Why fear of a coup attempt is on the horizon in Brazil's elections

Jair Bolsonaro during Brazil's independence bicentennial | Image: Alan Santos/Brazil's Presidency/CC 2.0

Before giving the opening speech at the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 20 in New York, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro (PL, Liberal Party), talked with reporters and hailed his supporters at the hotel's door. In a video published by the BBC, he says the Brazilian population wants the continuation of his government, that he doesn’t believe in polls and that he will win a second term in the first round on Oct. 2.

The day before, in another interview, Bolsonaro stated that if the ballots do not give him 60 percent of the votes next Oct. 2, then “something abnormal must have happened with the Electoral Court (TSE, in Portuguese).”

The problem is, the same day, another poll showed former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva still ahead of him, with 47 percent of voting intention, against Bolsonaro’s 31 percent. Lula was previously imprisoned for 580 days under corruption charges, but the convictions were then annulled.

In the early hours of this Sept. 29, three days away from the elections, Bolsonaro published a thread with a picture of Lula surrounded by political figures from different parties, who are now supporting the former president, and made a case of how they were all part of a system that felt threatened by Bolsonaro himself, concluding:

Who insists in fake memories from the past hasn't understood yet that we live in a new era. Those who despise the people and their values should get used to the lack of peace. God did not give me a new life in September, 6, 2018 [when he was stabbed, during a campaign act] to be a manager, but to change our Brazil once and for all!

The concern and suspicions of a coup attempt or denial to recognize the election results from the current president have been brewing in Brazil for a while. But they are increasing with the elections getting closer, as the possibility of a defeat of the current government, the president's rhetoric questioning the electoral system, and the uncertainty of what will come next looms.

Three days before the elections, a note, with Bolsonaro's party's logo on it, once again raised doubts about the safety of the ballots, something quickly dismissed by the Superior Electoral Court.

In its own note for the press, TSE says the document's conclusions are “fake and untrue” and disconnected from reality, “gathering fraudulent information and attempts against the Democratic Law State and the Judiciary, especially to the electoral justice, in a clear attempt to embarrass and disturb the natural course of the electoral process.”

Questioning Polls

Bolsonaro and his followers have been feeding the narrative that polls got his election wrong in 2018, which is a lie that is easily disproven. Bolsonaro has also raised suspicions about the safety of the electronic ballots box that got himself and his sons elected many times over the past 20 years.  In July, he even invited ambassadors to an event putting the voting system in question without presenting any evidence of such.

Global Voices has been asking the Federal Police for access to the investigation that the president affirmed more than once to be public, but the department responsible has yet to respond.

In an interview with the main news broadcast of the country, TV Globo’s Jornal Nacional, on Aug. 22, Bolsonaro was reluctant to promise he will respect the elections’ result. He said he will as long as the process is “clean and transparent,” which has been proven already.

The Superior Electoral Court (TSE) has even accepted suggestions made by the military, which led to the president’s own son, senator Flávio Bolsonaro, declaring the possibility of fraud as close to zero.

With Lula leading the polls for months, a tendency seems to have already emerged. But there is a wave of misinformation running on different social media platforms trying to challenge this reality.

Jornal Nacional, the aforementioned news broadcast, had to clarify to viewers about a deep fake being shared that showed its anchors presenting a poll with Bolsonaro leading the numbers.

“Since Aug. 15, polls by Ipec and DataFolha, showed the Workers’ Party candidate, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, as the one with the bigger percentage of voting intentions. In all of them, Bolsonaro shows up in second place,” explained news anchor William Bonner.

In these elections, the war waged on the internet gained another weapon: the deep fake, an instrument to alter sound and image using artificial intelligence (AI). One of these videos shows that Bolsonaro would be ahead in the voting polls, which is false.

When Ipec, one of the leading research institutes in Brazil, published its latest results this Sept. 19, Fábio Faria, Bolsonaro’s communication minister, tweeted:

TSE, take note of these numbers that Ipec is presenting, because on Oct. 2 the people will ask for the closure of this institute.

Enough with the absurd of these electoral polls!!!

The time of truth is arriving.

Ipec itself has also been the target of fake news shared among bolsonaristas. They claim the group, formerly known as Ibope, has the same address as Lula’s Institute in São Paulo, which actually led bolsonaristas to knock on the door of the institution to check it out.

Challenges of predicting voter behaviour

Four years ago, when Bolsonaro was elected president, polls did indicate he could be defeated in the second round, although polls closer to Election Day got the numbers pretty close to the actual results and within the margin of error.

In the weeks after the attack he suffered at a campaign event — Bolsonaro was stabbed a month away from the first round — and closer to Election Day, the polls all pointed to his victory over Fernando Haddad, the Workers’ Party's candidate. As Reuters remembered:

O então candidato Jair Bolsonaro (PL, na época PSL) encerrou o primeiro turno em 2018 com 46,03% dos votos válidos, na frente do petista Fernando Haddad, que teve 29,28%. A última pesquisa de intenção de voto divulgada pelo Datafolha mostrou Bolsonaro com 40% dos votos válidos, contra 25% de Haddad. Na do Ibope, Bolsonaro teve 41% das intenções de votos válidos e Haddad, 25%.

Then candidate Jair Bolsonaro ended the first round in 2018 with 46.03% of the valid votes, ahead of Workers’ Party Fernando Haddad, who had 29.28%. The last poll published by DataFolha showed Bolsonaro with 40% of the valid votes, against 25% for Haddad. At Ibope’s [now Ipec], Bolsonaro had 41% of the votes and Haddad, 25%.

This year, Brazil has 11 candidates running for the presidency. Besides, Lula and Bolsonaro, only two others have a more or less meaningful vote intention showing in the polls: former Congressman and Lula’s minister Ciro Gomes, with 7 percent, and senator Simone Tebet, with 5 percent.

Another institute, Genial/Quaest, also captured a phenomenon that could impact the ballots this year, the so-called “ashamed vote.” This refers to voters who are ashamed of declaring who will be their preferred candidate, something people believed to be stronger among people voting for Bolsonaro. However, research showed it could actually be more impactful in votes for Lula.

One of the reasons for such, according to an article penned by Quaest's director Felipe Nunes and researcher Frederico Batista, is fear of harassment or attacks. From killings to physical aggression, there have been several stories of political violence prior to this year's election already.

The estimation is that around 6 percent of voters would be willing to choose the “useful vote,” as news outlet UOL shows. Instead of voting for their favorite candidate, they're voting for whoever has the best chance of winning over someone they do not want to see elected in the first round already.

Some pro-Lula voters have been insisting on the so-called “useful vote,” which could guarantee his victory in the first round and make it harder for Bolsonaro to contest the results. This year, Brazilians have to vote for five different representatives: one state and one federal Congress member, senator, state governor, and president. This means, if Bolsonaro loses and doesn't accept the outcome, he would put in question the election of several allies as well.

Threatening Democracy

In early September, The Economist issued a cover with Bolsonaro as “The man who would be Trump,” and titled an article, “Win or lose, Jair Bolsonaro poses a threat to Brazilian democracy,” where they write:

[Bolsonaro] seems to be laying the rhetorical groundwork to cry ballot fraud and deny the voters’ verdict. Brazilians fear he could then incite an insurrection, perhaps like the one America suffered when a mob of Donald Trump’s supporters invaded the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021—or perhaps even worse.


He thus poses as great a threat to Latin America’s largest democracy as he does to the world’s largest rainforest. (On his watch, the slashing and burning of the Amazon has proceeded 70% faster than before, because he does almost nothing to stop it.) And whatever happens, he and his movement are not going away. He has learned from Mr. Trump how to snatch influence and power from the jaws of defeat.

In an editorial titled, “Never mind the voters – Bolsonaro plans to win,” British newspaper The Guardian analyses what seems to be at stake in the 2022 Brazil elections.

The newspaper affirms that “opponents fear not only pre-election violence but also a Trump-style bid to hang on to power in defiance of the electorate,” but with the aggravation that the armed forces are part of Bolsonaro’s government and he claims to have their support:

Though few accept his sweeping assertion, there is real concern that he could find significant support within the armed forces. A clear, outright victory for Lula, ideally in the first round but more likely in a runoff, is the best result for Brazilian democracy and the planet. Other countries must make it clear that they will not tolerate any attempt by Mr Bolsonaro to cheat, bully or menace his way to a second term.

Recently elected president of Chile, Gabriel Boric, told Time magazine in August that “Latin America must react if there is a coup attempt in Brazil.” Bolsonaro claimed that Boric had set metro stations on fire during the 2019 riots in Santiago, which was repudiated by Chile’s chancellor. Luciana Taddeo, a Brazilian correspondent in the region, stresses that there never was anything indicating Boric’s participation in those acts in Chile. The Brazilian president didn't retract his claims.

Last week, in a podcast hosted by evangelicals, Bolsonaro spoke for more than four hours, and close to the end said that, if he loses, he would pass the presidential sash and retire, since at his age — he’s 67 — there was nothing else left to be done.

He finished by defending the addition of the word “freedom” to his motto “God, homeland, and family,” explaining it was more important than life itself and that he could never survive in jail.

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.