For months, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has peddled conspiracy theories about the integrity of his country’s voting system, setting the stage for the embattled right-wing leader to question the results of next year’s elections if he loses. Bolsonaro has even claimed that if Brazil’s Congress does not alter the constitution to overhaul its election system and add paper ballot receipts to its electronic voting system, Brazil “won’t do elections at all.”

The potential dangers of that scenario became even starker Thursday morning, when one of Brazil’s largest newspapers reported that Gen. Walter Braga Netto ― an influential military leader and Bolsonaro ally who currently serves as Brazil’s minister of defense ― told key congressional leaders that “there would be no elections in 2022 if there were no printed and auditable vote.”

The report from O Estado de S. Paulo (or Estadão) sent shock waves across Brazil, a country already on notice about the potential dangers of election fraud conspiracies. For months, Brazilians have worried that Bolsonaro, an admirer of former U.S. President Donald Trump, may be laying the groundwork for his own version of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and that such an episode would pose a far graver risk to Brazil’s comparably young democracy.

Brazil’s electronic election system is widely regarded as one of the world’s safest and most secure. But the possibility that Bolsonaro has the apparent backing of a top general, in a nation that was ruled by a military junta from 1964 to 1985, has added to fears that a president who has steadily eroded Brazil’s democratic institutions since taking office in 2018 could deal its democracy a fatal blow.

“A lot of people understand that Trump failed because he was unable to change the opinion of the armed forces,” said Oliver Stuenkel, a professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a university in São Paulo.

In Brazil, “you sort of had the armed forces as a barrier of last resort. These kinds of comments we’re hearing now, they get you to think, ‘Who’s going to hold it all together?’” he said. “You kind of ask yourself, ‘Who will stand up for and ensure not only the integrity of the electoral process, but that the elections will take place?’”

Brazilian Minister of Defense Walter Braga Netto, an Army general, told congressional leaders that there would be no electionEVARISTO SA via Getty Images Brazilian Minister of Defense Walter Braga Netto, an Army general, told congressional leaders that there would be no elections in 2022 if changes that President Jair Bolsonaro (left) wants aren’t made to the country’s electronic voting system, according to a report from a major Brazilian newspaper.

On July 8, Estadão reported, Braga Netto tasked his representatives with delivering the message to Arthur Lira, a Bolsonaro ally who serves as the president of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Brazil’s Congress. Lira’s position is analogous to that of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the United States, where Trump-era Pentagon officials have sought to distance themselves from Trump’s voter fraud conspiracies, and have said they worried he would attempt to use the military to overturn the 2020 election. Congressional Democrats are trying to probe Trump’s and other federal officials’ roles in the insurrection.

Braga Netto denied the veracity of the report in a Thursday morning statement, calling it “disinformation that generates instability” and insisting that Brazil’s armed forces “act and will act within the limits provided for in the constitution.”

But Braga Netto nevertheless insisted that Bolsonaro’s calls for paper ballots ― which he has falsely suggested are more auditable and verifiable than Brazil’s current electronic voting system ― are legitimate concerns worthy of debate in Congress, where a committee last month advanced legislation to amend the constitution and overhaul the election system in a way Bolsonaro favors.

The proposal would give voters a paper ballot receipt to verify their vote that they would then put in a secure dropbox, which Bolsonaro says would allow for better post-election audits. Current Supreme Court justices who oversee the country’s election tribunal have said Bolsonaro’s plan would only result in claims of fraud where none exists, according to The Associated Press.

“It’s not a very strong denial,” said Carlos Gustavo Poggio, a professor at the Armando Alvares Penteado Foundation, another São Paulo-based university. “A crisis of this size, and this kind of allegation, we should have a much stronger reaction from the military. And it’s worrying that we do not have it.”

Brazil’s armed forces have largely refrained from intervening in domestic political affairs since military rule ended three decades ago. But Bolsonaro, a hard-line former army captain who for decades expressed nostalgic views of the dictatorship, has stacked his cabinet with generals and other high-ranking military officers throughout his presidency. His vice president, another former general, openly talked about military intervention against Brazil’s government in 2017, and refused to rule out the possibility of a return to military rule during the 2018 election.

Little by little, we see all the bricks of the democratic building in Brazil being slowly destroyed. Carlos Gustavo Poggio, professor at the Armando Alvares Penteado Foundation

Earlier this year, Bolsonaro named Braga Netto, an active general, as defense minister, a position that has traditionally been staffed by civilians or retired military officials since Brazil’s return to democracy in 1989. The move was widely interpreted as an effort to install an ally in an influential position after former defense minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva, a retired general, left the position amid a dispute with Bolsonaro over the COVID-19 pandemic and the military’s refusal to align itself with Bolsonaro’s denialist approach to it.

The military’s intrusion into politics and governance has worried many observers from the beginning, although Bolsonaro’s most fanatic support from the armed forces comes from rank-and-file members, not its top brass, which has largely tried to maintain the military’s political neutrality even as Bolsonaro has attempted to deepen his links to it. The heads of each branch of Brazil’s armed forces quit in May after Bolsonaro fired Azevedo, suggesting a potential break in relations between the president and his military allies.

But Braga Netto’s reported backing of the president, and the lack of an immediate rebuke from heads of Brazil’s military branches ― who were looped into his message to Lira, the Chamber of Deputies president, according to Estadão ― are a new and worrying sign that a more radical crop of military leaders may align with Bolsonaro if a political crisis ensues next year.

“Bolsonaro has always had the support of lower-ranking military personnel,” Poggio said. “If he gets the support of the generals, then we have a problem.”

Estadão reported that Lira considered Braga Netto’s message “a threat of a coup” and immediately relayed it to Bolsonaro, along with the message that while he would back the president in the event of an election loss, he would not support a coup.

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On Twitter, Lira appeared to respond to the paper’s report without denying its substance.

“Regardless of what comes out in the press or not, the fact is: Brazilians want a vaccine, they want work and they will judge their representatives in October of next year through a popular, secret and sovereign vote,” he tweeted Thursday morning.

The head of Brazil’s Supreme Court, Luís Roberto Barroso, issued a statement saying that he had spoken to Braga Netto and Lira and that both “emphatically denied” there was any threat to the 2022 elections.

“We have a Constitution in force, functioning institutions, a free press and a conscious society mobilized in favor of democracy,” Barroso tweeted.

But Estadão stood by its story, which relied largely on anonymous sources because of the sensitivity of the discussions, it said. And Braga Netto’s response did little to calm the waters.

“The information that Braga Netto threatened the 2022 elections offers no way out: he must leave office immediately,” former São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad, a member of the leftist Workers Party who lost to Bolsonaro in the 2018 election, tweeted.

Rounds of mass protests calling for Bolsonaro's ouster have taken place in recent months, driving the right-wing president to Photo by Cris Faga/NurPhoto via Getty Images Rounds of mass protests calling for Bolsonaro’s ouster have taken place in recent months, driving the right-wing president to become even more desperate as his political outlook worsens. 

Thursday’s revelations, if true, are further evidence that the steady erosion of democracy that has taken place under Bolsonaro is likely to accelerate as the election approaches, both Poggio and Stuenkel said.

“Little by little, we see all the bricks of the democratic building in Brazil being slowly destroyed,” Poggio said.

Bolsonaro and his closest allies have become increasingly desperate as the country’s COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage and his political outlook worsens. Brazil’s Congress is three months into an official investigation of the federal government’s handling of the pandemic, and has unearthed multiple allegations of corruption related to the procurement of vaccine doses. Those charges have hit close to home for both the president and the military, given that Bolsonaro installed another general to oversee his ministry of health after multiple ministers were fired or decided to quit rather than embrace his virus-related conspiracy theories.

Bolsonaro’s approval rating has dropped to new lows amid the probe, and preliminary polls show him badly trailing potential challengers ― including former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who will presumably run as the Workers Party’s candidate ― ahead of the October 2022 election.

Bolsonaro’s dire political outlook, and his desire to mimic Trump’s right-wing playbook at every turn, has led him to repeatedly stoke doubts about the integrity of Brazil’s electoral system. He has intensified those charges in recent weeks, suggesting first that he might boycott the race and later that there might not be an election at all.

Brazilian election experts have disputed Bolsonaro’s claims of potential fraud, and say there is no time to implement the changes he wants to see before next year’s election, even if Congress were to approve the legislation the president’s allies have backed. In late June, three members of Brazil’s Supreme Court met with representatives from nearly a dozen parties to urge them to drop the legislative proposal. Brazil’s top election court has told Bolsonaro to prove his allegations of fraud in previous elections, The Associated Press reported this month.

Brazil has conducted elections entirely via electronic voting machines for more than two decades, and was the first country to adopt an all-electronic voting system, in large part to reduce the fraud that had been common in paper ballot elections. Its machines require validation of voter identity, and votes are counted and winners declared in mere hours. Brazil’s electronic system has not faced significant allegations of fraud during any election where it has been in use, and despite Bolsonaro’s claims, post-election audits are possible and routinely conducted.

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It’s true that examinations of the system as a whole have found potential problems in need of fixing, but Bolsonaro’s claims are not really meant to bolster the integrity of Brazil’s elections, Stuenkel said. Rather, the point for Bolsonaro is to undermine the elections and find even the smallest irregularity that he can cite as evidence of widespread fraud. If top members of the military, which remains one of Brazil’s most trusted institutions, are willing to go along, it is hard to overstate the immediate threat Bolsonaro would pose to Brazilian democracy.

“Even if the transfer of power takes place, it basically assures that part of the population won’t recognize the new government,” Stuenkel said. “If you want to hold on to power, the elections are coming up and you’re not going to win, you have a couple of options: You can either boycott the election, you can lose and then ignore the election, or you could try to steal the election. Those are the three options, and all of them are traumatic.”

“I think basically all options are on the table,” he said. “Even people who are not known to be alarmist are alarmed.”

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