Bolsonaro supporters fill Copacabana beach in a yellow-shirted show of force

Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has staged a show of political force at his country’s most famous beach in a bid to boost his stagnant re-election campaign.

Tens of thousands of Bolsonaro supporters flocked to the sands of Copacabana on Wednesday to celebrate 200 years of Brazilian independence and their populist leader, who is battling to win a second term in October’s vote.

“I’m not particularly polite. I use swear words – but I’m not a crook,” Bolsonaro told a sea of ​​yellow-clad supporters in the conservative seaside neighborhood.

The Copacabana rally is part of a bid to relaunch the presidential campaign with less than a month until 156 million Brazilians have cast their ballots.

The favorite to win is centre-left former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who most polls give a comfortable, but not necessarily unassailable, lead over the right-wing brand. Bolsonaro’s attempts to win over poor voters with billions of dollars in social benefits have so far failed.

But as early as Wednesday morning, Bolsonaro loyalists took to the beachfront Atlantic Avenue in Copacabana to denounce what they called Lula’s “communist” threat and defend the president they call “Mito.” (Legend).

Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil, waves to supporters during the country's independence bicentennial celebrations in Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday.
Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil, waves to supporters during the country’s independence bicentennial celebrations in Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday. Photography: Rodrigo Abd/AP

“For me he represents freedom,” said Jenivaldo Afonso, a 40-year-old carpenter who wore a T-shirt with Bolsonaro’s face and the phrase: “No soldier has given up the fight. We are with you until ‘at the end.

Of Lula, Afonso said: “He’s a tramp and a crook who needs to be locked up.”

Marcelo Cunha, an 85-year-old lawyer, came with more than a dozen catastrophic placards decrying the supposed far-left threat to his homeland.

“If you want fetuses thrown in the trash, vote left,” said one.

A second proclaims: “If you are a psychopath, thick, naive or cheeky, vote left.”

Marcelo Cunha, an 85-year-old Bolsonaro supporter, holds a sign which reads:
Marcelo Cunha holds a sign that reads: “If you are a psychopath, thick, naive or shameless, vote for the left.” Photography: Tom Phillips

Cunha pointed to the crowded streets around him – buzzing with Bolsonarians of all ages wearing bright yellow Brazil jerseys – and claimed more than a million people showed up.

“The polls indicate that Lula will win [but] I don’t believe them. I can’t believe it seeing all this,” Cunha said.

Pundits said Bolsonaro’s beach party was designed to mobilize his base by conveying the idea that he, rather than Lula, was on track to win the Oct. 2 vote.

“It’s an attempt to deny what the polls show and preemptively deny the election result in case he loses,” said Bruno Boghossian, a political commentator at the Folha de São Paulo newspaper. “The clear subtext of that is that he has more support than Lula.”

Lula, who ruled Brazil from 2003 to 2010, condemned what he called Bolsonaro’s hijacking of a national holiday for political purposes. “September 7 should be a day of love and union for Brazil. Unfortunately, that is not happening today. I trust that Brazil will regain its flag, its sovereignty and its democracy,” Lula tweeted.

Bolsonaro supporters watch an aerobatic display from their boats during a campaign rally at Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Bolsonaro supporters watch an aerobatic display from their boats during a campaign rally at Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photography: Wagner Meier/Getty Images

Not if Bolsonarian esthetician Edith Campos had anything to do with it. The 70-year-old joined the rally carrying a bilingual poster, in English and French, meant to push back against the false portrait she claimed European journalists painted of Bolsonaro.

“My friends in France tell me the horrible things the media say there. This Bolsonaro is a monster. That he’s an ogre,” said Campos, whose sign read: “We love him… Brazil with Bolsonaro.”

A recently published French book calls Bolsonaro – whose handling of the coronavirus and the Amazon has caused international outrage – the “brazilian nightmare(Brazilian Nightmare).

But Campos said his journalistic author was “completely wrong”.

“He should come and see the people on the streets who support our president today. Brazil has never seen such a multitude gathered for one man. And that’s because we believe he’s an honest man who will change Brazil. He has already changed Brazil.

In a 16-minute speech – which followed a spectacular Air Force acrobatic display and a stunning 21-gun salute – Bolsonaro claimed his re-election was essential if Brazil was to avoid becoming a dictatorship of Venezuelan or Nicaraguan style under its “gangster” rival.

Looking towards Rio’s Sugar Loaf, Bolsonaro said people like Lula needed to be “eradicated” from public life. He slammed a recent pro-democracy manifesto – signed by more than a million citizens – which warned Brazil’s fledgling democracy was facing a moment of “tremendous danger” due to Bolsonaro’s authoritarian tendencies.

Fears of unrest or even a coup or military uprising did not materialize at the carnival-like event, although anti-democracy banners could be seen hanging from sound trucks or worn by protesters.

One urged Bolsonaro to deploy the armed forces to ensure next month’s election is not rigged. Another demanded a “cleanup” of the Supreme Court and Congress.

Alexandre Ribeiro, a 45-year-old motorcyclist who traveled to the event from São Paulo, said: “All these people on the streets are proof that the country is with Bolsonaro. He should close the Supreme Court immediately to show that the people are sovereign.

A Bolsonaro supporter stands on the beach with a placard during celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of Brazil's independence.
A Bolsonaro supporter stands on the beach with a placard during celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of Brazil’s independence. Photograph: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images

Bolsonaro refrained from such explicitly radical rhetoric and Brian Winter, a Brazil pundit who was on the beach to watch the rally, said the Copacabana “country theatre” had, on the whole, carried its fruits.

“I think it was an effective day for Bolsonaro… He got his shot. It was an awesome sight. There were planes, drones and paratroopers. It was a sight.

“I’m not sure today helped him get any votes,” Winter added. “But it got his base excited.”

Bolsonaro supporters fill Copacabana beach in a yellow-shirted show of force

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