/ 11 July 2023

Brazil’s Bolsonaro and the poisoned gift

A Trump-Bolsonaro bond could see the leaders of the Americas' two largest democracies working in concert on a range of regional issues.
Jair Bolsonaro (Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino)

Last week, the Brazilian superior electoral court declared Jair Bolsonaro ineligible for re-election for eight years, starting from last year’s poll. This means he cannot run against President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in the 2026 elections. The court also found the former president guilty of abuse of political power and the misuse of the media in the 2022 elections. 

Although the news is being greeted with great enthusiasm in Brazil, as evidenced by the wide reaction on social media, it is curious that something so obvious could elicit such euphoria. Could Bolsonaro be expected to be eligible after all that Brazil had witnessed for the four years he was in office and after his appalling response to the Covid-19 pandemic? 

Covid deaths in Brazil in 2021 were about 1.8 million, an 18% increase from the previous year. In absolute numbers, 2021 saw 273 000 more deaths than 2020, in record global numbers. 

Another aspect is how, less than a year after the election of Lula, the atmosphere is back to being one of an electoral campaign. The thunderous defeat of his rival in court officially opened the presidential campaign.

Bolsonaro was convicted of defaming, without evidence, the credibility of the Brazilian electoral system while promoting electoral crimes in a meeting he organised with foreign ambassadors, on 18 July 2022, at the Alvorada Palace, the presidential residence in Brasilia. In it he raised doubts about the electronic electoral booths, without presenting evidence, and criticised the electoral court. 

The meeting happened about two months before the elections and was broadcast by the state-owned TV Brasil. Alexandre Moraes, one of the supreme court judges constantly attacked by the former president, pointed out that Bolsonaro had appeared before the court for disseminating fake news in 2018. On that occasion, he was acquitted but was warned that he would not get off so lightly if it happened again.

Bolsonaro is the third former president in the country’s history to be declared ineligible for election for a specified period. In a seven-month trial in 1992, Ferdinando Collor became the first president in Latin America to be impeached and the first to be ousted after re-democratisation. The process left Collor ineligible for re-election for eight years. 

After this period was up, Collor was elected a senator in 2006 for Alagoas state, a position he held again until 1 January 1 2023. In 2020, he ran for São Paulo municipality, but was not elected. In May 2023, Collor was sentenced to eight years and 10 months in prison for corruption and money laundering, making him ineligible again. 

Lula was also ineligible for a period after being convicted of corruption and money laundering in 2017. But, in 2019, the supreme federal court annulled the conviction by the court of Curitiba and transferred the case to the federal court. As the trial was annulled, the upshot was that Lula’s political rights were restored and he ran for president against Bolsonaro in October 2022. 

The fact that Bolsonaro was ruled ineligible to stand for office opens the way for criminal prosecutions. He is the target of several investigations and is expected to appear in court over suspected coup plans and digital misinformation. Part of this is the “digital militias” that were created to spread threats and to attack the reputation of critics of the Bolsonaro government. 

At the head of what was defined by the Fake News Commission of Inquiry as a “criminal organisation”, operating mainly in closed groups of social networks, mainly on Instagram and Signal, were deputy president Eduardo Bolsonaro and the councillor of Rio de Janeiro, Carlos Bolsonaro, sons of the then incumbent president. 

But the main charge against Bolsonaro involves the January 8 attack by his supporters on the the tri-power headquarters buildings in Brasilia – the Executive, represented by the Palácio do Planalto (presidential office); the Legislative represented by the National Congress of Brazil; and the Judiciary, represented by the Supremo Tribunal Federal (Supreme Federal Court). Judge Benedito Gonçalves found that there was a direct relationship between Bolsonaro’s speech against electoral booths and the attack.

In the four years Bolsonaro was president, he left a trail of devastation in Brazil. The demolition of public policies, negligence as a method of government, the encouragement of savagery, the corrosion of democracy and institutional poisoning were products of his cycle in power. 

He has suffered three major defeats in eight months. His defeat in the 2022 election was the first and most humiliating. The second was the frustration of the coup plan in January. Being declared ineligible to stand for office completed the package. 

The three failures occurred in forums he had manipulated while he was president. He manipulated voters, the Brazilian people and the country’s electoral system. The role of the armed forces was distorted to feed a delusional fantasy of him and his allies by the coup attempt after the inauguration of Lula. His attacks on the supreme court have been turned on him.

The lesson of institutional posture given by the TSE through the decision of Bolsonaro’s ineligibility for eight years, especially by Cármen Lúcia and Alexandre Moraes, particularly hated by the Bolsonaro clan, opens possible difficulties for Lula’s plans for the campaign in little more than three years. 

Journalist Igor Gielow said: “As the rehabilitation of Lula’s political rights by the STF [supreme federal court] in 2021 was a balm for a Bolsonaro harassed by the poor management of the pandemic and the feeling of endless crisis that was experienced under his presidency, the defeat of the president due to his coup d’état takes away from Lula an important asset. “As in comic book dynamics, heroes need villains that define them. And without choosing here who is on which side, Lula and Bolsonaro complement each other by offering exactly what their rhetorical position has the best in the adversary’s view: a demon to blame.”

Lula will have to work harder to modulate his public image, without Bolsonaro making him appear Brazil’s only possible salvation. This role seems to have already partially exhausted itself after the controversies over the government’s response to the assault on Brasilia in January. Bolsonaro is not Collor, who became a public pariah when he was declared ineligible in 1992, and there is still a resilient section of the Brazilian population who declare themselves “Bolsonaristas”, confirming the precarity of Lula, who won by a narrow margin in the second round of elections last year.​

Political scientist Emerson Cervi argues that Bolsonaro managed to garner support from diverse sectors, including evangelical church leaders, police, reserve military personnel and agribusiness leaders. There is the possibility of both: a fragmentation of this fields and/or the possibility of a candidate chosen by Bolsonaro emerging. Three names have been mentioned as possible successors in the right-wing camp: his wife Michelle Bolsonaro; the governor of São Paulo, Tarcísio de Freitas, and the governor of Minas Gerais, Romeu Zema. 

Putting forward Michelle Bolsonaro, who played a central role in her husband’s campaign in 2022, as a candidate can be read as a symbolic act recalling the ruling Workers’ Party’s  strategy with the appointment of Dilma Rousseff as Lula’s successor. 

The former first lady is considered capable of retaining the support of the evangelical electorate and expanding the appeal of Bolsonarismo among women voters who, because of Bolsonaro’s misogyny, voted against him, according to election polls.​

Laura Burocco is an Italian researcher based at the University of Lisbon.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.