Tens of thousands of supporters of embattled right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro heeded his call and turned out at rallies Tuesday as he stepped up his attacks on Brazil’s Supreme Court and threatened to plunge the country into a constitutional crisis.
Bolsonaro has been locked in a feud with the high court, in particular a justice who has jailed several of the president’s supporters for allegedly financing, organizing or inciting violence or anti-democratic acts, or disseminating false information.
In calling on his followers to take to the streets on Brazil’s Independence Day in protest, Bolsonaro stirred fears among his foes that the demonstrations could erupt in violence akin to the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump. But by late afternoon, there were no reports of any serious violence.
Bolsonaro got a rousing reception from demonstrators in the capital, Brasilia, and in Sao Paulo, as he lit into the Supreme Court and Justice Alexandre de Moraes for making what he characterized as political arrests.
He declared he will no longer abide by rulings from de Moraes, who will assume the presidency of the nation’s electoral tribunal next year, when Bolsonaro will seek reelection.
“Any decision from Mr. Alexandre de Moraes, this president will no longer comply with. The patience of our people has run out,” Bolsonaro said. “For us, he no longer exists.”
He also told the cheering crowd in Sao Paulo: “I want to tell those who want to make me unelectable in Brazil: Only God removes me from there.”
“There are three options for me: be jailed, killed or victorious. I’m letting the scoundrels know: I’ll never be imprisoned!” he declared.
Thomas Traumann, a political analyst, said Bolsonaro “crossed the Rubicon” on Tuesday.
“He escalated the crisis. You can’t have a president who says, ‘I won’t accept rule of law,’ or says, ‘I will only accept the laws I like.’ That’s not a democracy,” Traumann said.
Bolsonaro spent almost two months calling on supporters to take part in Independence Day rallies around the country that could show his continuing political appeal despite slumping poll ratings and a string of setbacks.
Bolsonaro had predicted 2 million people would turn out in Sao Paulo; state security officials estimated the crowd at 125,000, crammed into the city’s broad Avenue Paulista. Supporters also massed outside Brasilia’s government buildings and gathered alongside Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beach. All three cities also featured smaller protests against the president.
Some of his supporters carried signs and banners calling on the military to secure Bolsonaro’s hold on power or demanding Congress and the Supreme Court be shut down.
Bolsonaro has called on the Senate to impeach de Moraes and said he might reject the 2022 presidential election results if he loses. He has also spoken nostalgically of the nation’s past military dictatorship.
On the eve of Tuesday’s protests, he signed a provisional measure sharply limiting social media networks’ ability to remove or block content.
Brazil’s Supreme Court said Chief Justice Luiz Fux planned to address Bolsonaro’s comments at the beginning of Wednesday’s session.
Former justice Celso de Mello, widely regarded as still very influential in the court, told the magazine Veja that Bolsonaro’s statements show “a sad figure” and a “mediocre politician” with a “distorted autocratic mindset.”
In Brasilia, at least 100 military police with riot shields stood in front of Congress, and several dozen formed two lines behind barricades on the road leading to the Supreme Court. About 10,000 officers were scattered around the area for the demonstrations, security officials said.
At least three times — once soon after Bolsonaro’s second speech of the day — groups of demonstrators in Brasilia tried to get past police barriers, but officers repelled them with pepper spray.
“The risk we see scenes of violence and an institutional crisis that’s unprecedented in Brazil’s recent history still remains and is considerable,” said Paulo Calmon, a political science professor at the University of Brasilia.
Regina Pontes, 53, stood atop a flatbed that advanced toward the barriers in Brasilia. She said the Brazilian people have every right to enter the area.
“You can’t close the door to keep the owner out,” she said.
The world’s second-highest COVID-19 death toll, a drumbeat of accusations of wrongdoing in the government’s handling of the pandemic, and surging inflation have dragged down Bolsonaro’s approval ratings.
A sign of disapproval came in the evening, when many people in different cities banged on pots in a traditional method of protest.
Polls show Bolsonaro’s nemesis, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, could trounce him in a runoff if he enters the race.
A 69-year-old farmer from Minas Gerais state, Clever Greco, came to Brasilia with a group of more than 1,000 other Bolsonaro supporters.
“I don’t know what day I’ll go back. I’m prepared to give my blood, if needed,” Greco said. “We’re no longer asking; the people are ordering.”