With one of the most important elections in the history of Brazil fast approaching, it is important to consider the security and travel risks associated with the increasingly polarised political environment. Gary Abbott examines below:
Brazil has persistently enjoyed the peaceful transfer of power since it became a democracy in 1985; President Jair Bolsonaro places this precedent in jeopardy. Ahead of the second round of presidential elections – scheduled for 30 October – Brazil appears to be poised for a political crisis not seen since the years of military rule. In the face of an anticipated defeat to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – or Lula – Bolsonaro seems to be preparing to challenge the outcome of the election, placing democracy in peril and possibly leading to a political crisis attuned to the 06 January storming of the Capitol in 2021, or worse. Overall, if Bolsonaro loses the election and subsequently challenges the result there are three possible outcomes: civil unrest in major urban centres and potential attempts to interrupt the inauguration process at the National Congress in Brasília; armed violence between Bolsonaro and Lula loyalists; and a military coup. Before considering the likelihood of each eventuality, it is important to first understand the political context that shapes the 2022 election.
Similar to other democracies, Brazil’s presidential election is proving to be defined by tense polarization; each side has its own starkly different view of what it means to be Brazilian and where Brazil should head in the future. What is unique, however, is the level of violence and demonisation that has manifested in the last few years and particularly in the ongoing presidential race. Bolsonaro has called the opposition “radical leftists” who will reduce Brazil into a Venezuelan-style socialist state, framing the election as a religious battle between the God-fearing good and the evil radical leftists that will subvert traditional values. In recent months, politicians and pastors have circulated unsubstantiated accusations that Lula intends to close Christian churches, a clear effort to mobilise evangelicals who have become a key bloc in Bolsonaro’s re-election effort.
Similarly, the opposition and media outlets commonly label Bolsonaro as a ‘fascist’, with Lula declaring in August that Bolsonaro was “possessed by the devil”. Amid this rhetoric, however, is an uptick in alleged cases of political violence: on 26 September a “political discussion” in Cascavel left a Lula supporter stabbed to death; on 31 August a police officer opened fire on a fellow churchgoer in Goiânia who had raised concerns over the preacher having placed pressure on the congregation to vote for Bolsonaro; and on 09 July a pro-Bolsonaro penitentiary officer shot dead a municipal guard who had thrown a Lula-themed birthday party in Foz do Iguaçu, allegedly shouting pro-Bolsonaro slogans. The Observatory of Political and Electoral Violence (Rio de Janeiro) confirms an escalation of political violence, noting there has been a 23% spike in cases of politically motivated violence against candidates, officials, and government workers since 2020; 214 incidents have resulted in 45 alleged murders so far this year.
Perhaps most concerning, however, are Bolsonaro’s repeated unsubstantiated allegations that the electronic voting system is vulnerable to fraud, raising fears that he plans to contest October’s election result. In August 2021, Bolsonaro failed to pass a constitutional amendment that would implement printed receipts at electronic ballot boxes. Among legislators, even members of Bolsonaro’s coalition, there is widespread confidence in the integrity of the voting system. Nevertheless, In July 2022 Bolsonaro doubled down on delegitimising the election and invited dozens of foreign diplomats to the presidential palace, warning them that the voting system is prone to rigging and fraud. In response, the United States embassy in Brasília challenged this narrative by describing the Brazilian election system as a ‘model for the world’. Since Bolsonaro declared in August 2022 that he would only respect the election if it was ‘clean and transparent’, Bolsonaro appears to be poised to challenge the election result and throw Brazil into a political crisis.
Civil Unrest: The most likely consequence of Bolsonaro contesting the election is widespread civil unrest, particularly in Brasília but also in other major urban centres Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. This would likely mimic the September 2021/22 Independence Day rallies, when tens of thousands of protestors gathered on the streets of Brasília, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro. While scattered protests could occur in the run-up to the second round of voting scheduled for 30 October and into the first quarter of 2023, the largest rallies are likely to occur in the immediate aftermath of the election result and on the inauguration day on 01 January 2023.
In the worst-case scenario, protestors could attempt to disrupt the inauguration in a similar assault to the attack on the United States Capitol. Unlike in the United States, where security forces successfully managed to delay the advance of rioters so congressmen could escape, there are questions whether the Brazilian security forces would similarly enforce the rule of law. Bolsonaro has widespread support among security services, particularly among the country’s 500,000 military police tasked with maintaining public order; in August 2021 the commander of São Paulo’s military police was fired after he publicly supported Bolsonaro. Although it is unlikely that the majority of the country’s military police would participate in the unrest (see below), it would only require a minority of Bolsonaro loyalists in Brasília to allow the storming of the National Congress on inauguration day and place the lives of Lula and other politicians in jeopardy. This also raises the possibility that sympathies for Bolsonaro among the military police could lead to incidents of security forces failing to disperse unrest across major urban centres. Though this is unlikely to threaten the state, it could lead to cases of severe civil unrest and travel disruption in major urban centres across Brazil.
Armed Violence: Less likely than civil unrest, another possible manifestation of unrest is armed attacks by Bolsonaro loyalists on supporters and/or politicians of the opposition. Bolsonaro’s administration has passed dozens of decrees that have loosened gun controls; data from the think tank Sou da Paz (Brazil) shows that since 2018 the number of guns in civilian hands has doubled to almost two million. The total number of firearms licenses has increased by almost sixfold under Bolsonaro: in 2022 there are 673,818 registered firearms licenses, up from 117,467 in 2018. Bolsonaro has normalised armed violence in the last few years through his unsubstantiated accusations of electoral fraud, his framing of the opposition as evil Venezuelan-style socialists, and his declaration in June 2022 that he and his supporters would ‘go to war’ if the election was stolen. Although this is most likely rhetoric, it is not unreasonable to predict scattered attacks by a lone attacker or groups of attackers by Bolsonaro radicals on politicians of the opposition or key institutional buildings in the Three Powers Plaza in Brasília, such as the National Congress and the Supreme Federal Court in Brasília.
Displaying concerns in the government, in early September 2022, the Supreme Court temporarily suspended several provisions allowing people to purchase firearms citing fears of ‘political violence’, later banning travel permits for firearms and ammunition over the first-round election weekend. Overall, the likelihood of widespread armed violence is given substantial headwind by the limited support for the electoral fraud narrative: members of Bolsonaro’s coalition have backed the legitimacy of the voting system by rejecting his voting reforms in August 2021. Without substantive evidence, armed violence motivated by the stolen election narrative is only likely to be pursued by radical fringe elements of the Bolsonaro bloc in a scattered manner.
Coup d’état: The final and least likely outcome of Bolsonaro contesting the 2022 election is a coup backing Bolsonaro by the military or the military police. Bolsonaro has openly praised the military junta that governed Brazil from 1964-85, stating in February 2021 that the regime was ‘not too different from what we have today’. Bolsonaro has given the military levels of power not seen since military rule: there are 6,000 active/retired officers in Bolsonaro’s government, with generals holding the vice-presidency and consistently occupying almost half of the 23 cabinet positions since 2019. The military was the only branch of the public sector that received a wage increase under the 2021 federal budget. Furthermore, Bolsonaro has created a narrative of the 2022 elections that is reminiscent of the years that preceded the 1964 coup: João Goulart’s civilian government was ousted amid fears of a communist turn; Bolsonaro has persistently framed Lula and the Workers Party – Partido dos Trabalhadores – as radical socialists that threaten freedom, stating in June 2020 that the mission of the armed forces is to defend the democracy.
However, reducing the likelihood of a coup are several factors. First, relations between Bolsonaro and the military may not be as close as they seem at first sight. In an unprecedented move, all three military chiefs simultaneously resigned in March 2021 following Bolsonaro’s sacking of the defence minister and reserve General Fernando Azevedo e Silva, with reports that Silva was fired after he informed Bolsonaro that the military’s loyalty rests with the constitution. Second, unlike in 1964 in which the legislature, the United States, the majority of the middle classes, Catholics, and members of the mainstream media all supported military intervention, Bolsonaro has limited internal and external support for military intervention. Third, as seen with Myanmar, a coup would render Brazil a pariah on the international stage, placing its annual USD31bn trade with the United States and USD32.9bn trade with the European Union in jeopardy. Although Bolsonaro may have the appetite to face these international costs, domestic agents such as the military cannot be confident that a coup could ensure their material assets; Western sanctions on Myanmar specifically targeted individuals responsible for the coup, something that would likely follow in Brazil. In this sense, even if elements of the military or military police were partial to Bolsonaro, they have little to gain from a coup but much to lose.
Bolsonaro’s challenging of the presidential election result scheduled for 30 October could lead to a political crisis of a magnitude not seen since the 1964 military coup. However, the most likely eventuality is a combination of widespread civil unrest in major urban centres, particularly Brasília but also São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and scattered and isolated incidents of armed violence by radical supporters of Bolsonaro. Civil unrest is likely to be largest in the immediate aftermath of the second round scheduled for 30 October and on inauguration day, scheduled for 01 January 2023. Protests are likely to focus on government institutions, and in the worst-case scenario, they could attempt to disrupt the inauguration process at the Three Powers Plaza in Brasília. Though unlikely to be widespread, it cannot be ruled out that sympathies for Bolsonaro among the military police could materialise in contingents of security forces either joining the unrest or failing to properly disperse protestors, elevating the severity and the likelihood of civil unrest and travel disruption.
Northcott Global Solutions provides risk assessments, tracking, security escorts, personal protective equipment, remote medical assistance and emergency evacuation.
Author: Gary Abbott, Risk Analyst, Northcott Global Solutions
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