SÃO PAULO – As Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro intensifies his rhetoric against the country’s electoral system, the bishops are raising their voices against what they see as an “erosion of democracy.”

Bolsonaro has been campaigning intensely for a transformation in the South American country’s voting system. In 1996, paper ballots were replaced by voting machines. Although most of the Brazilians have never questioned the method, Bolsonaro has been claiming since his election in 2018 that the voting machines are vulnerable to fraud.

On several occasions, he has said that there will be no elections next year if Brazil fails to adopt a system based on “auditable print votes.” His allies in the armed forces and in Congress are echoing his message, and many in the opposition accuse them of creating an “anti-democratic atmosphere” with the intention of making the 2022 election impossible to hold.

Recent polls showed that 52 percent of the electors intend to vote for former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the second round of the 2022 election, against 32 percent supporting Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro has aimed much of his ire at Supreme Court Justice Luís Roberto Barroso, who also heads the Superior Electoral Court. Barroso has continually defended the voting machines and the current system’s reliability.

Bolsonaro has accused him of defending the “return of thievery, of impunity through electoral fraud,” in a reference to Lula. The former president had been convicted in cases of corruption and served 580 days of his sentence at a special prison facility, but a Supreme Court decision annulled his convictions.

Bolsonaro’s attacks on Barroso have become more and more virulent. On August 6, he criticized members of the Supreme Court and called Barroso “a son of a bitch.”

On August 4, the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB) signed a letter with other civic organizations defending the Superior Electoral Court.

The document, addressed to Barroso, mentioned that Brazil currently faces “its biggest healthcare crisis” with more than 550,000 deaths caused by COVID-19, but “much time and energy are being lost in the attempt of demolishing the democratic edifice.”

“In this sense, the threat of not carrying out the 2022 elections if the voting result contradicts the interests of those in power is a serious and intolerable offense,” it reads.

The signatories, which include the Brazilian Bar Association and the Brazilian Press Association, stressed their full support for the voting machines system and said that “fomenting chaos” and “stimulating authoritarian actions” are “not a project that interests the Brazilian people.”

According to Auxiliary Bishop Joaquim Mol Guimarães of Belo Horizonte, who heads the CNBB’s Commission of Social Communications, the letter was a “blunt manifestation regarding a concrete element, the Brazilian voting system, which is recognized in the whole world, except by the government and its followers.”

“There were no minced words. The process of democratic erosion keeps advancing. We cannot accept that the voting system is being questioned. It has been exemplary,” Guimarães told Crux.

He emphasized that the statement did not mention “names but indicated the groups that have been acting against democracy.”

“Civic and military groups connected to the government are responsible for this movement. However, it is clear that the president has a bigger responsibility, given that he appears as the face of this democratic erosion,” Guimarães added.

Reiterating the letter’s ideas, he stressed that hundreds of thousands of deaths could have been avoided if “civilizational measures of care” had been taken by the government from the beginning of the pandemic.

Guimarães also cited the growing rates of poverty in Brazil and the harm to the country’s international image during the current administration, which has soured relations with many other nations.

The bishop’s criticism seems to be a signal that the CNBB, or at least part of the Brazilian episcopate, is ready to raise the tone against Bolsonaro.

However Leonardo Boff, a founding member of the once strong Latin American Liberation Theology movement, warns that the Brazilian Church has lost much of its social relevance during the papacies of Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

“Both of them disincentivized criticism by the bishops on conservative administrations. So, the local bishops have lost their importance. Today, unfortunately, there is not a prophetic voice in CNBB,” he told Crux.

Boff argued that the CNBB has strongly spoken out for the defense of human rights over the past few years, but some of the Brazilian bishops sided with Bolsonaro due to his conservative social agenda, particularly concerning LGBT rights and traditional family values.

“At this point, there is a prophetic void [in the episcopate], something that reduces the social importance of the manifestations of courageous bishops and of the CNBB itself,” he said.

Although the president’s approval rates have been declining among every segment of the population, a significant number of Brazilian Catholics still supports Bolsonaro, who draws much of his support from the country’s Evangelical churches.

One recent poll showed that 20 percent of Catholics intend to vote for him in 2022.

In a moment of political polarization and of possible risks of democratic rupture, the role of “charismatic bishops” – which, according to Boff, do not exist anymore in Brazil – would be fundamental.

“Bolsonaro’s desire is to organize a coup d’état. I believe the next months will be somber, with a potential bloodshed caused by Bolsonaro’s followers under his command. That may generate a popular revolt of large proportions which may lead to his resignation,” the theologian claimed.

The president lost a key vote in Congress on Aug. 10, when a proposal to require printed receipts from some electronic ballot boxes failed to pass.