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Brazilians Rally for Democracy         08/12 06:07

   

   SAO PAULO (AP) -- Thousands of Brazilians flocked to a law school Thursday 
in defense of the nation's democratic institutions, an event that carried 
echoes of a gathering nearly 45 years ago when citizens joined together at the 
same site to denounce a brutal military dictatorship.

   In 1977, the masses poured into the University of Sao Paulo's law school to 
listen to a reading of "A Letter to Brazilians," a manifesto calling for a 
prompt return of the rule of law. On Thursday, they heard declarations 
defending democracy and the country's elections systems, which President Jair 
Bolsonaro has repeatedly attacked ahead of his reelection bid.

   While the current manifestos don't specifically name Bolsonaro, they 
underscore the country's widespread concern that the far-right leader may 
follow in former U.S. President Donald Trump's footsteps and reject election 
results not in his favor in an attempt to cling to power.

   "We are at risk of a coup, so civil society must stand up and fight against 
that to guarantee democracy," Jos Carlos Dias, a former justice minister who 
helped write the 1977 letter and the two documents read Thursday, told The 
Associated Press.

   In Sao Paulo, drivers stuck in traffic on one of the main roads to the law 
school applauded and honked as marching students chanted pro-democracy slogans. 
A huge inflatable electronic voting machine by the building's main entrance 
bore the slogan "RESPECT THE VOTE".

   Inside, hundreds of guests gathered in the university's Great Hall to hear 
speeches, while others stood outside watching on big flat screens.

   The proclamations are contained in two letters. The first went online on 
July 26 and has been signed by nearly 1 million citizens, including ordinary 
people; popular musicians such as Caetano Veloso and Anitta; high-profile 
bankers and executives; and presidential candidates, among them former 
President Luiz Incio Lula da Silva, who leads all polls ahead of the October 
election.

   The second letter, published in newspapers last Friday, carries the 
endorsement of hundreds of companies in banking, oil, construction and 
transportation -- sectors that traditionally have been averse to taking public 
political stances, said Carlos Melo, a political science professor at Insper 
University in Sao Paulo. They appear to have made an exception now, given the 
fear that any democratic backslide would be bad for business, he said.

   "Democracy is important for the economy," he said.

   Bolsonaro's commitment to democracy has been scrutinized since he took 
office, in large part because the former army captain has insistently glorified 
the country's two-decade dictatorship, which ended in 1985. Earlier this year 
he met with Hungary's autocratic leader, Viktor Orban, and Russia's Vladimir 
Putin.

   The president only spoke about the event late Thursday, saying it was 
crafted to support da Silva's campaign. He also criticized the Workers' Party 
party for supporting leftist authoritarian regimes in Cuba and Venezuela.

   For over a year, in actions that appear to be lifted directly from Trump's 
playbook, Bolsonaro has claimed Brazil's electronic voting machines are prone 
to fraud, though -- like Trump -- he never presented any evidence. At one 
point, he threatened that elections would be suspended if Congress didn't 
approve a bill to introduce printed receipts of votes. The bill didn't pass.

   Bolsonaro also began expressing desire for greater involvement of the armed 
forces in election oversight. Last week, army officials visited the electoral 
authority's headquarters to inspect the voting machines' source codes. 
Bolsonaro has alleged that some of the authority's top officials are working 
against him.

   At the law school on Thursday, Carlos Silveira carried a sign that read: 
"The military doesn't count votes."

   "We are here because it is riskier not to do anything," said Silveira, 43. 
"Bolsonaro has suggested a big anti-democratic act before the election, and the 
military has remained on his side, it seems. We want to show them we are the 
majority, and that our quest for democracy will win."

   When Bolsonaro launched his campaign, he called on supporters to flood the 
streets for Sept. 7 independence day celebrations. On that date last year, he 
declared before tens of thousands who rallied at his behest that only God can 
remove him from power. That same day, he declared he would no longer heed 
rulings from a Supreme Court justice, threatening to plunge the country into an 
institutional crisis. He later backtracked, saying his comment was made in the 
heat of the moment.

   Bolsonaro's rhetoric resonates with his base, but is increasingly alienating 
him politically, Melo said.

   Since last year, the electoral authority has been proactive in countering 
claims against the voting system. Its top officials, who are also Supreme Court 
justices, have made repeated statements in its defense. Behind the scenes, they 
have been working overtime to recruit allies in the legislature and private 
sector, though many had been loath to echo their public pronouncements.

   A turning point came last month, after Bolsonaro called foreign ambassadors 
to the presidential residence to lecture them on the electronic vote's supposed 
vulnerabilities. Since then, both leaders of Congress and the 
prosecutor-general, all of whom are considered Bolsonaro allies, have expressed 
confidence in the system's reliability.

   The U.S. also weighed in, with its State Department issuing a statement the 
day after the ambassadors' meeting to say the Brazilian electoral system and 
democratic institutions are a "model for the world." In a July conference with 
regional defense ministers in Brazil's capital, Brasilia, U.S. Defense 
Secretary Lloyd Austin said militaries should carry out their missions 
responsibly, especially during elections.

   The letters -- which at any other time might have been a dry exercise 
relegated to academia -- have struck a chord with society. Television stations 
in recent days have aired clips of artists reading the pro-democracy pledge, 
and rallies are being called in 22 cities nationwide.

   One of those invited to speak at the university law school was Arminio 
Fraga, a prominent asset manager and former central bank chief during a 
previous, center-right administration.

   "I am here today ... with such a diverse group that sometimes fought on 
opposite sides, doing all we can now to preserve what is sacred to us all. 
That's our democracy," said Fraga, an outspoken Bolsonaro critic.

   Bolsonaro, for his part, has played down concerns, deriding the manifestos 
as "little letters" and insisting that he respects the Constitution. On 
Thursday, in a public swipe to the law school rally on Twitter, he remarked: 
"Today, a very important act took place ... Petrobras reduced, once again, the 
price of diesel."

   On Twitter, he added Thursday night: "Brazil already has its letter for 
democracy; the constitution. That is the only letter that matters to assure the 
democratic rule of law, but it was precisely the one that was attacked by those 
who promote a parallel text that, for legal effects, is worth less than toilet 
paper."

   Still, concern about Bolsonaro's fiery rhetoric has spread even among some 
allies and has undermined their efforts to keep the peace between the 
administration and other institutions, two Cabinet ministers told The 
Associated Press. They spoke on condition of anonymity, as they weren't 
authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

   Bolsonaro's party has distanced itself from claims that the election could 
be compromised. The party's leader sought out the electoral court's president 
to assure him of his trust in the voting system, Augusto Rosa, the party's vice 
president, told the AP.

   In any case, the election will be an uphill battle for Bolsonaro. More than 
half the people surveyed by pollster Datafolha said they wouldn't vote for him 
under any circumstance, though support has perked up recently amid lower 
unemployment, reduced gasoline prices and higher welfare spending. Analysts 
said they expected da Silva's lead to fall as the election nears, given that 
incumbents tend to benefit from the state machine. A close race would make 
preelection promises to respect results all the more relevant.

 
 
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