The international community must signal that it will not tolerate “the premature death of Brazilian democracy”, one of Jair Bolsonaro’s main rivals has said after Brazil’s far-right president intensified his attacks on the South American country’s electoral system.
Speaking to the Guardian, the centre-left politician Ciro Gomes – who plans to challenge Bolsonaro in next year’s presidential election – called the incumbent “a moral and human excrescence” whose anti-democratic rhetoric risked sparking violence in the lead-up to the vote.
Bolsonaro, who is being treated in hospital for a bowel obstruction, has repeatedly assailed Brazil’s electronic voting system in recent weeks in what some see as a bid to distract from a coronavirus corruption scandal that has pummeled his ratings and fuelled calls for his impeachment and street protests.
At one point the rightwing populist, who others fear could try to cling to power if he loses the 2022 election, hinted the election could be scrapped because of his unproven claims that electronic voting machines were used to rig past contests. “Either we have clean elections or we won’t have elections,” declared Bolsonaro, whose tactics have echoes of unfounded vote-rigging claims by Donald Trump and Peru’s rightwing presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori.
Demonstrators take to the streets to protest the government of Jair Bolsonaro in Rio de Janeiro. Photograph: Fernando Souza/ZUMA Wire/REX/Shutterstock
Gomes, a 63-year-old lawyer famed for his eloquent and pugnacious broadsides, said he doubted the military top brass would back Bolsonaro’s “coup-mongering deliriums” if he made a Trumpian bid to stay on past the end of his four-year term. Such fears intensified in March after the sudden removal of the defence minister and heads of all three branches of the armed forces.
But Gomes feared widespread support for Bolsonaro’s radical ideas among the rank and file of the military police meant mutinies and “spasmodic episodes of violence” would occur the lead-up to next year’s election. Gomes’s senator brother was shot twice in the chest last year during one such police rebellion, led by a pro-Bolsonaro sergeant.
Gomes urged foreign governments to send a “forceful and explicit” message that any democratic regression would be unacceptable for a nation which only emerged from two decades of military dictatorship in 1985. “We really need the world to look to us because [this is] one of the key factors that can ensure that this itinerary of collective madness and tragedy towards Brazil seems to be heading [is stopped],” he said.
Polls put Gomes third in next year’s race, behind the leftist frontrunner and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Bolsonaro, a former paratrooper notorious for his admiration of the generals who ruled Brazil between 1964 and 1985. Gomes, a former finance minister who has made three previous runs, offered a searing critique of the “aberrant figure” now governing Brazil.
“From whichever angle you choose to look at it, Brazil is living through the worst government in its history. And this [realization] has now spread through the Brazilian population because Bolsonaro is basically a fraud,” said Gomes who believes a televised congressional inquiry into Bolsonaro’s catastrophic Covid response is largely responsible.
Gomes said the inquiry, which began in April, had exposed the denialism and incompetence that had contributed to the deaths of more than half a million Brazilians from a disease Bolsonaro has called a “little flu”.
“People are watching it like a soap opera or Big Brother,” Gomes said of the inquiry’s near daily sessions, claiming most citizens had come to see Bolsonaro as “a bumbling troublemaker” incapable of solving Brazil’s complex problems.
Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly assailed Brazil’s electronic voting system in recent weeks. Photograph: Eraldo Peres/AP
In recent weeks explosive corruption allegations involving the purchase of Covid vaccines have also surfaced during the hearings, which Gomes said exposed the level of “institutional decay” under way.
Gomes also had harsh words for his leftwing rival Lula, in whose first administration he served as a minister. Once close allies and friends, the two men fell out during the 2018 presidential campaign with Gomes accusing Lula of facilitating Bolsonaro’s victory by supposedly insisting he was the Workers’ party (PT) candidate when he knew that would be impossible because of his recently quashed convictions for corruption.
“Lula lied to the Brazilian people claiming he was candidate … and I told him this was a dangerous deception that would end up electing Bolsonaro. He ignored everything I said,” said Gomes, who claimed he could have defeated Bolsonaro with the support of PT voters and Lula.
In the event, Lula’s little-known last-minute substitute, Fernando Haddad, was resoundingly beaten by a radical rightwinger who Gomes claimed strove to be “a tropical Hitler”.
Gomes was widely criticised by progressive Brazilians for failing to publicly champion Haddad in the run-off against Bolsonaro and instead flying to Paris. He defended himself, claiming he had “the personal and political right … not to campaign for a group I consider a cause of the Bolsonaro tragedy”.
“I thought it would be a huge disaster but I could never have imagined that this disaster would be counted in hundreds of thousands of deaths,” Gomes said of Bolsonaro’s government. “[The pandemic] raised my worst expectations to the nth degree.”