Political violence casts a shadow over Brazil’s general election
Jair Bolsonaro (AFP:Evaristo SA)

Upcoming elections in Brazil are the most polarized in recent history and also the most radicalized – across the country, the electoral campaign has been marked by physical attacks, death threats and even murder. It is a source of growing concern as the October 2 vote draws closer, with more than 67 percent of the population saying they fear becoming a victim of violence for their political choices, according to a recent survey by the Datafolha polling firm.

“I’m going to send someone to kill you, I know where you live.”

Chico Alencar, a congressional candidate for the left-wing Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), received this terse Instagram threat a week ago. The author of the threat, a supporter of President Jair Bolsonaro, compared communism – which Bolsonaro partisans believe to be a grave threat to Brazil – to Nazism.

Alencar, a 72-year-old veteran of left-wing politics in Rio de Janeiro, is no stranger to such hostility. Still, the Rio city councillor has taken extra precautions since receiving this threat: He now travels to work in an armored vehicle accompanied by a bodyguard.

Having filed a complaint with the state’s civil police, Alencar met this week with a local official, Fernando Albuquerque, to get an update on the investigation and the possible arrest of his harasser.

“We’re seeing lots of isolated cases that, when you add them up, form a mosaic of shocking violence,” Alencar says. “These attacks are provoked by people who question the legitimacy of the electronic voting system, who denounce electoral fraud, who say that we are evil incarnate. There is unbelievable radicalization. The perception is that political rivals should be eliminated.”

Physical and verbal attacks target not only political candidates and their supporters but also polling firms, which are accused of bias by the Bolsonaro camp. Since the start of the campaign, Datafolha has recorded around a dozen attacks on its field workers across the country.

Politically motivated murder

The radicalization of the campaign has taken a dramatic turn in the last few weeks. At a bar in Cascavel, a small town in the northeastern state of Ceara, one man stabbed another to death on September 24 after the victim announced his support for former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (known as "Lula"). A Bolsonaro supporter was fatally stabbed a day later after a bar fight in the south of the country.

These were politically motivated murders, according to police investigations, adding to the toll of deadly election violence. In the central state of Mato Grosso on September 8, a Bolsonaro supporter killed his pro-Lula colleague after an argument by stabbing him at least 70 times with a knife and an axe. In Foz do Iguaçu in the state of Parana in July, a police officer fatally shot Marcelo Arruda, treasurer for the local branch of the left-wing Workers’ Party, during the victim’s Lula-themed birthday party. Witnesses said the murderer shouted, “This is Bolsonaro territory! Lula is a thief!”

Nine political parties have denounced this escalation of violence with the Superior Electoral Court, the country's highest electoral authority, calling for it to guarantee security on the day of the election and to establish a telephone hotline to report incidents of political violence.

'A population living in fear'

According to Datafolha, 67.5 percent of the population fears being physically attacked for their political beliefs.

“What we have here is a population living in fear. Around 3 percent of the survey respondents, which would be equivalent to 5 million Brazilians, said they have been the victim of political violence,” says Mônica Sodré, a political scientist and director of the Political Action Network for Sustainability, the organization behind the survey.

“This shows the gravity of the situation. We can’t ignore the fact that we have a head of state whose rhetoric is pro-gun and pro-violence. The way a leader behaves and talks has repercussions on how the population interprets this language and behaves,” she adds.

Since he took office in 2019, Bolsonaro has issued more than 40 executive decrees making it easier for civilians to own firearms. The gun market has since exploded, with Brazilians purchasing an average 1,300 firearms per day.

When questioned during a televised debate aired on the SBT channel on September 24, Bolsonaro rejected any responsibility for the violence committed in his name. The famously provocative president initially made light of the situation, comparing political attacks and murders with brawls between rival football fans. He then went on the attack, criticizing journalists for posing the question: “Trying to hold me responsible for this violence is not serious journalism,” he said.

‘High likelihood’ of violence on election day

Sodré says Bolsonaro’s statements could pose a threat to Brazilian democracy itself. “If we live in a system that is no longer capable of guaranteeing people’s security and freedom of expression, thus imperiling lives, democracy is at risk."

Among Brazilian voters, 40 percent believe there is a “high likelihood” of violence on the day of the vote, according to another Datafolha poll. As a result, 9 percent of those surveyed say they are considering not turning out.

Meanwhile, the Superior Electoral Court has authorized the deployment of the armed forces to 568 municipalities on election day to guarantee that Brazilians can freely exercise their right to vote.

The possible reaction of the Bolsonaro camp to any election result they don't like is a real source of concern. The president has already repeatedly questioned the reliability of Brazil's electronic ballots, and his supporters spread more disinformation daily about the possibility of the vote being rigged despite a lack of evidence. The US embassy in Brasilia called Brazil's election system a "model for the world" in July.

It remains unclear whether Bolsonaro will accept the results, given that some polls are now predicting a first-round victory for Lula.

But Sodré says that she finds reassurance in another of the poll’s findings: “90 percent of those surveyed believe that the winner of the election must be sworn in on January 1, 2023, no matter what happens.”

This article has been translated from the original in French.