Is Brazil’s right wing president, Bolsonaro, planning a coup?

President Bolsorano (Photo: Palácio do Planalto/Wikimedia Commons)

The Trump hearings in Washington reveal devastating details of his attempt to cling to power and carry through what amounted to a coup to overturn the US presidential elections in 2021. Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, questioned the result and was amongst the last to recognize Biden’s election. Now, south of the Rio Grande, Brazil is threatened with the possibility of another coup attempt by the same Jair Bolsonaro. However, the threat in Brazil is even greater than the events in the US in 2020. Bolsonaro appears to have the backing of important sections of the military. Bolsonaro, a supporter and admirer of Trump, is reading from the same script as Trump. In the run-up to elections in September, this year, Bolsonaro has already raised the issue of the election system is open to fraud and raised the spectra of military intervention to keep him in power.

Bolsonaro has seen his support erode as he has presided over a catastrophic health and economic crisis. Over 600,000 have died from COVID, largely as a result of his policies during the pandemic. He says something “wicked” happened to the journalist Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira, both defenders of indigenous rights. Yet he has worked for hand in glove with the forestry companies and other gangsters who have carried out brutal repression and killings against the indigenous peoples of Amazonia. In recent polls, Bolsonaro’s support has fallen to 29%, as opposed to his main rival Luis Inacio Lula of the PT (Workers’ Party) who is registering 47% support, although the polls are notoriously unreliable and abstentions levels are high.

The military tops have partly been purged of opponents of Bolsonaro, who have drawn sections of the military into the government and militarized it. Over 1,000 military officers currently hold civilian posts; more than at the time of the military coup in 1964. Bolsonaro and his clique are preparing to cry foul if they lose the election. Proposals are being raised to end electronic voting. The Defence Minister, General Paulo Nogueira de Oliveira, has attacked the electronic voting system and included the proposal that the military in conducting a parallel count in a “secret room”. Bolsonaro has called for an “audited” election process. Senior military officers have also made proposals to the TSE election commission. Whilst the TSE did not take up proposals from the military, the Defence Minister and Bolsonaro protested that “the armed forces do not feel properly honored”. The armed forces, they thunder, have a role “to defend the Fatherland and guarantee constitutional power, law and order”. They have stated that they will not accept simply an electronic vote in the name of “national security”. The military coup in 1964 was justified as a necessary act to “defend democracy”. The same rehearsed script is being prepared by Bolsonaro’s supporters and conspirators in 2022.

Bolsonaro has made it easier to purchase guns in Brazil and has urged his supporters to arm themselves. A major clash is being prepared for the elections and the aftermath. These preparations by the far right around Bolsonaro are not backed by the main sections of the Brazilian ruling class. They did not back Bolsonaro when he was elected to power in 2019. His election was a measure of the collapse in confidence and support of all of the traditional parties in Brazil, including the PT (Workers Party). The ruling class has partly lost control of sections of the state machine. Institutions, like the Supreme Court, have been in collision with Bolsonaro’s regime.

It is not excluded that all of Bolsonaro’s preparations and threats to remain in the presidency evaporate and collapse. However, it is a mistake to count on this and it is urgent that the working class and socialist left in Brazil prepare for a bitter struggle to be fought out, and campaign for an independent socialist alternative, putting no trust in the anti-Bolsonaro sections of the capitalist class. The ideas of “lesser evilism” (anyone but Bolsonaro) are already an important feature of the campaign. The question is, however, if Bolsonaro is defeated, what policies and programme are to be implemented? Those who defend capitalism cannot be trusted to implement a programme and policies which favour the working class. The need for an independent mass party of the working class with socialist policies is urgently posed.

When Bolsonaro asked for US President Joe Biden’s help against Lula, at the recent Summit of the Americas, Biden simply changed the subject. Lula and the PT have moved to the right and have defended a pro-capitalist policy. Lula, when president, from 2003-10, was praised by former US President Obama: “This is my man. I love this guy,” he said in 2009 at the G20 summit in London.

Erratic, unpredictable, reactionary

The erratic, unpredictable, reactionary Bolsonaro regime is not in the interests of capitalism. The ruling class would prefer a third alternative but would not be threatened by Lula being returned to power. He has proved his reliability for capitalism in the past and is demonstrating it again in this election campaign. Lula’s running mate is Geraldo Alkmin, who was a former governor of Sao Paulo and founding member of the capitalist PSDB party, which he left after 33 years to prepare the way for this election. Alkim was a bitter opponent of the PT in the past, running against Lula in the 2006 presidential election.

Should Bolsonaro lose the election and attempt some form of a coup, mobilizing his supporters for a fight for power, it would trigger a massive clash and protest. What the ruling class does fear is the prospect of huge confrontations and Lula being swept into power on a wave of mass mobilizations against Bolsonaro. Such a scenario, which is possible, would unleash massive pressure on Lula to adopt more radical policies.

The dramatic events beginning to unfold in Brazil have been a test for the socialist left, none more so that facing PSOL (the Party of Socialism and Liberty, formed from a 2004 split from the rightward moving PT during Lula’s government). PSOL wrongly decided not to stand its own presidential candidate in the first round of the 2022 elections, arguing that this could risk splitting the left and leading to a Bolsonaro victory. This has triggered a crisis in PSOL, with some sections splitting away from it. PSOL’s wrong decision on the question is a lost opportunity. It could have used the first round to mark a socialist alternative and prepare for future struggles, which are certain to erupt should Lula win the elections and defeat Bolsonaro. This could have been done without threatening to allow Bolsonaro to win a majority in the event of a close result in the second-round elections.

The impending upheavals in Brazil are a part of a wider upturn in polarization and class struggle unfolding throughout Latin America. The devastating environmental crisis in the continent, the repression of tribes and the indigenous peoples, soaring poverty and inequality, and erosion of democratic rights, all pose the urgent need for a revolutionary socialist alternative to capitalism.


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