Kicking around is gaining traction in Brazilian politics. In a nation of footy fans, political football is Jair Bolsonaro’s favourite. He is Brazil’s president and a denier in the making. He has been saying repeatedly he would stay at the top irrespective of who wins and who loses. In Brazil, this ominous assertion is triggering worries over its declining democracy. Outside Brazil, this veiled threat is causing concerns over the relentless rise of right-wing demagogues in many pretentious democracies.

Spreading Disinformation Not New

To make staying at the top possible, despite an electoral loss, Bolsonaro is preparing to rain charges of rigged elections and faulty voting machines. He is replenishing his arsenal with denials and distractions, disinformation and demagoguery. Bolsonaro’s devious plans are now threatening to leave Brazil’s October 2 general elections grievously hurt. Most Brazilians are certain Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party will trash a negative election verdict.

Not waiting till the election verdict, Bolsonaro is acting right away. He has begun weaponising social media trolls to damn and discredit the electoral process in general and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in particular. Lula is Bolsonaro’s principal opponent, who owes allegiance to the leftaligned Workers’ Party. Spreading disinformation is not new to Bolsonaro. Along with his supporters, Bolsonaro is stepping on the gas to spread disinformation about the polls. After all, he had successfully tested this dubious strategy in 2018.

Faint-Hearted Election Officials

To make sure this strategy works this time too, Bolsonaro is set to unleash a variety of weapons from his Trump-inspired arsenal. Bolsonaro fired his first salvo recently by trashing Brazil’s electronic voting as an unreliable hack-prone system. He re-fired it on social media platforms where he has a large number of Brazilian followers. These wild unproven allegations are harming Brazil and its democracy.

Worse, Brazilian election officials are too weak to resist the unreasonable demands of Bolsonaro and his sycophantic military officers. Recently, they made demands for parallel recounts and printed ballots. At once, the faint-hearted election officials permitted limited pre-poll testing of voting machines. Willy-nilly, Brazilian election officials are harming election security and adding heft to the hands of Bolsonaro.

Whipping a Deadly Cocktail

Bolsonaro’s strategy of pitting his military officers against election officials is a dangerous gambit. This opens up possibilities for a coup or an armed mutiny when Bolsonaro loses the elections. Equally dangerous are Bolsonaro’s winks and nods signalling his military officers to run amok on social media with disinformation. Armed forces, authoritarian politics and arrogant social media trolls are whipping into a deadly cocktail.

Such is his love for crawling military officers, Bolsonaro has loaded military men on to civilian jobs and posts. These military men discharge civilian functions within government, from junior slots to ministerial berths. This is why the fear of Bolsonaro turning into a military-backed autocrat if he wins the elections is real. So, the high hand of the military will threaten to stifle Brazilian democracy, whether Bolsonaro wins or loses. Bolsonaro is all set to offer Brazilians a Hobson’s choice.

Transparent in Name Alone

Recent political events in Brazil prove how Bolsonaro is capable of stifling democracy to unleash terror. Members of Lula’s party are routinely killed by Bolsonaro’s brutal brigade. Lula’s poll rallies and public meetings are regularly targeted for malicious attacks. Troubled signs of clashes at various levels are emerging meanwhile. Armed conflicts between backers of Bolsonaro and Lula, between the far-right and the left-wing elements in the military, and, between the riotous right-wingers and the pro-democracy proponents are becoming commonplace in an otherwise peaceful Brazilian society.

These conflicts will intensify in the coming days. As harbingers of a total breakdown of the Brazilian constitution, disruption of law and order, and an internecine post-poll civil war, these conflicts will be devastating. Can Brazil’s institutions of democracy salvage the country from such a disaster? Doubtful, as they are chock-a-block with Bolsonaro’s yes men. The Superior Electoral Court, the highest body of the Brazilian Electoral Justice, has set up an Electoral Transparency Commission to hear charges of electoral fraud, pernicious polarisation and political skulduggery. Sure, this committee will be transparent in name alone.

Leveraging Religion for Profits

At the root of these malignancies lies Bolsonaro the Bully. He is incorrigibly divisive. Any negative news about him is fake news. With autocratic blood in his veins, he adores the military and prescribes military rule as a panacea for Brazilian ills. As most dictators and authoritarians are, Bolsonaro too is insecure and needs constant injections of assurance and praise. Inborn insecurities are making him despair at the prospect of losing the polls. In turn, this despair is preparing him for a wholsesale rejection of a negative poll outcome.

As Bolsonaro continues to despair, he is growing more determined to bombard the Brazilian political landscape with his rigged-election missiles. Does this mean Bolsonaro is quite convinced of his imminent rout? In a last-ditch effort, a divisive Bolsonaro will leverage religion further for political profits. He will raise the pitch on how Lula would abolish churches and convert Brazil into a nation of sissies. Brazilians are not buying these theories, thus deepening Bolsonaro’s insecurities.

May Delay Transfer of Power

Regardless of what Bolsonaro says, Brazilians see Lula as a sensible leftist with his feet firm on the ground. As their president, between 2003 and 2010, Lula was fairly successful as a welfarist leader. Though he was cleared of bribery charges by the Dilma Rousseff government, Lula may not be the Mr Perfect Brazilians are looking for. However, they will see in Lula a determined believer in democratic ideals and inclusiveness.

In contrast, Bolsonaro is seen as an advocate of gun ownership. As he is a bad loser, on losing, he may choose to be an insurrectionist and incite unruly armed mobs. Blaming internal security, he may assume sweeping emergency powers, delay transfer of power and tighten his grip on Brazil. Tragically, Brazil’s immune system is weak. The nation is yet to recover fully from a military reign which ended in 1985. Any Bolsonaro misadventure will expose Brazil’s vulnerabilities further.

Not every Brazilian thinks so. Bolsonaro is a darling to his own dedicated group of Bolsonaristas. This group places guns before bread, churches before granaries and freebies before economic growth. However, this group is in the minority today. Bolsonaro triumphing over Lula is thus unlikely.

In Conclusion

As Bolsonaro falls behind, Lula needs to strengthen his popular roots and enlighten Brazilians on democracy and economic development. In this context, Lula should expose Bolsonaro’s divisive ploy of bringing God into government and churches into politics. Currently, Lula has a 14-point lead over Bolsonaro for the October elections. But, in the politically-active segment of evangelical voters, who represent nearly a third of Brazil’s 156 million-strong electorate, Bolsonaro is leading. Bolsonaro keeps saying God alone removes him from the presidency, and he is not joking. He will not quit gracefully if he loses. Nevertheless, let Lula work out a counter strategy for the evangelists.