Brazilian police launched an operation on Tuesday against eight businessmen who are suspected of being part of a WhatsApp group that discussed the benefits of staging a coup d’état if President Jair Bolsonaro loses the October election against Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the leader of the Workers’ Party (PT). News of the WhatsApp group was revealed by the Brazilian online newspaper Metropoles on August 17.
“I prefer a coup to the return of the PT. A million times,” wrote Jose Koury, a pro-Bolsonaro real estate magnate from Rio de Janeiro, three weeks ago. As part of the operation, the police searched the businessmen’s homes, blocked their social media accounts and reviewed their bank accounts.
The raid targeted billionaire Luciano Hang, the owner of the department store chain Havan, which features replicas of the US Statue of Liberty outside its stores. Hang, one of Bolsonaro’s most prominent supporters, said on Twitter that police had appeared at his home at 6am. He denied having spoken about staging a coup in the WhatsApp group.
Also targeted by police were Jose Isaac Peres, CEO of shopping mall operator Multiplan Empreendimentos Imobiliarios SA; Meyer Joseph Nigri, chairman of homebuilder Tecnisa SA; Ivan Wrobel, the owner of the engineering company W3; Afrânio Barreira Filho, from the restaurant chain Coco Bambu; and Luiz André Tissot, the owner of the furniture firm Sierra Móveis.
The operation made headlines in Brazil, which is preparing for a tight election on October 2. Lula is leading in the polls, with 47%, while Bolsonaro trails on 32%, according to pollster Datafolha. The far-right leader, however, is closing the gap.
Two of Bolsonaro’s sons, both federal lawmakers, denounced the police investigation as an abuse of power threatening freedom of expression.
“It’s insane to order a search and seizure warrant against honest businessmen ... for saying in a private WhatsApp conversation that they would prefer anything to an ex-convict,” tweeted Senator Flavio Bolsonaro, referring to Lula’s time in jail for graft convictions that were later overturned.
The search warrant was signed by Judge Alexandre de Moraes, who Bolsonaro and his supporters consider to be “enemy number one.” The judge is a member of the Supreme Court – the institution that has been fighting to curb the president’s authoritarian drift – and has just assumed the presidency of the electoral court, which supervises the voting process.
Fear of a coup – more in the form of a constitutional break rather than a military takeover – has been building in Brazil for a long time due to the president’s ongoing attacks on the country’s institutions. Bolsonaro has also begun to sow doubts about the validity of the electoral process. In an interview with Jornal Nacional, the most-watched news program in Brazil, the president was asked to say live on television that he would respect the results of the October election. Bolsonaro replied that he would only accept the results of “clean and transparent” election, casting doubt on a process that has never detected significant instances of fraud.
There are also concerns that Bolsonaro will turn Brazil’s independence day, on September 7, into a display of popular force. The far-right leader has called on his supporters to fill the streets, and has even secured the embalmed heart of the Portuguese monarch who declared the independence of Brazil from Portugal 200 years ago. The organ arrived in Brazil on Tuesday and will be on display at Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs until the bicentenary.
Despite the concerns, Lula on Monday said that he was confident Brazil would not see an attack like the one that occurred on January 6, 2021, when pro-Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol. “I am sure that the election result will be fully accepted,” he said to foreign correspondents in São Paulo. “Those who lose have a right to complain, but, patience, is part of the game.”