Brazil’s most bitterly fought election since the collapse of the military dictatorship descended Sunday into allegations of police attempting to suppress the vote in regions supportive of presidential challenger Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
The Federal Highway Police, an organization closely allied with the right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, allegedly set up roadblocks to delay voters in the country’s impoverished northeast and other centers of support for Lula, a former president. Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court said Sunday night that Lula had received about 51 percent of the vote, defeating Bolsonaro.
Silvinei Vasques, director of the highway police, earlier posted a call to vote for Bolsonaro on Instagram, according to the newspaper O Globo. It was later deleted. Sen. Randolfe Rodrigues, a Lula supporter, demanded his immediate arrest. Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes, Brazil’s chief electoral authority, ordered Vasques to stop the operations immediately or face personal fines of nearly $100,000 per hour.
Later Sunday, however, Moraes sought to calm concerns of a broader effort that could taint the vote. He said each incident would be investigated, but police had complied with the demand to cease the operations. He said checkpoints had delayed, but not prevented, voters from casting their ballots, and he would not extend voting hours beyond the planned 5 p.m. close.
“The damage caused to the voters was a delay during the inspections,” Moraes said. “There was no prejudice to the right to vote and, logically, there will be no postponement of the end of voting. … There is no need to overstate this issue. There were no cases where voters went home.”
Despite the statement from Moraes, who has frequently locked horns with Bolsonaro, Lula’s Worker’s Party demanded an extension of the polls in the 560 places where it said the “illegal” police operations had taken place. The party called for prioritizing extensions in the northeast, where it said the operations were carried out “with greater intensity.”
The Rio-based Igarapé Institute, a think tank that studies security and violence, said the operations appeared to physically delay “thousands” of voters, but might have had a broader reach as news of the disruptions spread online.
“Since his election, Bolsonaro has tried to subvert Brazil’s democratic institutions,” said Ilona Szabó, the institute’s president. “What we are seeing today — hundreds of federal road police operations impeding citizens from casting their vote — is yet further proof of his efforts to undermine the democratic process.”
G1 and O Globo reported Sunday that Bolsonaro asked his justice minister, Anderson Torres, to order the operations. Aides to the president hoped that the police would be able to prevent possible transportation of Lula’s voters by the Worker’s Party, the outlets said. In Brazil, it is illegal for parties to transport voters to polls.
Eduardo Bolsonaro, a member of Congress and the president’s son, seemed to confirm knowledge of the operation on Twitter.
“We have operation ‘flip vote,’ ” he tweeted on Sunday. “The [Worker’s Party] has a vote buying [operation] and they are upset that the police are working. Number 302 of the penal code says it’s a crime to buy food and transportation on election day. Please let the police work, and arrest anyone who wants to stop them.”
The highway police confirmed launching special election operations to “guarantee the mobility, safety and fight crime on federal highways.” They said in a statement they had escorted nearly 800 voting machines to their polling stations, and seized 4.5 million reales — $850,000 — in 12 incidents. The result, they said, was a 43 percent reduction in road deaths and a 72 percent reduction of injuries. They did not offer further details for those assertions.
“The PRF remains firm in its constitutional purpose of guaranteeing the security of society,” the agency said.
Eduardo Bolsonaro tweeted that the police statement showed the police were complying with the law “as usual.”
The operations left some officials shaken. Charles Cristiano, mayor of one of the towns allegedly affected, said a highway police team had checkpoints up when polls opened at 8 a.m. Sunday and kept them up for three and half hours. The stated objective: to cite motorcyclists who were not wearing helmets or had out-of-date documents.
Motorcycles are the primary means of transportation in Cuité, Cristiano said, especially for rural residents who cannot always afford to keep their vehicle documents up to date. Lula won 79.69 percent of the valid votes in the interior city of 22,000 in the first round of the election Oct. 2. Bolsonaro won 15.31 percent.
As a result of the checkpoints, Cristiano said, at 3 p.m., about 40 percent of voters had yet to cast a ballot.
“I think it is” an attempt at suppression, Cristiano told The Washington Post. “Coincidentally, on Election Day, a blitz on the main access to the city? We are trying to get around it, calling people to come and vote, but unfortunately, many people are not voting. I think it will increase the number of abstentions.”
The Civic Vigil, a coalition of dozens of civil society organizations monitoring voting, expressed concern.
Bolsonaro, critics say, has undermined democracy during his term in office by stocking the prosecutor’s office and police with loyalists and appointing current and former generals to his cabinet and other senior posts. He had signaled the possibility, if he won, of expanding the Supreme Court — a body that Bolsonaro says is biased against him.
So strong was concern over such moves that Lula this year garnered the backing of center-right leaders and former opponents, including former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
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