Brazilians marked the country's independence day Tuesday with rallies for and against embattled President Jair Bolsonaro, who warned he would not let perceived enemies including the Supreme Court attack freedom and democracy.
Tens of thousands of Bolsonaro supporters flooded streets with the green, yellow and blue of the national flag in Brasilia, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and other cities, holding huge prayer sessions and chanting slogans in support of the far-right president.
In many cities, anti-Bolsonaro protesters geared up for rival rallies just kilometers (miles) away, as Brazil looks toward elections in October 2022 that polls currently place the president on track to lose.
Bolsonaro, whose popularity is at an all-time low, is seeking to fire up his base in the face of a flagging economy, soaring unemployment and inflation, and a series of investigations targeting him and his inner circle.
With hardline supporters urging a military intervention to give Bolsonaro unfettered power, there are fears the day could turn violent, with echoes of the January 6 attack on the US Capitol by supporters of former president Donald Trump -- to whom Bolsonaro is often compared.
"This is a day for the Brazilian people, who will tell us which direction to go," Bolsonaro said outside the presidential residence, where he kicked off the day's events presiding over a flag-raising ceremony and military show of strength complete with Air Force flyover, paratroop landing and special forces display.
Speaking later to a throng of supporters in the heart of the capital, Bolsonaro fired his latest warning shot at Brazil's courts, whose judges he accuses of attacking him – particularly Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes, whom the president wants impeached.
"Either the head of that court gets his justice in line, or the court could suffer consequences that none of us want," Bolsonaro said. "We can't let one person threaten our democracy. We can't let one person put our freedom at risk.... As of today, we're going to start writing a new history here in Brazil."
The Supreme Court has notably ordered an investigation of the 66-year-old Bolsonaro, a former army captain, and his inner circle over allegations of systematically spreading fake news from within the government.
Moraes has ordered Bolsonaro himself investigated in the case, and jailed a top ally, former congressman Roberto Jefferson.
The president also faces a Senate inquiry into his government's widely questioned handling of Covid-19, which has claimed more than 580,000 lives in Brazil, second only to the United States.
'Taking our freedom'
Bolsonaro was also due to speak at a rally in economic capital São Paulo on Tuesday, which marks 199 years since Brazil declared independence from Portugal.
Heavy security was in place in major cities to avoid clashes. If all goes according to plan, pro- and anti-Bolsonaro protesters will not cross paths.
Late Monday, hundreds of pro-Bolsonaro demonstrators tore down a police blockade in Brasilia near the square flanked by the presidential palace, Congress and the Supreme Court.
Bolsonaro said last week that the Supreme Court judges should consider the rallies an "ultimatum" – the latest in a long list of warnings aimed at Congress and the courts.
"I'm here to fight for our freedom, to free Brazil from this filthy band of corrupt politicians on the Supreme Court who want to take away our freedom," one Bolsonaro supporter, 45-year-old security guard Marcio Souza, told AFP in Brasilia.
Security experts are concerned over the presence of armed military and police during the demonstrations – two key groups of Bolsonaro backers.
With polls putting him on track to lose badly to leftist ex-leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in next year's elections, Bolsonaro is hoping to use the rally to energise his supporters.
Political scientist Mauricio Santoro said he feared Bolsonaro would try to follow the same script as Trump and attempt to delegitimize Brazil's elections.
"This is the first time since the end of Brazil's military dictatorship (in 1985) that we have a president making speeches against democratic institutions," he told AFP.
"It looks like a dress rehearsal for what Bolsonaro could do in 2022, especially if he loses the elections."
by Valeria Pacheco, AFP