By Eduardo Simões and Gabriel Stargardter
SAO PAULO (Reuters) -Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, speaking to a rally of bikers on Saturday, said he could count on police officers “whatever happens,” as he once again sought to court cops amid stark political politicization ahead of next year’s election.
Appearing alongside thousands of motorcycle-riding supporters in Sao Paulo, the far-right former army captain said the country’s state military police forces serve as a support to what he dubbed “my army.”
“You are auxiliary to the Armed Forces. I’m sure that, in compliance with law and order, by complying with constitutional provisions, we will be together, whatever happens,” Bolsonaro said.
With nearly 490,000 people killed during the pandemic and tensions growing in Latin America’s biggest country, Bolsonaro has been seeking the support of Brazil’s roughly half a million officers. Brazil’s Health Ministry reported 2,037 new COVID-19 deaths on Saturday, and 78,700 new cases.
Bolsonaro’s critics fret that his efforts to curry favor with Brazil’s police, among the world’s most violent, could pose democratic risks ahead of next year’s combustible presidential vote.
The former leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Bolsonaro’s main rival, appears to be strengthening his lead over the president, a poll on Friday showed. Although neither men have announced their candidacy, the 2022 election is widely expected to be a run-off between the two polarizing figures.
During Saturday’s event, Bolsonaro was embraced by some police officers providing security at the motorcycle tour, while some others took pictures with him.
In office, Bolsonaro has sought to boost legal protections for police who kill on the job, while saying criminals should “die like cockroaches.” The president has also attended dozens of police graduation ceremonies.
Bolsonaro, who was fined 552 reais ($108) by the Sao Paulo state government for not wearing a mask at the event, has made repeated baseless allegations of voter fraud in Brazil. Critics say the claims could lay the groundwork to challenge upcoming elections in the same vein as his political idol, former U.S. President Donald Trump.
Bolsonaro threw his support behind Trump’s conspiracies of a stolen election last year, which culminated in the deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol building. Bolsonaro is now pushing for a bill for printed ballots rather than Brazil’s modern computer voting.
(Writing by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Aurora Ellis)