BRASÍLIA — A simple but alarming question is hanging over Brazil’s election as voters head to the polls on Sunday: Will President Jair Bolsonaro accept the results?
For months, Mr. Bolsonaro has attacked Brazil’s electronic voting machines as rife with fraud — despite virtually no evidence — and Brazil’s election officials as aligned against him. He has suggested that he would dispute any loss that showed signs of cheating. He has enlisted Brazil’s military in his battle. And he has told his tens of millions of supporters to prepare for a fight.
“If need be,” he said in a recent speech, “we will go to war.”
With its vote, Brazil is now at the forefront of the growing global threats to democracy, fueled by populist leaders, extremism, highly polarized electorates and internet disinformation. One of the world’s largest democracies is now bracing for the possibility of its president refusing to step down because of fraud allegations that could be difficult to disprove.
Yet, according to interviews with dozens of Bolsonaro administration officials, military generals, federal judges, election authorities, members of Congress and foreign diplomats, the people in power in Brazil feel confident that while Mr. Bolsonaro could dispute the election’s results, he lacks the institutional support to stage a successful coup.
Brazil’s last coup, in 1964, led to a brutal 21-year military dictatorship. “The middle class supported it. Business people supported it. The press supported it. And the U.S. supported it,” said Luís Roberto Barroso, a Supreme Court justice and Brazil’s former elections chief. “Well, none of these players support a coup now.”
Instead, the officials worry about lasting damage to Brazil’s democratic institutions — polls show more than half the country trusts the election systems a “little” or not at all — and about violence in the streets. Mr. Bolsonaro’s claims of fraud and potential refusal to accept a loss echo those of his ally Donald J. Trump, and Brazilian officials repeatedly cited the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol as an example of what could happen.
In the days leading up to the vote, misinformation that claimed falsely that Mr. Bolsonaro was leading in the polls spread in some WhatsApp and Telegram groups. In interviews, some of his supporters said they were convinced that leftists would try to steal the election — and that they were prepared to protect the country’s democracy if Mr. Bolsonaro called them to the streets.
“The only thing that can take victory from Bolsonaro is fraud,” said Luiz Sartorelli, 54, a software salesman in São Paulo. He listed several conspiracy theories about past fraud as proof. “If you want peace, sometimes you need to prepare for war.”
“How do we have any control over this?” Flávio Bolsonaro, a senator and Mr. Bolsonaro’s son, said in an interview with the Brazilian newspaper Estadão in reference to potential violence. In the United States, he said, “people followed the problems in the electoral system, were outraged and did what they did. There was no command from President Trump, and there will be no command from President Bolsonaro.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Bolsonaro’s political party released a two-page document claiming, without evidence, that some government employees and contractors had the “absolute power to manipulate election results without leaving a trace.” Election officials fired back that the claims “are false and dishonest” and “a clear attempt to hinder and disrupt” the election.
A day later, in the final debate ahead of Sunday’s vote, Mr. Bolsonaro was asked if he would accept the election’s results. He did not answer.