“Dictatorship never again” was the hashtag and the theme of the widespread protests across Brazil on Thursday.
Large banners with that phrase hung in a courtyard at the University of São Paulo, where thousands turned out to hear the reading of a manifesto in defense of democracy that has captured the country’s attention.
More than a million Brazilians from across the political spectrum, including former presidents, ex-supreme court justices, bankers and artists, have signed a letter in “defense of democracy” in anticipation of turmoil surrounding the upcoming presidential election in October. President Jair Bolsonaro has been questioning whether the upcoming election, in which he is running for a second term, will be fair. Critics say he is laying the groundwork to challenge the results.
In São Paulo, a classical guitarist accompanied a lawyer and former politician Flavio Flores da Cunha as he read part of the letter to the crowd.
“Instead of a civic party, we are facing a moment of immense danger to the democratic norms, risks to the country’s democratic institutions and insinuations of contempt for the results of the elections,” he read.
At the protest at São Paulo University law professor Ana Elisa Bechara read the letter’s closing words.
“In the Brazil of today, there is no more room for authoritarian setbacks. Dictatorship and torture belong to the past. The solution to the immense challenges facing Brazilian society has to be tied to respect for the results of the elections,” she read to applause.
The Aug. 11 events were not your typical protests. Though they come as the presidential election is heating up, they were not a campaign rally by Bolsonaro’s opponents.
Many in the crowds wore suits and ties. Lawyers. Teachers. Businessmen.
“This was really significant,” said Rio Grande do Sul Federal University Sociologist Marcelo Kunrath. “It was even able to involve key business sectors, including the São Paulo Federation of Industries, which is a sign of the unity in defense of democracy that goes far beyond the political left.”
The timing of the rallies on Thursday was significant.
Bolsonaro has ridiculed the current democracy letter and the movement demanding respect for elections.
“They’re trying to push me to the side, saying that I’m preparing a coup,” he said. “What coup? Demanding electoral transparency?”
Brazil’s electronic voting system is world-renowned for being fast, efficient and secure. But Bolsonaro has attacked it for years, denouncing supposed fraud, without evidence. He’s called for paper ballots and recently proposed that the military be tasked with filming Brazilians inside voting booths in order to ensure transparency.
“The mobilizations this week may indicate that there is a significant force of society with the capacity to block coup attempts, which are surely being discussed by Bolsonaro and his allies in the case of an electoral defeat,” Kunrath said.
Bolsonaro has an approval rating of 40%, and he still has widespread appeal from evangelicals and far-right supporters.
But former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva remains seven points ahead of him in the latest polls. The electoral campaigns officially begin next week.
Bolsonaro has called for his supporters to hit the streets en masse on Sept. 7, for huge rallies coinciding with commemorations for the country’s Bicentennial Independence.
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