BRASILIA, Brazil — Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro transformed the nation’s bicentennial Wednesday into a multi-city campaign event, but didn’t use his appearances to undermine the upcoming election as his opponents had feared.
Bolsonaro, who trails former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in polls before the Oct. 2 vote, drew tens of thousands of supporters to rallies in Brasilia and Rio de Janeiro. The armed forces put on military displays in the cities, with the president attending.
The far-right Bolsonaro has stacked his administration with military officers and repeatedly sought their support, most recently to cast doubt on the reliability of the nation’s electronic voting system, which raised fears his speeches on Independence Day would be filled with fresh attacks. The far-right nationalist held back from doing so, and instead focused on attacks on da Silva and his leftist Workers’ Party.
Bolsonaro compared da Silva to autocratic leftist leaders in Venezuela and Nicaragua and called Brazil’s former president “a gangster.”
“We will have a much better administration with us being elected, with the grace of God,” the president said in a speech in Rio.
His prior efforts to sow doubt about the voting system has prompted widespread concern among his opponents that he may follow former U.S. President Donald Trump ’s footsteps in rejecting election results.
Bolsonaro arrived at the military display in Brasilia accompanied by at least one of the business executives who allegedly participated in a private chat group that included comments favoring a possible coup and military involvement in politics, and who is being investigated by Federal Police for possibly financing anti-democratic acts.
The crowd, decked out in green and yellow, chanted against da Silva, who wants to return to the post he held in 2003-2010.
Later, da Silva said he had never used Independence Day for electoral ends.
“Brazil needs better luck. It needs a government that takes care of people. A person who talks about harmony, love, economic growth, industrialization, job creation, pay increases,” da Silva said. “Brazil needs love, not hatred.”
Other presidential candidates also criticized Bolsonaro’s electoral use of the country’s independence bicentennial, and party leaders have suggested they will take the case to electoral courts.
Speaking at a rally after the parade in Brasilia, Bolsonaro made no reference to Brazil’s struggle for independence and instead focused on his achievements while his supporters made clear they came to support their candidate.
“We came for democracy, we want a free country, with no corruption or robbing, we want a country with clean elections,” said farmer Marcelo Zanella, 46, who drove some 800 kilometers (496 miles) from the state of Tocantins.
Tens of thousands also gathered on Sao Paulo’s main downtown boulevard. Due to a downpour and the fact Bolsonaro wasn’t scheduled to appear, turnout was apparently smaller than last year’s.
Later, Bolsonaro attended another military display in Rio along Copacabana beach — where his supporters often hold demonstrations. It entailed rifle salutes, cannon fire, flyovers, paratroopers and warships anchored offshore. He delivered his speech from a sound truck, on the back of which a draped banner read: “CLEAN AND TRANSPARENT ELECTIONS.”
Bolsonaro, a former army captain and lawmaker for decades before winning the 2018 presidential election, has spent most of his first term locking horns with Supreme Court justices, some of whom are also top members of the electoral authority.
He has accused some judges of hamstringing his administration and favoring da Silva. That has effectively turned those figures and their institutions into enemies for Bolsonaro’s base.
When Bolsonaro launched his reelection bid July 24, he asked supporters for “one last” show of support on Independence Day.
Carlos Melo, a political science professor at Insper University in Sao Paulo, said Bolsonaro needed to energize his campaign and reach out to undecided voters.
“He needed something new and failed to do that. Bolsonaro once more only spoke with his supporters, indeed many of them, and with that the window might be closing for other voters to join him,” Melo said.
Since his campaign began, Bolsonaro has softened his tone. In the southern city of Curitiba last week, he told supporters to lower a banner demanding a military coup.
Carlos Ranulfo de Melo, a political scientist at Federal University of Minas Gerais, said this likely reflects campaign strategy to avoid fiery rhetoric and instead focus on the improving economy.
“We will convince those who think differently from us, we will convince them of what is best for Brazil,” Bolsonaro told the crowd in Brasilia.
The president is known for off-the-cuff outbursts. At last year’s Independence Day rally, he pushed the country to the brink of an institutional crisis by proclaiming he would ignore rulings from a Supreme Court justice. He later backtracked, saying his comments came in the heat of the moment, and the boiling tension was reduced to a simmer.
In both speeches in Brasilia and Rio, he made a couple veiled critiques of the Supreme Court, which elicited boos from the crowd.
“The institutional wear-and-tear was present in his speech in Brasilia, but in a less explicit way than last year,” said Rafael Cortez, who oversees political risk at consultancy Tendencias Consultoria.
There had also been concerns about political violence, which didn’t materialize during the afternoon.
In Rio, it was a scene of adulation. Sound trucks blasted songs exalting Bolsonaro to a crowd packing multiple blocks of the beachside boulevard, spilling onto the sand and down to the waterline. Motorboats and jet skis floated just offshore. When the first paratroopers started gliding down, one group began chanting, “Legend!”, a nickname for the president.
“I came to honor my president,” said Myleni Lima, 50, from the city’s west zone. “I’m going to reeelect him, me and the Brazilian people.”
___ Savarese reported from Sao Paulo. Associated Press journalists Diane Jeantet and David Biller Jeantet in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.