São Paulo, October 23. On the eve of the second round of the presidential elections, armed police and officials from electoral tribunals invaded at least 30 state universities up and down the country, confiscating anti-fascist banners and posters, intimidating lecturers and students and interrupting debates. Judges justified these arbritrary actions by saying the materials and activities were pro-Fernando Haddad, the PT candidate.
So they confiscated a Manifesto in Defence of Democracy and Public Universities in Campina Grande, and tore down a banner saying Down with Fascism in Niteroi.
In Rio court officials also confiscated hundreds of copies of a special edition of the newspaper Brasil de Fato because it contained articles that criticised Jair Bolsonaro, the rightwing candidate, a clear act of censorship.
So confident are Bolsonaro’s supporters of victory, they have begun to throw any pretence of respect for democracy to the wind. The Supreme Courts, TSE and STF, have become targets for their anger. A video on the internet shows a retired army colonel, Carlos Alves, insulting and threatening Rosa Weber, the TSE president, should she dare to annul the elections because of the Bolsonaro’s campaign illegal use of mass messaging with fake news via WhatsApp. He calls her a vagabunda (slut) and says, ‘If you accept this ridiculous accusation and try to remove Bolsonaro we will overthrow you, yes, we will, because then it will be finished. We don’t accept any result except Bolsonaro’s victory’.
Shocked judges reacted with outrage, criticising above all the vulgar language used by the foul-mouthed colonel. Maybe if he had used the more obscure language of the courts, they would not have been so shocked. Bolsonaro has denied he plans to shut the Supreme, but he has promised to pack it with supporters, increasing the number of justices from 11 to 21.
The electoral court reacts
Until the colonel’s outburst, which followed hard on Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo’s threat to close down the STF ‘with a corporal and a soldier’, the electoral court had been reluctant to call a spade a spade, preferring to praise their own organisation of the elections. Now they themselves have been attacked, they have been stung into action, ordering investigations and inquiries.
The inspiration for these attacks on democracy comes directly from Bolsonaro himself. At street rallies in São Paulo and other major cities, giant screens showed the ex-army captain threatening to carry out a political persecution or ‘cleansing’, ‘such as Brazil has never seen before’.
’We will sweep these red bandits off the map…they will be banished from our fatherland. Either they leave or they go to jail. Haddad and Lula will rot in prison’.
For those of us who lived through the dictatorship it was all too reminiscent of the military’s slogan, ‘Ame-O ou Deixe-O (love it or leave it).’
For students of genocide it was an alarming first step. ‘The threat begins with a speech, develops into a state policy and can become an atrocity,’, said –Hikmet Karcic, an author and genocide researcher from Sarajevo, with memories of the build-up to the Bosnian war, ‘we cannot underestimate the risk of violence.’
In spite of Bolsonaro’s open incitement to violence, large groups of businessmen, local mayors, preachers and politicians, all keen to be on the right side of the man who looks like becoming the next president, have been flocking to his house in Rio. Newspapers debate his plans for the economy, certain that he will win.
The gap is closing
But will he? The latest polls show a drop in his support, while Haddad’s is rising. The difference between them is still large, with Bolsonaro 12 points ahead, but the trend is for the gap to close. Analysts attribute Bolsonaro’s falling ratings to various factors. His refusal to take part in debates with Haddad, even after his doctors authorised it, the PT’s election propaganda showing recordings and images of Bolsonaro ranting in congress against workers’ rights, insulting minorities, defending torture and threatening mass murder, his son Eduardo’s threats against the Supreme court, all this may have made some supporters think again.
Among evangelicals especially, Bolsonaro’s rejection rate has risen sharply as they become more aware of his anti-Christian discourse of hate and prejudice.
And as details of his policies become better known, there has been mounting alarm and criticism, especially on the environmental front. Eight ex-environment ministers, from different parties and governments, wrote him a joint letter explaining why he should not leave the Paris Agreement (on climate change) or merge the Ministry of Environment with that of Agriculture, a suggestion that revealed his ignorance of the scope of that ministry’s activities. ’We are already suffering the negative impacts of global warming,’ they said, ’with an increase in natural disasters. In the 21st century,’ they concluded, ‘we cannot disembark from the world.’
They could also have reminded Bolsonaro that Brazil is due to host COP25 of the UN Climate Change Conference in November next year.
The threat of deforestation
Perhaps more effective was a letter to the candidate signed by 180 agribusiness companies together with NGOs like WWF and Imazon, pointing out that Brazilian agriculture depends on climate conditions like rain and humidity which can only be assured by preserving the forests. ‘Protected areas, whether they are conservation areas, indigenous or quilombo lands help to preserve ecosystem services.’ The need for these reminders about the importance of the Paris agreement and preserving the rainforest only shows the depth of Bolsonaro’s ignorance about his own country.
The pressure seems to have worked because Bolsonaro has now announced that he does not want Brazil to leave the Paris agreement. But his verbal attacks on Ibama and ICMBio have already produced results in the Amazon where agency vehicles have been burnt and officials threatened. In Itaituba, the military police announced they will no longer provide protection for agency staff, because of the risk to their own lives!
With the agencies intimidated, as well as understaffed and underfunded, deforestation is increasing. Already this year in the Xingu basin, over 100,000 hectares of rainforest, equal to 100,000 soccer fields, have been cleared, with the destruction of an estimated 150 million trees. The area includes 21 indigenous areas and 10 conservation units. Rodrigo Junqueira, ISA’s coordinator of the Xingu programme, said ‘the strengthening of these agencies is essential to guarantee the integrity of the protected areas and principally for the populations which live in these territories.’
And scientists at INPE warn that if Bolsonaro carries out his campaign threats to abolish Ibama and ICMBio, deforestation in the Amazon could explode. Using mathematical models, they calculate that it would triple, from 6,9 mil km² last year to 25,6 mil km² in 2020.
For many Brazilians however, all this means nothing. A young man in a newsagents’s shop told me: ‘Next year, everything’s going to get better’, and that’s why Bolsonaro still has millions of votes, because people believe that he will change their lives for the better.