Brazil’s Oct. 2 election after it’s announced by electoral authorities “is crucial to curb any authoritarian attempt” to disrupt the country’s democratic process.

Bolsonaro is “replicating some of the attacks promoted by Trump,” which includes disseminating disinformation about the electoral system, said Asano, who is also a member of the delegation visiting Washington.

The revelations coming from the Jan. 6 hearings show that Trump remains unrepentant. On Tuesday, he delivered his first speech in Washington since leaving office and again claimed falsely that he won in 2020. “What a disgrace it was,” the former U.S. president said before winking at another bid in 2024. “But we may just have to do it again. We have to straighten out our country.”

The focus in Brazil remains on the dangers of the coming months. “We saw what you experienced in the U.S.,” Asano said. “But in Brazil, it can be even worse.”

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