SAO PAULO (AP) — Thousands of Brazilians flocked to a law school on Thursday to defend the country’s democratic institutions, an event reminiscent of a gathering nearly 45 years ago when citizens in the same place united to oppose a brutal military dictatorship to denounce.
In 1977, crowds flocked to the law faculty at the University of Sao Paulo to hear a reading from A Letter to the Brazilians, a manifesto calling for an immediate return to the rule of law. On Thursday, they heard statements defending democracy and the country’s electoral system, which President Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly attacked ahead of his re-election.
While current manifestos do not specifically name Bolsonaro, they underscore the country’s widespread concern that the far-right leader could follow in the footsteps of former US President Donald Trump and reject election results not in his favor in order to gain power stay.
“We’re facing a coup, so civil society has to stand up and fight it to guarantee democracy,” José Carlos Dias, a former justice minister who helped write the 1977 letter and the two documents read Thursday, told The Associated Press.
In Sao Paulo, drivers stuck in traffic on one of the main roads leading to the law school applauded and honked while marching students chanted pro-democracy slogans. A giant inflatable electronic voting machine at the main entrance to the building bore the slogan “RESPECT THE VOTE”.
Inside, hundreds of guests gathered in the university’s Great Hall to hear speeches, while others stood outside on large flat screens and watched.
The proclamations are contained in two letters. The first went online on July 26 and was signed by nearly 1 million citizens, including ordinary people; popular musicians like Caetano Veloso and Anitta; high profile bankers and executives; and presidential candidates, including former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who leads all polls ahead of October’s elections.
The second letter, published in newspapers last Friday, includes support from hundreds of companies in banking, oil, construction and transportation – sectors traditionally reluctant to take public political positions, said Carlos Melo, a political science professor at the Insper University in Sao Paulo. They appear to have made an exception now, fearing a Democratic backslide would be bad for business, he said.
“Democracy is important for the economy,” he said.
Bolsonaro’s commitment to democracy has come under scrutiny since he took office, in large part because the former army captain has persistently glorified the country’s two-decade dictatorship, which ended in 1985. Earlier this year he met with Hungary’s autocratic leader Viktor Orban and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
The president only spoke about the event late Thursday, saying it was designed to support da Silva’s campaign. He also criticized the Labor Party for supporting left-wing authoritarian regimes in Cuba and Venezuela.
For over a year, in actions that seem straight out of Trump’s playbook, Bolsonaro has been claiming that Brazil’s electronic voting machines are vulnerable to fraud, though like Trump he has never produced any evidence. He once threatened to suspend elections if Congress didn’t pass a bill introducing paper ballots. The bill didn’t add up.
Bolsonaro also began expressing a desire for more military involvement in election oversight. Last week, army officials visited the headquarters of the Elections Authority to inspect the source codes of the voting machines. Bolsonaro has claimed that some of the agency’s top officials are working against him.
At law school on Thursday, Carlos Silveira carried a sign that read, “The military doesn’t count votes.”
“We’re here because doing nothing is more risky,” said Silveira, 43. “Bolsonaro proposed a major anti-democratic act before the election and the military apparently stayed on his side. We want to show them that we are the majority and that our quest for democracy will win.”
As Bolsonaro launched his campaign, he called on his supporters to flood the streets for September 7 Independence Day celebrations. On this day last year, before tens of thousands gathered at his bidding, he declared that only God could remove him from power. On the same day, he declared he would no longer heed the rulings of a Supreme Court judge and threatened to plunge the country into an institutional crisis. He later backed down, saying his comment was made in the heat of the moment.
Bolsonaro’s rhetoric is consistent with his base but increasingly alienates him politically, Melo said.
For the past year, the electoral authority has been actively countering allegations against the electoral system. His top officials, who are also Supreme Court justices, have repeatedly made statements in his defense. They have been working overtime behind the scenes recruiting allies in the legislature and private sector, though many have been reluctant to repeat their public statements.
A turning point came last month after Bolsonaro summoned foreign ambassadors to the president’s residence to lecture them on alleged weaknesses in e-voting. Since then, both congressional leaders and the attorney general, all considered Bolsonaro allies, have expressed confidence in the system’s reliability.
The US also got involved, with its State Department issuing a statement the day after the ambassadors’ meeting, saying Brazil’s electoral system and democratic institutions are a “model for the world.” At a July conference with regional defense ministers in the Brazilian capital, Brasilia, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said military officials should conduct their missions responsibly, especially during elections.
The letters — which at any other time would have been a dry exercise relegated to academia — struck a chord in society. TV stations have aired clips of artists reading the pro-democracy pledge in recent days, and rallies are being called in 22 cities nationwide.
One of the invited speakers at the university’s law school was Arminio Fraga, a prominent wealth manager and former central bank governor during a previous centre-right government.
“I am here today … with such a diverse group who have sometimes fought on opposite sides and are now doing all we can to preserve what is sacred to all of us. This is our democracy,” said Fraga, an outspoken Bolsonaro critic.
For his part, Bolsonaro has downplayed concerns, deriding the manifestos as “little letters” and insisting he respects the constitution. On Thursday, in a public dig at the law school gathering on Twitter, he noted, “A very important act took place today… Petrobras has again reduced the price of diesel.”
He added on Twitter on Thursday evening: “Brazil already has its pro-democracy letter; the Constitution. This is the only writing relevant to safeguarding the democratic rule of law, but it is precisely this that has been attacked by those promoting a parallel text that is legally less valuable than toilet paper.”
Still, concern over Bolsonaro’s fiery rhetoric has spread even among some allies, undermining their efforts to keep the peace between the government and other institutions, two cabinet ministers have told The Associated Press. They spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Bolsonaro’s party has distanced itself from claims that the election could be compromised. The leader of the party visited the president of the electoral tribunal to reassure him of his confidence in the electoral system, Augusto Rosa, the party’s vice president, told the AP.
In any case, Bolsonaro’s election will be an uphill battle. More than half of people polled by pollster Datafolha said they would not vote for him under any circumstances, although support has increased recently amid lower unemployment, lower petrol prices and higher social spending. Analysts said they expected da Silva’s lead to narrow as the election approaches as incumbents tend to benefit from the state machine. A close race would make primaries promises to respect results all the more relevant.
Jeantet reported from Rio de Janeiro and Álvares from Brasilia.