Brazil’s Bolsonaro Flops in TV Debate as Attacks on Democracy Continue

Sep 6, 2022
3:31 PM

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro flashes a thumbs up as he arrives for a flag raising ceremony outside Alvorada palace, in Brasilia, Brazil, Thursday, March 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

After missing live TV debates during the last election, Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, decided to participate this year, and what Brazilians saw on TV was a horror show of misogyny and anger. 

Bolsonaro attacked journalist Vera Rodrigues and was harshly confronted by senator and presidential candidate Simone Tebet. Pressed against the ropes, he angrily answered questions, earning him the distinction as the worst participant among the six candidates present, according to a viewer poll.

Frontrunner and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s performance was muted, below expectations, while center-left candidate Ciro Gomes, third in the polls, stood out.

Bolsonaro’s comments followed the same script repeated since his election almost four years ago, once again dismissing the horrors of the pandemic, preaching against the Supreme Court, and lying outright.

A few days earlier, in an interview on Rede Globo’s Jornal Nacional, the most watched news program on Brazilian television, Bolsonaro had already been accused of telling at least one lie every three minutes—in a 40-minute interview. During the interview, the loud banging of pots could be heard all over the country in protest of Bolsonaro, who has refused to commit to respecting the result of the elections if defeated.

Last week, Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes ordered action against several businessmen accused of planning a coup through WhatsApp messages. 

The eight pro-Bolosnaro businessmen, who discussed in a WhatsApp group chat how to ensure that Bolsonaro stays in power even if he loses the election, were visited by the Federal Police on August 23 and had their electronics confiscated. Social media accounts of those involved have also been blocked. 

According to Folha de São Paulo, the action was motivated by a report by journalist Guilherme Amado for the website Metrópoles, in which he denounced the content of the messages in the WhatsApp group.

Moraes’ decision was criticized even by opponents of the government for supposedly being based on only one report and for taking excessive measures, such as blocking the social networks of those involved. Journalist Lygia Maria, in a column for Folha de São Paulo, said that “in trying to protect the Democratic State of Law at any cost, one ends up acting like those who want to destroy it.”

The cell phones of the businessmen seized by the Federal Police brought potentially alarming information beyond the messages supporting a coup, such as message exchanges between them and Attorney General Augusto Aras, who has been accused of acting as Bolsonaro’s watchdog by preventing any investigations against the president. 

In the messages involving Aras was criticism of the actions of Justice Moraes, as well as comments about Bolsonaro’s campaign.

Whether Moraes’ decision was an overreaction or an abuse of his power, the fact is that many experts and millions of Brazilians are fearful for the country’s democratic future. “Letter to Brazilians in Defense of the Democratic Rule of Law,” which was published in July by the Law School of the University of São Paulo and reached 100,000 signatures in just 24 hours, broke the barrier of one million signatures on August 11, after it was read publicly by jurists at the university.

The date recalls the 1997 march organized by students and professors of the university against the military dictatorship and also the foundation of the law course at the Law School of São Paulo. in 1827. Demonstrations in support of democracy and the letter were also held in 27 Brazilian capitals and dozens of other cities throughout the country.

In a twist, it appears that even some Bolsonaro supporters are angry with him—though possibly not for the same reasons as those supporting democracy.

YouTuber Wilker Leão de Sá gained prominence last month by shouting at the president in Brasilia, calling him a “tchutchuca do centrão,” which roughly means “b—h of the center”—“centrão” being the name given to members of Congress from parties with no clear ideology who group together for government benefits and are typically involved in corruption scandals. De Sá also referred to the president as a “bum,” “coward,” and “rascal.”

Bolsonaro lost his temper and tried to assault the YouTuber and snatch the cell phone from his hands. Later it was discovered that de Sá was a corporal in the army, a supporter of the president, and tried to run for Congress with União Brasil (Brazil Union), a party that brings together several politicians who were elected with the support of Bolsonaro—many of whom no longer support the president.

In the event of Bolsonaro’s failure to win reelection and if the planned coup does not take place, the president’s supporters plan to form a pact with the judiciary and the legislature to approve a change to the constitution that would shield Bolsonaro from prosecution and eventual imprisonment for crimes committed during his term.

The issue has reentered serious discussion following the president’s speech to foreign ambassadors in which he once again repeated, without proof, that the electronic ballot boxes would not be secure—a speech that could serve as the basis for a coup d’état and which was heavily criticized not only for being false and for accusing the electoral process of being fraudulent, but for presenting alleged flaws in the electoral process to foreign dignitaries, which itself could be considered an act of treason.

The attempt to shield the president, however, was not well received by Congress, much less the judiciary. And there is still talk behind the scenes about the possibility of an auto-pardon along the lines of what was proposed in the United States during the waning months of the Trump administration.

But while politicians are vying for space, the election campaign is in full swing, and shows of support for democracy are being held, hunger continues to grow in Brazil. There are more than 33 million people starving in the country today, and 125 million in total face food insecurity.

During the first presidential debate, Gomes, the center-left candidate, pressed the president on the issue of hunger. Bolsonaro answered that the number was exaggerated, thus minimizing the problem—not for the first time

The Brazilian economy continues to deteriorate, and doubts persist as to whether the situation will improve with the election of a new president, especially under an atmosphere of uncertainty concerning the health of Brazilian democracy.


Raphael Tsavkko Garcia is a journalist with a Ph.D in human rights (focused on migration and diaspora). His portfolio is here. Twitter: @Tsavkko