Brazil tensions rise ahead of Bolsonaro rallies, counter-protests

RIO DE JANEIRO • Supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro were set to take to the streets yesterday in hundreds of cities across Brazil for a high-risk national holiday, but opponents of the far-right leader are hoping to frustrate him with massive counter-protests.

The pro-and anti-Bolsonaro demonstrations will make for an unpredictable Brazilian Independence Day. The President, who is fighting record-low poll numbers and seeking to fire up his base, has stated that "gigantic" crowds will turn out to support him.

But critics will also turn out, likely chanting "Fora Bolsonaro! (Bolsonaro Out!)" as they march. The counter-protesters are worried about potential threats to democracy posed by Mr Bolsonaro, 66, who has declared all-out political war on judges - including on the Supreme Court - whom he perceives as hostile to his agenda.

Heavy security measures have been implemented in major cities including Brasilia and Sao Paulo, to avoid any clashes, and if everything goes according to plan, the two groups of protesters will not cross paths.

Mr Bolsonaro, who is often compared to former US president Donald Trump, plans to attend rallies in both Brasilia and the country's economic capital Sao Paulo on the day that marks 199 years since Brazil declared independence from Portugal.

A brief ceremony was planned for 9am yesterday in Brasilia, when the Brazilian flag will be raised over Alvorada Palace, the presidential residence.

The pro-Bolsonaro march will then be held on the Esplanade of Ministries, the avenue leading to the square flanked by the presidential palace, Congress and the Supreme Court. The square itself will be closed to prevent any acts of vandalism inspired by the Jan 6 attack on the US Capitol.

The anti-Bolsonaro march in Brasilia will depart from the capital's iconic TV tower, around three kilometres away.

In the afternoon, Mr Bolsonaro has vowed to draw a crowd of more than two million to Sao Paulo's Avenida Paulista. That would be far bigger than his recent rallies, which have had turnout in the tens of thousands.

Pro-Bolsonaro groups on social media have been firing up supporters, who are expected to arrive in hundreds of buses.

The anti-Bolsonaro march will be held at the Vale do Anhangabau in the city centre, also around three kilometres from where the President's supporters will rally.

Bolsonaro backers who had arrived early in Brasilia tore down a police blockade on Monday night in a preview of what might transpire at the rallies. Police said that hundreds of demonstrators "broke through containment barriers" and entered the Ministries Esplanade, closed to traffic as a security measure. Videos posted on social media showed one protester shouting that they would "invade" the Supreme Court.

Last Friday, Mr Bolsonaro signalled that the Supreme Court judges should consider the rallies an "ultimatum" - the latest in a long list of ominous warnings aimed at Congress and the courts.

In Brazil, security experts were concerned over the presence of armed military police during demonstrations.

According to a survey published on Sunday by the daily O Globo, 30 per cent of those officers intended to take part in yesterday's protests, even though regulations prohibit them from involvement in political rallies, including on their days off.

Last week, Mr Bolsonaro slammed judges and state governors who are considering punishing officers who were present to support him during yesterday's marches. "It's a crime (to ban police demonstrations), worthy of a dictatorship," he said.

Meanwhile, Mr Bolsonaro issued a decree on Monday that changes the rules of content moderation on social media, a move that critics argue could hinder the fight against disinformation. The decree goes into effect immediately, but must be ratified by Congress in order to become law.

It aims to combat "the arbitrary and unjust deletion of accounts, profiles and content by providers", the federal communications secretariat said.

Mr Bolsonaro has said the suspension or removal of accounts and content that various platforms have subjected him and some of his supporters to is "censorship".

The new provision establishes a series of hypotheses for which there would be "just cause" to remove content or suspend users - such as committing crimes or inciting violence - and imposes new rules for platforms to do so.

Mr Alessandro Molon, an opposition politician and rapporteur of Brazil's Bill of Rights for the Internet (MCI), said he was preparing legal action to overturn the presidential decree.

"Its objective is not to protect freedom of expression, the MCI already does that," Mr Molon said. "What (Bolsonaro) wants is to prevent the disinformation and hate speech that he and his supporters disseminate from continuing to be removed from the platforms."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2021, with the headline 'Brazil tensions rise ahead of Bolsonaro rallies, counter-protests'. Subscribe