This week a group of Brazilian lawmakers will discuss whether to include paper vote receipts alongside electronic ballots in next year’s election — not because the current system has been discredited, but because Jair Bolsonaro has threatened to cancel voting without them.
The rightwing president says the receipts are needed to prevent fraud, without providing evidence of voting irregularities in Brazil. “Either we have clean elections or we don’t have elections,” said Bolsonaro late last week.
The threat, which echoes those made by Donald Trump during the US election cycle last year, has raised fears about the former army captain’s authoritarian tendencies and the risk that he or his more extreme supporters may intervene in the presidential elections next year if the vote does not go his way.
“Bolsonaro is raising the tone on all fronts. The printed vote discussion is just a tool to justify an action à la Trump,” said Afonso Florence, a lawmaker with the Workers’ party, pointing to the actions of militias in the US Capitol in January. “We have no doubt that something similar could happen next year.”
Bolsonaro has also suggested the dispute may derail next year’s polls: “We run the risk of not having an election next year. The future is at stake.”
He has blamed alleged fraud at Brazil’s electoral court, which is responsible for managing the polls. The court has strenuously denied that voting has ever been compromised.
For many, Bolsonaro’s threats are a reaction to his increasingly perilous political position. The polarising Brazilian president faces a fresh impeachment request filed by both left and rightwing lawmakers. And for the first time since he became president in 2019, 54 per cent of Brazilian voters now support removing him from office, according to the polling group Datafolha.
Leading conservative news outlets have also begun to turn against him. An editorial in the newspaper O Estado de São Paulo on Sunday said: “Bolsonaro is no longer in a position to remain in the presidency.”
Beyond his inflammatory and authoritarian rhetoric, Bolsonaro’s administration has been widely criticised over its haphazard handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. A series of recent corruption allegations regarding vaccine procurement has thrown into doubt the president’s claim of running a clean government.
The Brazilian leader has also been threatened by the return to the political fray of leftwing former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who has emerged as a potent opponent after his corruption convictions were quashed in March.
A study by the polling group Ipec late last month suggested Lula, the founder of the Workers’ party, would defeat Bolsonaro in the first round of the country’s two-round election system.
A poll by Datafolha last week showed that in a second-round runoff, Lula would take 58 per cent of the vote, compared with Bolsonaro’s 31 per cent. Analysts are quick to caution, however, that the election is not until October next year and much could change before then.
The questions over election integrity are not the first swipes Bolsonaro has taken against Brazil’s democratic institutions. Last year the former paratrooper, who regularly reminisces fondly about the military dictatorship era, joined supporters who called for the Supreme Court and Congress to be shut down.
“What we want to hear from the president is not about printed votes. We want to hear what his measures are to speed up vaccinations and reduce unemployment and hunger,” said Marcelo Ramos, a lawmaker and vice-speaker of the lower house of parliament.
“But he doesn’t have answers to the questions of unemployment, hunger and the bad business environment, so he tries to distort [the narrative].”
Rodrigo Pacheco, the president of the Senate and an ally of Bolsonaro, also made his feelings clear: “Anyone who intends to push back against the democratic rule of law can be certain that he will be singled out by the Brazilian people and by history as the enemy of the nation.”
The fraying relations with Congress are dangerous for Bolsonaro. Congress controls the impeachment process and parties across the political spectrum are now pushing for his ouster.
The push gathered steam last week after the Supreme Court authorised a criminal investigation into whether Bolsonaro had been derelict in his public duty for not reporting to police allegations of potential corruption in procuring 20m Covid vaccines produced by India’s Bharat Biotech.
Arthur Lira, the Speaker of the lower house who controls impeachment proceedings, has so far refused to countenance the move. However, this could change quickly if the president’s popularity with the public and relations with Congress continue to deteriorate.
“Legally he can’t stop elections as they are constitutionally provided for, including their dates,” said Thiago Vidal, a political analyst at the consultancy Prospectiva. “But the threats he makes are related to illegal attempts — a coup d’état in the traditional sense, hindering the conduct of the electoral process on election day or not recognising the result and refusing to leave office.
“The issue of the printed vote is just one more facet of the president’s undemocratic and dangerous speech. The chance of undemocratic actions is real, because Bolsonaro is promoting it and he is surrounding himself with the type of supporters who will back it.”
Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice