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Facing Growing Opposition, Brazil's Bolsonaro Has Mobilized His Supporters To Protest

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It is Independence Day in Brazil, and this year, it is a day of massive protests. President Jair Bolsonaro took the occasion to mobilize his supporters to take to the streets. He's a far-right president facing growing opposition ahead of elections set to take place about one year from now. Around the country, his supporters demonstrated against those institutions that they perceive as opposing Bolsonaro, including the Supreme Court and Congress. This has many Brazilians worrying about the country's democracy. NPR's Philip Reeves was at a rally in the capital, Brasilia, and joins us now.

Hey, Phil.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hi.

CHANG: So I understand that there were these huge crowds in Brasilia today. What was it like out there?

REEVES: Well, it was - it was like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES HONKING)

REEVES: That's Bolsonaro addressing a crowd of tens of thousands. He talked about how much he respects the Constitution, but then attacked the Supreme Court, suggesting that it's overstepping its powers and saying that's unacceptable. Bolsonaro later moved on from Brasilia to Sao Paulo, the mega city, the largest city in this country, where, judging by TV footage, a huge crowd of his supporters was also there, gathered to welcome him and to cheer him on.

CHANG: Well, just, I mean, listening to you describe the volume of these crowds, it seems that there is a lot of support out there for the president, yeah?

REEVES: There is significant support for the president, and that's what worries people because it comes at a time when Bolsonaro's repeatedly threatened democratic institutions. He's in conflict right now with the Supreme Court. Many of his supporters on the streets today displayed slogans calling for judges, for example, to be kicked out and also attacking Congress. That isn't the only issue they're driven by. I spoke to crowds who raised many issues. They included Joao Moraes, who's a physician. And this is what he said about why he answered Bolsonaro's call to take to the streets today.

JOAO MORAES: We need to support him. He's our leader. And he's the only one that's not corrupt in our Brazilian government system.

REEVES: Now, that view that Bolsonaro is a champion against corruption is common amongst his supporters, even though there are allegations about corruption within Bolsonaro's government. But I also asked Moraes if he would support a military takeover in Brazil if that meant Bolsonaro could keep power. And he said yes. Now, far from everyone I spoke to in the crowd shares that view. But you do hear people amongst Bolsonaro's supporters calling for a military takeover, and that's why nerves in Brazil are so much on edge right now.

CHANG: Right. Phil, what is driving the distrust that Bolsonaro's supporters have in the system in Brazil?

REEVES: Well, in many ways, it's Bolsonaro himself. I mean, right now he's on a campaign to get the country's voting system changed. And he's even threatened to cancel next year's elections if change isn't made. Now, a lot of his supporters today clearly support that, but I think they have never really trusted the system and even less so after the court earlier this year released Bolsonaro's chief rival, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva - Lula, as everyone calls him - after he'd been convicted on multiple corruption offenses. Those supporters are well aware that Lula, who's a leftist, is in a strong position to win next year, although he hasn't formally declared that he's a candidate.

CHANG: That is NPR's Philip Reeves in Brasilia.

Thank you, Phil.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.