Skip to main content

We are raising our crisis risk rating for Brazil from low to moderate. This is due to signs that President Jair Bolsonaro plans to subvert the October presidential election to remain in power; a local journalist told us last week that there is now belief among pro- and anti-Bolsonaro members of congress that the president will do this.

This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 25 May 2022.

Should Mr Bolsonaro lose the poll, we assess that it is highly likely that he will reject the results. And to press his claim to the presidency he would probably mobilise political supporters and deploy thousands of troops onto the streets of major cities.

We very much doubt that a political crisis of this nature would result in Mr Bolsonaro forcibly remaining in office, not least because Brazilian institutions remain sufficiently robust to withstand such an attempt. But mobilising military personnel and thousands of Bolsonaro supporters would make violent confrontations with opposition protesters highly likely. This would probably result in a period of heightened uncertainty and demand on regional security teams over a few weeks. But we assess that an acute crisis would last no more than a few days.

Mr Bolsonaro preparing to lose

There is a reasonably high chance that Mr Bolsonaro will lose the first-round presidential vote scheduled for 2 October. A recent poll from Brazilian firm Quaest projected that left-wing candidate and former president Luiz Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva would gain 46% of votes in the first round, compared with 29% for the president. Previous polls have similarly shown Mr Bolsonaro lagging behind Lula. But such a result would not be sufficient for Lula to avoid a runoff. Still, Mr Bolsonaro would probably lose the runoff on 30 October.

Mr Bolsonaro is highly unlikely to accept a defeat, based on recent events. On 21 May, the president shared on social media an opinion piece by an ideologically-aligned political author, who claimed that the country’s Supreme Electoral Court intends to block Mr Bolsonaro’s reelection. Over the past year, the president has repeatedly criticised the electoral system’s integrity, alleging that paper ballots would be much more secure than the country’s electronic voting system. He has also frequently claimed that the court is not an impartial arbiter of the election process.

A resort to force

Such criticism of institutions overseeing Brazil’s presidential election by the president is not new. But it is now increasingly clear that he is prepared to use force in a bid to remain in power. A journalist source in Brazil recently told us that pro-government and opposition MPs, as well as local political analysts, believe Mr Bolsonaro will probably try to avoid electoral defeat with military force. The journalist works for an international outlet and has been working closely on elections coverage, although their sources were unable to substantiate these rumours.

It is unlikely that such a plan would have the approval of most military commanders. The same journalist contact said that his sources also doubted that such a plan would succeed in keeping Mr Bolsonaro in office, given that most voters and military commanders would disapprove of it. This echoes other comments we have heard from other Brazilian security contacts, including former officials, over the past year. Instead, our journalist contact suggested that the president would most likely rely on a legal decree known as a Guarantee of Law and Order. These have previously been used in Brazil to deploy troops onto the streets in support of law enforcement operations, but it would need a legal rationale.

The president’s statements and actions so far suggest that he would probably not issue such a decree until at least after losing the first round vote on 2 October, or the runoff three weeks later. We differ on this with opposition politicians cited by our contact, who believe that Mr Bolsonaro is likely to act in September ahead of the first round of voting. But it seems that he would need both a law-and-order related pretext as well as a negative election result to intervene. Calling on the military to intervene after (not before) the first round would also align with the press reporting that his allies in the military are considering running their own audit of the vote.

Security implications

Irrespective of when he might move to challenge the election, the most plausible pretext for him to do so on a law-and-order basis would be widespread civil unrest. So a key indicator we will be monitoring for in the run-up to the election is unruly political demonstrations. And although Mr Bolsonaro’s potential bid to remain in power is unlikely to succeed, there would still be a very high chance of violent confrontations between rival protesters and with security forces in Brasilia, Rio de Janeiro, and Sao Paulo.

The president is also highly likely to mobilise political supporters, some of whom would more likely than not be armed, in defence of his claim to victory. If the president attempts to challenge the election result, there is little doubt that Brazil’s opposition would call on its own supporters to protest. And there is also a reasonable chance that military commanders who do not support the administration’s effort to remain in power would deploy military units to quell a pro-Bolsonaro uprising. Such a scenario would make days of armed confrontations, mass protests, and unrest in major cities highly likely.

Despite having the support of some current and former military commanders, the military overall remains committed to upholding the constitution and thus the result of the vote. For example, the commander of the air force on 23 May told the press that his institution would respect the law no matter who was elected president. And we assess that recent threats of sanctions by the United States against Mr Bolsonaro and his allies are intended to ward the military off supporting him, rather than being an indication that the US is preparing to isolate Brazil economically.

Image: President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro speaks during an event to launch a new register for professional workers of the fish industry at Planalto Government Palace on 29 June 2021 in Brasilia, Brazil. Photo by Andressa Anholete via Getty Images.