BRASÍLIA — They arrived in their tens of thousands on Wednesday, angry and draped in Brazilian flags, massing outside military bases across the country. They were there, they said, to save Brazilian democracy from a rigged election, and there was only one way to do it: the armed forces had to take control of the government.
It was an alarming request in a country that suffered under a two-decade military dictatorship until 1985 – and yet another bizarre twist in the wake of Brazil’s polarizing elections.
A day earlier, far-right president Jair Bolsonaro reluctantly agreed to a power transfer after 45 hours of silence following his defeat by a former leftist leader, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. But after years of Mr Bolsonaro’s baseless attacks on Brazil’s electoral systems, his supporters seemed far from accepting defeat.
“I don’t quite understand, but they need to step in and hold new elections,” said Andrea Vaz, 51, a hardware salesman holding a sign that read “Voting Machine Fraud!” during a large demonstration in front of the national headquarters of the Brazilian army in Brasilia. “We saw different videos. People give money, buy votes,” she added. “There is evidence.”
But some protesters had clearer, more drastic demands circulating on WhatsApp and Telegram groups: the military should take over the streets, Congress and the Supreme Court should be dissolved, and the president should remain in power, least until the new elections could take place.
Widespread protests and calls for the armed forces have been an escalation of Brazil’s far-right refusal to accept the election of Mr da Silva, a former president whom many on the right consider a criminal because of his scandal of past corruption.
Mr Bolsonaro, in a two-minute speech on Tuesday in which he did not acknowledge his loss, said he supported peaceful protests inspired by “feelings of injustice in the electoral process”.
Many of his followers saw this as a sign of approval. “What he said yesterday gave me more energy to come,” said Larissa Oliveira da Silva, 22, who sat in a beach chair at the protest in São Paulo, supporting her broken foot. “After his comments, I saw that he was on our side.”
But other protesters said Mr Bolsonaro had effectively backed out of his deal to hand over power to Mr da Silva on Tuesday, so they were turning to the armed forces instead.
In a statement, the Brazilian Ministry of Defense said that “protests, provided they are orderly and peaceful, fall within the exercise of freedom of expression, thought and assembly, in accordance with constitutional principles and to the laws in force”.
The army has not considered intervening in the transfer of power and, if the protests spread, it could urge the president to ask his supporters to return home, according to a senior military official who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private interviews. The military, which helped oversee the elections, found no signs of fraud, the official said.
The Department of Defense said it would soon deliver its report on the integrity of the vote to election officials.
In interviews with more than 60 protesters across Brazil since Sunday, almost none believed the election was clean. These beliefs were rooted in the same circumstantial evidence, unattributed reports and inaccuracies that Mr. Bolsonaro has been promoting for years to claim that elections in Brazil are riddled with fraud. They had seen videos of malfunctioning voting machines, read that the patterns in the voting results were suspicious and, they said, they simply did not trust election officials.
But crucially, they said Mr Bolsonaro had drawn much larger crowds than Mr da Silva – and almost everyone they knew voted for the president – so how come he lost ?
The movement was loosely organized. There appear to have been no official protest leaders and prominent public figures, including conservative politicians, have failed to echo similar calls for intervention. Yet it quickly became the biggest protest since Mr Bolsonaro lost the vote on Sunday.
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With a collective turnout of more than 100,000 people, protesters gathered in at least 75 cities, including all 27 state capitals of Brazil, often around military bases.
Elsewhere across the country, protesters continued to set up highway blockades, creating mile-long back-ups and disrupting transportation and freight. The blockades began immediately after Sunday’s election results in what protesters called an effort to “paralyze” Brazil and force the military to intervene. As of Wednesday afternoon, 146 blockages were still active, according to the federal highway police.
Around São Paulo, blockages caused multiple backups totaling more than 60 miles of traffic jams on Wednesday, according to the local traffic agency, and led to the cancellation of 1,400 buses. The disruptions also caused fuel shortages in at least four states.
Mr Bolsonaro posted a video on Tuesday evening imploring his supporters to stop blocking roads, saying it was disrupting lives and hurting the economy. “I’m as upset and sad as you are, but we have to put our heads in the right place,” he said. “Other protests taking place across Brazil in public squares are part of the democratic game.”
“Let’s do what needs to be done,” he added. “I agree.” He did not respond directly to calls for military intervention.
The protests were largely non-violent. The most notable incident was an attack on protesters in Mirassol, a medium-sized city north of São Paulo, when a car drove into the crowd, injuring 11 people, according to local police. A man has been arrested for attempted murder, police said.
Beyond their insistence that the vote was stolen, the protesters were also motivated by their contempt for Mr da Silva, who has been the most dominant political figure in Brazil’s 34 years of modern democracy. Universally known as Lula, he was a top candidate in six of nine presidential elections during this period, winning three.
But after his last administration he also served 17 months in prison for corruption, which was later thrown out when the Supreme Court ruled the judge in his cases was biased.
However, he has never been cleared of any wrongdoing, fueling a belief that he should not be trusted and making him perhaps a more polarizing force for many Brazilians than Mr. Bolsonaro.
“We don’t want a rogue president who stole, who was arrested, who had several people in his government who looted Brazil,” said Danielle Mota, 43, a hairdresser holding a sign that read “Federal Intervention “.
“We want a military intervention.” she added. “Like 1964.”
It was the year the armed forces, with US backing, overthrew the government, establishing a 21-year military dictatorship that killed or tortured thousands of political opponents. Most protesters interviewed Wednesday at protests in three of the country’s biggest cities, Brasilia, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, said they want Brazil to remain a democracy. But others, facing Mr. da Silva as president, said it was time for a military government.
“Permanently,” said Kenya Oliveira, 38, holding her 4-year-old son in her arms.
Camila Rocha, a Brazilian political scientist who has written a book on the radicalization of the Brazilian right, said the calls for the military were the product of years of absorbing Mr Bolsonaro’s claims that the elections were rigged, combined with fears of a da Silva administration.
Mr da Silva’s left-wing Workers’ Party was at the center of a sprawling government bribery scheme that came to light after he left office in 2010, leading to the jailing of many senior party officials . Mr. Bolsonaro and his allies have long branded the party corrupt, but they also misrepresented it as communist.
Many on the right view Mr da Silva “not as an adversary, but as an enemy who must be contained”, Ms Rocha said. “In this sense, there is a strong parallel with the 1964 coup, which was justified precisely to halt the advance of what was thought to be the rise of communism in Brazil.”
Many protesters said their demands for intervention were backed by Article 142 of Brazil’s Constitution, which states that the role of the military is to “guarantee constitutional powers” under the “supreme authority of the president”.
According to constitutional scholars and previous court rulings, the article does not allow the military to take control of the government.
Marco Aurélio Mello, a retired Supreme Court justice and a staunch supporter of Mr Bolsonaro, said the protesters’ interpretation was “just nostalgia for authoritarian rule”.
He added that instead protesters had “the losers’ right to complain”.
Laís Martins contributed reporting from São Paulo, Flávia Milhorance, Ana Ionova and Leonardo Coelho from Rio de Janeiro, and André Spigariol and Gustavo Freitas from Brasilia.