Tens of thousands of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters gathered in the country’s biggest cities for demonstrations on Tuesday aimed at galvanising support for the populist leader.
The rallies, which took place in the capital, Brasília, and financial centre São Paulo, came as Bolsonaro fired up his base in recent months with an aggressive campaign against several Supreme Court justices, whom he accuses of overstepping their authority.
The former army captain has also heaped doubt on Brazil’s electronic voting system, saying it is prone to fraud, and threatened to cancel elections next year if the system was not amended to include printed paper ballot receipts.
The tense political atmosphere has stoked fears that the rallies may descend into violence or that demonstrators may storm the Supreme Court in an echo of the assault on the US Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump this year.
On Sunday, federal police arrested a supporter of the president who made death threats against Alexandre de Moraes, a Supreme Court justice. Moraes drew Bolsonaro’s ire after he ordered the president to be investigated as part of an inquiry into “fake news”.
Police have also expanded the security detail for Luís Roberto Barroso, another justice who has repeatedly clashed with Bolsonaro over the president’s unfounded claims of voter fraud.
Clad in the green and yellow of the Brazilian flag, thousands of his most devoted supporters descended on Brasília on Monday, filling up hotels across the city. Parked along the inland capital’s broad boulevards were scores of double-decker buses, which ferried in supporters from remote towns and cities hundreds of kilometres away.
Bolsonaro is due to speak at the expected centre of rallies in São Paulo, the central Paulista Avenue. He has made liberdade — liberty — the theme of the day. His supporters say the Supreme Court is encroaching on their personal freedoms and have adopted the slogan: “It is the people who are supreme.”
“Our country cannot remain hostage to one or two people, no matter where they are,” Bolsonaro said in a video posted from the presidential palace on Tuesday morning. “These one or two people either fall into line or they will simply be ignored in public life.
“There is only one rule of the game: respect our constitution, freedom of opinion,” he added.
Despite the large crowds expected on Tuesday, which is a national holiday in Brazil, Bolsonaro’s popularity has been declining sharply, as his anti-democratic rhetoric has frightened many one-time supporters, notably those in the business community.
Opinion polls by the Atlas Institute on Monday showed the rejection rate for Bolsonaro stands at a record high of 61 per cent, while his approval rate is 24 per cent. Recent polling has also indicated that if elections scheduled for next October were held now, the rightwing leader would lose by a wide margin to his main political rival, leftwing former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
On São Paulo’s Faria Lima avenue, Brazil’s version of Wall Street, executives quietly admit that the political turbulence is hurting investor sentiment and damping appetite to invest in Latin America’s largest economy.
Political analysts say Bolsonaro intends to use the rallies to unite his base and show that he still has strong political support.
Alcio Burke, a former truck driver from the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, said he drove 2,000km to Brasília to show support for the president.
“They need to let him do his job. The STF [Supreme Court] is surpassing the limits of its responsibilities. They need to act within the four lines of the constitution,” he added.
“We don’t want to end up like Venezuela. Our liberty is at stake,” said Edna Figueiredo from Brasília. “The Supreme Court does not work for the people, they create laws against the people.”