Brazil's former president declared that his mission was not yet over
Do we now have an answer to when Jair Bolsonaro — holed up in Orlando, Florida since the end of his presidential term — will return to Brazil? Speaking at conservative gathering CPAC just outside Washington, D.C. on Saturday, Bolsonaro declared that his mission “is not yet over”; later at the conference, he told NBC he would go back to his home country this month. This comes after a Wall Street Journal interview last month in which the former president claimed he would return to lead the opposition.
Bolsonaro’s legal troubles continue to mount, with the latest incident concerning an alleged attempt to smuggle $3.2m-worth of Saudi jewels into Brazil. And, of course, he faces potential legal repercussions for his alleged role in the 8 January storming of government buildings, though he played down any responsibility at CPAC, saying, “I was no longer president, and I was outside Brazil.” Bolsonaro has lost his parliamentary immunity, known in Brazil as foro privilegiado, and the Supreme Court is dealing with a slew of legal petitions against him. He recognises that an arrest warrant could come from just about anywhere.
Yet if Bolsonaro remains in the US, he risks abandoning the movement that coalesced around him. The longer he remains away, the less relevant he becomes to a Brazilian Right that is having to reorient itself to new circumstances.
Indeed, there are sections of the Right in Congress, among representatives of the Progressistas, Republicanos and Bolsonaro’s own Partido Liberal (PL), who want to cut the former president loose. Wary of being associated with the vandalism and extremism on show in the attack on the Three Powers Plaza on 8 January, many of his former supporters — including close allies — are taking a step back. In recent weeks, Bolsonaro has accused his former attack dog, Congresswoman Carla Zambelli, of treason after she admitted the former president could be arrested. Another, Senator Marcos do Val, has implicated him in a plot to blackmail a Supreme Court justice and cancel the election.
Bolsonaro hardly helps himself, either. While laughing off the idea that 8 January was a coup attempt, at CPAC he also claimed to have had more support than ever in 2022, “but for some reasons the numbers did not reflect that” — yet another baseless allusion to electoral fraud.
Is Bolsonarismo falling apart? It is too early to say, but it is important to note that it was never a unitary movement. Groups with different interests and values rallied around him in 2018, ranging from typical middle-class voters of the Right — motivated more by anti-Leftism than anything else — to hardcore military authoritarians, passing through agribusiness, evangelicals, finance capital, and others. Many of these pillars had already peeled off by the time 2022 rolled around, leaving behind a group of hardcore conservative activists.
While it is true that Bolsonaro still has some value to the Brazilian Right — he only lost the election last year by less than two percentage points — he also has many patent disadvantages: a terrible record in governance and legislative accomplishments, as well as a flighty inconsistency and a range of criminal accusations attached to him and his family. Finally, he may soon be made electorally ineligible.
As he plots his return, Bolsonaro will remain in Florida — long the base from which disgruntled Rightist exiles organised coups. But having built no party machine to protect his legacy, he may feel the need to return sooner rather than later. Once this plug is pulled, it is amazing how quickly attention shifts elsewhere.