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Brazil celebrates independence day ahead of presidential election

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Brazilians are celebrating 200 years of independence today, but instead of an apolitical celebration, the country's far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, had another idea. He used today's holiday to drum up support for his reelection campaign. And as NPR's John Otis reports, he is also brandishing his ties to Brazil's armed forces.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: A military band played to a massive crowd at the iconic Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro. The band was part of a rally for President Bolsonaro that turned into a showcase for the Brazilian armed forces.

(SOUNDBITE OF JET FLYING)

OTIS: Military jets buzzed overhead. Paratroopers leaped out of aircraft, and a Navy flotilla sat just offshore in the Atlantic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

OTIS: Bolsonaro drew a huge crowd to what seemed like a militarized political beach party. He arrived in his typical flamboyant style, heading a convoy aboard a motorcycle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLE REVVING)

OTIS: The idea was to breathe new life into the president's campaign. Ahead of the October 2 election, all of the polls show him trailing his left-wing rival, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is a former president. But the heavy military presence was deeply controversial. That's because Bolsonaro has not clearly stated whether he would leave office peacefully if he loses. If Bolsonaro is defeated by Lula, then tries to cling to power, analysts say he would lean on the military for support. And some of his supporters are OK with that.

GILBERTO DE ANDRADE: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: Among them is Gilberto de Andrade, a 74-year-old former soldier who served in the army during Brazil's military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985. Andrade says he would feel fine if Brazil's military intervened to keep Bolsonaro in power. Another fan of military action is Magno Becerra, who is wearing a T-shirt that said, we are ready for war.

MAGNO BECERRA: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: He says it's time for a general overhaul here. Let the armed forces take over the country.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in non-English language).

OTIS: Fears that the armed forces will intervene in the event of a Lula victory have also been fueled by Bolsonaro's close ties to the armed forces. He's a former army captain. His running mate is a retired general, while his government is filled with ex-military officers. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro has spent the past year bad-mouthing Brazil's electronic voting system and claiming that the military should help oversee the vote count. What's more, authorities recently raided the homes of several Brazilian businessmen who, in text messages, appeared to back a military coup to keep Bolsonaro in power. But some Bolsonaro supporters on the beach, like Patricia Monerat, claim that would never happen.

PATRICIA MONERAT: No, I don't think so. It's a democracy, and we are going to be with Lula if he wins. We are going to understand, and it's a democracy.

OTIS: Due to technical problems, Bolsonaro's speech was not televised. And unlike past addresses, he made no mention of deviating from the democratic process. John Otis, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.