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Brazilians rally for democracy, seek to rein in Bolsonaro

Thousands of Brazilians are rallying in defense of the nation’s democracy, fearing their leader may take a page from former President Trump.

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On Thursday, thousands of Brazilians descended on a law school to defend the country’s democratic institutions. The demonstration was reminiscent of one that took place at the same location nearly 45 years earlier to protest a harsh military dictatorship.

People flocked to the University of Sao Paulo’s law school in 1977 to hear “A Letter to Brazilians,” a manifesto that demanded the swift restoration of the rule of law, read aloud. They heard statements on Thursday supporting democracy and the nation’s voting procedures, which President Jair Bolsonaro has frequently criticized in the lead-up to his reelection campaign.

Although Bolsonaro isn’t mentioned by name in the current manifestos, they highlight the widespread worry in the nation that the far-right leader may follow in the footsteps of former U.S. President Trump and reject election results that aren’t in his favor in an effort to retain power.

“To protect democracy, civil society must mobilize and fight against the prospect of a coup,” The 1977 letter and the two documents read Thursday were co-written by José Carlos Dias, a former justice minister, according to the Associated Press.

Drivers in Sao Paulo’s gridlocked traffic cheered and honked as marching students yelled pro-democracy slogans on one of the main highways approaching the law school. The words “RESPECT THE VOTE” were printed on a sizable inflatable electronic voting machine by the building’s main door.

Many visitors gathered inside the university’s Great Hall to listen to speeches, while others stood outside to watch on large flat-screen televisions.

Two letters contain the proclamations. The first was posted online on July 26 and has received nearly 1 million signatures from citizens, including regular people, well-known musicians like Caetano Veloso and Anitta, prominent bankers and executives, and presidential candidates, including former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is currently leading all polls in preparation for the October election.

According to Carlos Melo, a political science professor at Insper University in Sao Paulo, the second letter, which was published in newspapers on Friday, has the support of hundreds of businesses in the banking, oil, construction, and transportation sectors—fields that have historically shied away from taking a public stance on politics. Given the worry that any democratic backslide would be bad for business, he said, they seem to have made an exception now.

He declared, “Democracy is crucial for the economy.”

Since he assumed power, Bolsonaro’s dedication to democracy has been under scrutiny, in large part because the former army captain has steadfastly praised the nation’s two-decade dictatorship, which ended in 1985. He met with Vladimir Putin of Russia and authoritarian Viktor Orban of Hungary this year.

Bolsonaro has asserted that Brazil’s electronic voting machines are susceptible to fraud for more than a year, in acts that seem to be clearly copied from Trump’s playbook, though — like Trump — he never provided any evidence. At one point, he threatened to halt elections if Congress didn’t pass a bill introducing printed vote receipts. The bill wasn’t approved.

Carlos Silveira displayed a poster that read, “The military doesn’t count ballots” at the law school on Thursday.

The 43-year-old Silveira stated, “We are here because it is riskier to do nothing.” “Bolsonaro has proposed a significant anti-democratic move before the election, and it appears that the military is still on his side. We want to demonstrate to them that we are the majority and that democracy will prevail.

When Bolsonaro began his campaign, he urged supporters to swarm the streets for festivities of the country’s independence day on September 7. He said that only God can remove him from power on that day last year in front of tens of thousands of people who gathered at his command. He threatened to throw the country into an institutional catastrophe on the same day he said he would no longer follow Supreme Court justices’ decisions. Later, he apologized, claiming that his remark was hastily made.

The president’s rhetoric appeals to his supporters, but Melo claimed that it is alienating him politically more and more.

The election authorities has actively rebutted allegations against the voting system since last year. Its highest leaders, who are also judges of the Supreme Court, have frequently defended it in public. Although many people had been reluctant to concur with their public statements, they have been working extra hard behind the scenes to enlist allies in the government and the commercial sector.

A pivotal moment occurred last month when Bolsonaro summoned foreign diplomats to the White House to lecture them on the alleged weaknesses of the electronic vote. Since then, Bolsonaro loyalists including members of Congress and the attorney general have all voiced confidence in the system’s dependability.

The day following the ambassadors’ meeting, the State Department of the United States added its voice, releasing a statement in which it referred to Brazil’s democratic institutions and electoral process as a “model for the globe.” U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said militaries should carry out their roles responsibly, including during elections, at a conference with regional defense ministers in July in Brasilia, Brazil.

The letters, which would have otherwise been considered a dull academic exercise, have resonated with society. A nationwide rally has been scheduled, and television stations have just aired clips of musicians reading the pro-democracy vow.

Arminio Fraga, a well-known asset manager and former head of the central bank under a previous, center-right administration, was one among those invited to talk at the university law school.

“I’m here today with such a diverse group that has at times battled on opposing sides, and we’re doing everything in our power right now to protect what is precious to all of us. That’s our democracy, according to Fraga, a vocal opponent of Bolsonaro.

While dismissing the manifestos as “small letters” and admonishing voters to follow the constitution, Bolsonaro has downplayed concerns. He tweeted on Thursday, “Today, a very important event had done… Petrobras decreased, once again, the price of fuel,” in a public jab at the law school gathering.

Two Cabinet ministers told the AP that despite their efforts to maintain harmony between the administration and other institutions, anxiety about Bolsonaro’s vehement rhetoric has spread even among some allies. They talked on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t allowed to talk about the situation in public.

The party of Bolsonaro has dissociated itself from suggestions that the election may be tainted. According to Augusto Rosa, the party’s vice president, the leader of the party contacted the head of the electoral court to express his confidence in the electoral process.

In any event, Bolsonaro faces an uphill struggle in the race. The majority of those polled by pollster Datafolha stated they would never vote for him, although support has increased recently due to lower unemployment, lower petrol costs, and increasing welfare spending. Given that incumbents frequently get the benefits of the state apparatus, analysts predicted that Lula’s lead would decrease as the election neared. Pre-election commitments to respect the results would be much more pertinent in a close contest.

From Rio de Janeiro, Jeantet reported, and from Brasilia, lvares.

This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.