But over the last two years, Bolsonaro has openly suggested that he does not intend to accept the results of an election he loses and has pledged to his supporters that he will “go to war” to prevent the end of his presidency. An ardent ally of former U.S. President Donald Trump, Bolsonaro has spread baseless conspiracy theories about voter fraud, accused Brazilian electoral authorities of rigging the election against him, and unleashed a relentless series of attacks against Brazil’s electronic voting system, which experts regard as one of the safest and most efficient in the world.
The United States and European Union have focused intently on the election. Senior U.S. officials have repeatedly warned Bolsonaro and his allies to stop undermining the elections, and the U.S. Senate this week passed a resolution that called on the Biden administration to “review and reconsider its relationship with any government that comes to power in Brazil through undemocratic means.” Dozens of EU lawmakers, meanwhile, argued this week for trade sanctions on Brazil if Bolsonaro succeeds in contesting the results.
Those efforts may prevent the most alarming scenario: a military intervention on Bolsonaro’s behalf. Bolsonaro, a former Army captain who has long expressed affinity for the dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, has stocked his government with a record number of soldiers and leaned on them in his quest to undermine the election. His running mate, retired Gen. Walter Braga Netto, reportedly threatened Brazil’s Congress to make election changes Bolsonaro sought last year, and military leaders have sought certain reforms that Bolsonaro has called for to address problems that election officials say do not actually exist.
Experts, however, have regarded a coup attempt as unlikely, in part because it does not enjoy the sort of support from the United States and other Western democracies that tolerated the overthrow of a leftist government during the Cold War in 1964. (Brazilian financial elites and the media, two other crucial pillars of support for that coup, have also largely rebuked Bolsonaro’s efforts to draw the armed forces back into electoral politics.)
Bolsonaro and his backers have already used the size of those demonstrations to question the polls. If and when he does cast doubt on the results, he will likely use the images of those events — much as Trump cited crowds at his own rallies in 2020 — as a suggestion that crowd sizes are indicative of how “true Brazilians” voted and that something must be amiss.
Brazil’s primary electoral institutions, including its Supreme Court and Superior Electoral Tribunal, have for months prepared for post-election scenarios in which Bolsonaro attempts to question the results. But he still commands the support of nearly one-third of the Brazilian population, and many are susceptible to his conspiratorial claims, which have spread like wildfire across social media sources like WhatsApp and Telegram, two chat services that are widely used in Brazil and have been linked to fake news campaigns that have helped radicalize the Brazilian right.
A loss in the first round, experts say, would leave Bolsonaro weakened and likely unable to pull off a substantial threat to Brazil’s democracy. But it doesn’t mean that he won’t try — or that his supporters and allies won’t launch an attempt on his behalf. Bolsonaro has expanded gun rights for Brazilians over the last four years, and many of his supporters are now heavily armed and touting that fact ahead of a potential election dispute.