Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Will Bolsonaro’s Legal Troubles Energize His Base?

Former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro faces an investigation into an alleged plot to over- turn the country’s 2022 presidential election. He denies wrongdoing and has not been charged.

Former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has become mired in an ongoing investigation into an alleged coup plot aimed at overturning Brazil’s 2022 presidential election. Bolsonaro, who has not been arrested or charged, denies wrongdoing and has called on his supporters to demonstrate. Police seized Bolsonaro’s passport, and some of his allies have been arrested. With Brazil’s October municipal elections looming, what impact will the case have on voters? Do the allegations damage Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party and its electoral prospects, or will the controversy energize his base? What does the case say about the strength and functioning of Brazil’s institutions?

Rubens Barbosa, former ambassador of Brazil to the United States: “The conservative movement is here to stay, and conservatives will vote for candidates supported by Bolsonaro and his party in the municipal election. Bolsonaro’s political influence will eventually fade, but the right will stay. Bolsonaro and his party will continue to claim that they have been scrutinized and indicted for political reasons. The recent events may energize his followers and the pro-Bolsonaro rally scheduled for Sunday in São Paulo will show how much real power and political influence he has. The 2022 election and the investigations led by the Supreme Court and the federal police all demonstrate that institutions in Brazil are functioning, and that each are working in accordance with the constitution. There are interesting similarities between Brazilian and U.S. politics related to the political futures of Bolsonaro and Donald Trump. The main difference is that in Brazil, the judiciary decided that Bolsonaro cannot run for any office for eight years and, in the United States, Trump may run for president and win.”

Cecília Godoy, analyst at FrontierView: “The jury is still out on how damaging the impact of the recent investigations could be for former President Jair Bolsonaro and the Liberal Party’s ability to perform in the fast-approaching municipal elections. While the party has ambitious goals for this year’s local elections—aiming to surpass 1,000 mayorships (which only the Movimento Democratico Brasileiro party has achieved this century)—we will likely see the party losing political muscle ahead of and following the October elections if it proves unable to reinforce a narrative of political persecution. Ultimately, the protests scheduled for Sunday will be a good litmus test for gauging the influence Bolsonaro could exert over the electoral process. If the turnout is disappointing, it will be interpreted as a sign that Bolsonaro’s relevance in the political scene is waning. However, a strong showing will be seen as underscoring Bolsonaro’s enduring appeal, even amid the ongoing legal investigations. As for the broader impact on the right-leaning movement, much will depend on the position of potential right-wing presidential contenders in the 2026 presidential election. The two prominent contenders currently—São Paulo’s Tarcísio de Freitas and Minas Gerais’ Romeu Zema—will strive to find the balance between being sympathetic to the grievances of Bolsonaro’s supporters but distant enough to not be associated with the coup allegations.”

Joel Korn, president of WKI Brasil and senior international partner at UPITE Consulting Services: “The ongoing investigations over the coup plot are at an advanced stage and backed by robust facts, corroborated by published meeting records and a guilty plea by former President Bolsonaro’s adjutant. However, regardless of its outcome, the loyalty of Bolsonaro’s supporters won’t be diminished by the ongoing process. It is too early to evaluate the implications of the proceedings for the Liberal Party, given the extent of involvement of some of its members—particularly at the leadership level—in the orchestration of the coup plot. The party may be subject to financial restrictions on election campaigns which, in turn, will harm its electoral prospects. The window of opportunity for candidates to migrate to another party until early April (six months before the election) should also be considered, depending upon how the proceedings evolve. The functioning of institutions, despite their deficiencies, was proven to be sufficiently strong and resilient as to vehemently refute an autocratic regime and preserve democracy.”

Gilberto M. A. Rodrigues, associate professor in international relations at the Federal University of ABC and researcher at the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development in Brazil: “The investigations that the federal police conducted through the Supreme Federal Court’s jurisdiction in regards to the attempted coup that culminated in the Jan. 8, 2023 riot indicated that former President Bolsonaro was involved. For the first time since 1985 when Brazil returned to democracy, high-ranking and active-duty military personnel have been identified as participants in a plan to prevent a president from taking office. The evidence from the investigations at this point is very serious. Opinion polls show that the majority of the population supports holding Bolsonaro accountable for his wrongdoing. However, the former president maintains a loyal support base, comprising about a third of the electorate, who would support him or a candidate that he endorses. This has created ambiguities in the municipal pre-election campaigns, in which Bolsonaro’s support is seen as important for right-wing candidates. However, the burden of legal proceedings is becoming increasingly heavy, alienating centrist voters who could be crucial in runoffs. The Liberal Party, whose president was also briefly detained for illegal firearms possession, is struggling to maintain a public dis- course detached from Bolsonaro’s possible crimes and those of his supporters, many of whom have already been arrested. President Lula is working to achieve victories in major cities, such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, where Bolsonarism will have limited chances. The ability of the judiciary to sustain and advance the investigations, including against military personnel, reveals the strength of the country’s democratic institutions.”


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