Thousands of Brazilians flocked to a law school Thursday in defense of the nation’s democratic institutions, an event that carried echoes of a gathering nearly 45 years ago when citizens joined together at the same site to denounce a brutal military dictatorship.
In 1977, the masses poured into the University of Sao Paulo’s law school to listen to a reading of “A Letter to Brazilians,” a manifesto calling for a prompt return of the rule of law. On Thursday, they heard declarations defending democracy and the country’s elections systems, which President Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly attacked ahead of his reelection bid. While the current manifestos don’t specifically name Bolsonaro, they underscore the country’s widespread concern that the far-right leader may follow in former U.S. President Donald Trump’s footsteps and reject election results not in his favor in an attempt to cling to power.
“We are at risk of a coup, so civil society must stand up and fight against that to guarantee democracy,” José Carlos Dias, a former justice minister who helped write the 1977 letter and the two documents read Thursday, told The Associated Press.
In Sao Paulo, drivers stuck in traffic on one of the main roads to the law school applauded and honked as marching students chanted pro-democracy slogans. A huge inflatable electronic voting machine by the building’s main entrance bore the slogan “RESPECT THE VOTE”.
Inside, hundreds of guests gathered in the university’s Great Hall to hear speeches, while others stood outside watching on big flat screens.
The proclamations are contained in two letters. The first went online on July 26 and has been signed by nearly 1 million citizens, including ordinary people; popular musicians such as Caetano Veloso and Anitta; high-profile bankers and executives; and presidential candidates, among them former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who leads all polls ahead of the October election.
The second letter, published in newspapers last Friday, carries the endorsement of hundreds of companies in banking, oil, construction and transportation — sectors that traditionally have been averse to taking public political stances, said Carlos Melo, a political science professor at Insper University in Sao Paulo. They appear to have made an exception now, given the fear that any democratic backslide would be bad for business, he said.
“Democracy is important for the economy,” he said.
Bolsonaro’s commitment to democracy has been scrutinized since he took office, in large part because the former army captain has insistently glorified the country’s two-decade dictatorship, which ended in 1985. Earlier this year he met with Hungary’s autocratic leader, Viktor Orban, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
The president only spoke about the event late Thursday, saying it was crafted to support da Silva’s campaign. He also criticized the Workers’ Party for supporting leftist authoritarian regimes in Cuba and Venezuela.
For over a year, in actions that appear to be lifted directly from Trump’s playbook, Bolsonaro has claimed Brazil’s electronic voting machines are prone to fraud, though — like Trump — he never presented any evidence. At one point, he threatened those elections would be suspended if Congress didn’t approve a bill to introduce printed receipts of votes. The bill didn’t pass.