BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) — Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro got a rousing reception from tens of thousands of people gathered in the capital Tuesday in an Independence Day show of support for the right-wing leader embroiled in a feud with the country’s Supreme Court.
Bolsonaro, in an address inaudible to many in the crowd far from the loudspeakers, lashed out at the high court and said the nation can no longer accept what he characterized as political imprisonments — a reference to arrests ordered by Justice Alexandre de Moraes. He warned that the court could “suffer what we don’t want.”
The crowd began chanting, “Alexandre out!”
His speech followed a helicopter flyover, with those on the ground seized with euphoria at the sight. They applauded and shouted, “Legend!” and “I authorize!” — a slogan widely understood as blanket approval of his methods.
Bolsonaro has called on the Senate to impeach de Moraes, who has jailed several of the president’s supporters for allegedly financing, organizing or inciting violence or disseminating false information.
Massive participation in rallies scheduled across the country would reinforce Bolsonaro’s push to prove he retains strength — despite slumping poll ratings — and recover momentum after a string of setbacks.
He is also seeking support in his dispute with the high court. Some on Tuesday carried banners calling for military intervention to secure Bolsonaro’s hold on power.
Critics feared the demonstrations could take a violent turn. Some said they were afraid Bolsonaro could be preparing a tropical version of the Jan. 6 riot in Washington, where supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol, alleging he had been robbed of a reelection victory.
Like Trump, Bolsonaro was elected on a pledge to go after a corrupt, entrenched political class. He has also said he might reject the 2022 election results if he loses.
On Monday evening, supporters broke through police lines set up to block vehicles and halt early pedestrian access to the capital’s central mall. By morning, dozens of honking trucks were parked on the mall, where only pedestrians were supposed to be allowed. Along the esplanade, there was a festive mood, with cold drinks and the scent of grilled meat.
Regina Pontes, 53, stood atop a flatbed that advanced toward police barriers preventing access to Congress and the Supreme Court. She said the Brazilian people have every right to enter the area.
“You can’t close the door to keep the owner out,” she said.
The world’s second-highest COVID-19 death toll, a drumbeat of accusations of wrongdoing in the government’s handling of the pandemic, and surging inflation have weighed on Bolsonaro’s approval ratings.
Polls show his nemesis, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, could trounce him in a runoff if he enters the race.
Bolsonaro set out to prove pollsters wrong with Tuesday’s demonstration, whose organizers promised: “Sept. 7 will be gigantic!”
The president was scheduled to speak again in the afternoon in Sao Paulo. He predicted a crowd of 2 million.
Tuesday’s demonstrations “may show that he has millions of people who are ready to stand up and be with him even when Brazil’s economy is in a bad situation, inflation near 10%, the pandemic and all that,” said Thomas Traumann, a political analyst.
“If Bolsonaro feels he has the support of millions of Brazilians, he will go further in his challenging of the Supreme Court,” Traumann added.
Some centrist allies have implored the president to dial down his rancor to avoid jeopardizing support from moderate voters and lawmakers.
Bolsonaro has repeatedly claimed the Supreme Court is trampling on constitutional limits and should be reined in. That has raised fears among his critics, given his frequently expressed nostalgia for the nation’s past military dictatorship.
On the eve of Tuesday’s protest, Bolsonaro signed a provisional measure sharply limiting social media platforms’ ability to remove content, restrict its spread or block accounts.
A 69-year-old farmer from Minas Gerais state, Clever Greco, came to Brasilia with a group of more than 1,000 others. He said Brazil’s conservatives back Bolsonaro’s call for the removal of two Supreme Court justices by peaceful means. But Greco also likened his trip to deploying for war.
“I don’t know what day I’ll go back. I’m prepared to give my blood, if needed,” Greco said. “We’re no longer asking; the people are ordering.”
The U.S. Embassy in Brasilia last week warned Americans to steer clear of the protests.
“This is an important moment and surrounded by a lot of apprehension,” Paulo Calmon, a political science professor at the University of Brasilia, said before the demonstrations. “The risk we see scenes of violence and an institutional crisis that’s unprecedented in Brazil’s recent history still remains and is considerable.”