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Bolsonaro’s return poses risks for the former president – and Brazil


RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil has been in relative calm for weeks. After the most contentious election in its history, which resulted in the seizure and vandalism by thousands of rioters of the most important federal buildings in the capital, the country celebrated weeks of carnival festivities and cycles of quiet news.

New President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has dealt with budget issues, interest rates and blunders here and there. And election loser Jair Bolsonaro, whose supporters attacked the presidential palace, the Supreme Court and Congress after his defeat, has remained uncharacteristically quiet since his isolation thousands of miles away in Kissimmee, Florida.

But now Bolsonaro, who came to power by exploiting a succession of culture war battles and spent his four years as president deepening those divisions, says he will soon return to the country he polarized like few. politicians before. His reappearance carries grave risks not only for Bolsonaro, who faces multiple criminal investigations and the possibility of arrest for a wide range of alleged wrongdoings, but also for Brazil, whose political wounds have barely healed. by Bolsonaro’s incendiary policy could reopen.

“Bolsonaro’s return will inflate belligerence and polarization in a society that is already polarized,” the political scientist said. David Magalhães, Brazilian Independence Coordinator Observatory of the extreme right. “He doesn’t come back to talk about high interest rates and the central bank. He will follow the ideological path.

Injecting more uncertainty into the coming months will be the results of the multitude of investigations that have put mounting pressure on Bolsonaro and his associates. Investigators are looking, among other things, at whether the former president spread false news about the country’s electoral system or incited the mob that attacked government institutions on January 8.

If Bolsonaro is finally arrested – what from now on seems unlikely – or disqualified from running for office, the fallout could once again plunge the country into political turmoil.

“There will be protests,” said Dener Souza, 49, a staunch Bolsonarian. “The people will rise up. We will fight the persecution of Bolsonaro.

Thousands of supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro violated the National Congress, the Supreme Federal Court and the country’s presidential office on January 8 (Video: Joe Snell/The Washington Post, Photo: ANDRE BORGES/EPA-EFE /Shutterstock/The Washington Post)

There was a time when politics here were calmer. But over the past decade, as the economy stagnated and key politicians were marred by corruption scandals, the first skirmishes of the new culture war broke out – and its greatest warrior was Bolsonaro. He reframed politics as an existential clash between a persecuted right and a corrupt left, between what he called the “cidadao of well” — the good citizen — and criminals and minority groups violating their rights.

He said a good criminal was a dead criminal. He said he’d rather have a dead son than a gay son. He defined Brazil simply: “A Christian and conservative country”.

“Bolsonaro succeeded in Americanizing Brazilian politics,” said Guilherme Casarões, a political scientist at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, a degree-granting university. “He basically shifted the whole discussion in Brazil to something Brazilians weren’t used to talking about on a political level.”

But the positions he has taken are often so extreme – and his way of speaking so crude – that his emergence as a major national political figure has polarized the country. As president and a candidate for re-election, he exploited these divisions, demonizing political opponents, undermining confidence in the country’s electoral systems, refusing to recognize Lula as the rightful winner – and pushing the sides even further apart.

Now Bolsonaro wants to return to Brazilian politics. He frequently discusses his return with advisers. But that has been repeatedly delayed, by the legal danger he faces in Brazil – and his own diminished morale.

“He became reclusive, very saddened and shaken,” said a close adviser to Bolsonaro, speaking on condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment. “He’s a strong man, emotionally strong, but he’s been very impacted by everything that’s happened.”

He has often expressed concerns about his legal liability in Brazil. Legal advisers have told him since January that the risk of his arrest would be low. Senior Brazilian judicial officials told the Washington Post in January that there was not enough evidence to order his arrest. It is not clear if anything has since arrived to change that way of thinking, but Bolsonaro has been reluctant to test it.

“A jail order can come out of nowhere,” he told the Wall Street Journal in February.

He said he plans to return to Brazil at the end of March. But earlier comeback plans were scuttled, and this one could be too.

“Bolsonaro is not a normal person, like you and me,” said a political ally in frequent communication with him, also speaking on condition of anonymity. “He is not a normal politician who follows common behavior. He hides his game; it is unpredictable.

Some former supporters say they have lost faith in their former leader. They believe his decision to leave town days before the end of his term, snubbing Lula’s inauguration to begin his self-imposed exile in Florida, where he was seen eating fast food and shopping at Publix , was an error.

“A leader does not abandon his allies,” said Claudinei Junior, 36, a bolsonarist in the rural state of São Paulo.

But Bolsonaro’s political party, the Liberal Party, is optimistic about his appeal. He announced plans for a tour of Brazil northeast, a largely impoverished region that rejected him in both presidential elections. He is expected to lead biker rallies across the region as he tries to take over leadership of the opposition ahead of the 2024 municipal elections.

Party leaders cite stalwart Bolsonarians like Esmeralda Silveira Soares as proof that people will welcome her return. The 75-year-old Salvadoran says Lula stole the election. She looks forward to Bolsonaro’s return, she said, and hopes he resumes his political quest.

“Lula is a thief,” Soares said. “He got everything with money stolen from our country. I see communism in the behavior of the government, in the sense that the truth has become a lie and the lies have become truth. They are preparing a vaccine to kill people.

Political observers have expressed concern about how Bolsonaro could further exploit such widespread and entrenched political enmity.

“Bolsonaro’s presence is terrible for our democracy,” said Jairo Pimentel, a political scientist at Brasilia consultancy Ponteio Politica. “He treats his opponents as enemies rather than adversaries.”


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