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Bolsonaro Is Barred From Public Office — But That Doesn’t Mean He’ll Disappear

The ruling won’t hamper Jair Bolsonaro’s ability to propagate his broader authoritarian neoliberal project for Brazil.

Former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro speaks during a Turning Point USA event at the Trump National Doral Miami resort on February 3, 2023, in Doral, Florida.

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s former president, has been barred from seeking public office until 2030. The country’s Superior Electoral Court ruled that Bolsonaro violated election laws when he called diplomats from several countries to the presidential palace a few months ahead of last year’s vote and made baseless claims about Brazil’s voting systems — the voting machines, Bolsonaro said, were rigged against him. The meeting with diplomats was broadcast by the state TV channel, generating several clips shared relentlessly by right-wing social media platforms in the subsequent weeks. In a 5-2 ruling, the court declared that the former president abused his power and misused state media.

Bolsonaro can still appeal the decision, but this case, whose outcome was reached on June 30, is one among more than a dozen cases that have been filed against him since his return to Brazil from a three-month stay in Florida. Accusations range from improper use of public funds and the spread of misinformation in his last presidential run, to falsifying his vaccination card to avoid travel restrictions and involvement with the January 8 attacks on the capital, Brasília.

The decision prompted comparisons with Donald Trump, who is facing federal and state charges — notably the accusations over mishandling classified documents — but may still be the Republican presidential nominee in 2024. The contrasting fallout has led some to suggest that Brazil can provide a model for fighting anti-democratic threats and preserving democracy — a somewhat ironic claim given that Brazil’s political and judicial systems delivered a coup against former President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 and ordered the jailing of current President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2018, blocking his presidential run and paving the way for Bolsonaro’s victory. The decision to bar Bolsonaro from public office for eight years is indeed a victory for the progressive sector, but its importance should not be overstated — the same is true of any judicial response to rising authoritarianism worldwide. Only by adequately contextualizing the recent decision can we extract lessons for the U.S. context and combat the contemporary global right-wing movement.

According to the electoral court’s decision, Bolsonaro will not be able to run for three election cycles: municipal elections in 2024 and 2028, as well as state and presidential elections in 2026. He will be 75 by the time of the 2030 state and presidential elections. The eight-year ban may seem solid, but the ruling barely accounts for what Bolsonaro did while in office — his government was responsible for thousands of deaths during the pandemic; a widespread attack on women’s, workers’, and other rights through budget cuts or legislation changes; a growing culture of violence in Brazil; and several accusations of corruption. These issues were not, of course, within the scope of the case before the electoral court, and other cases looming over Bolsonaro may lead to harsher sentences. But the outcome of these cases is not certain — nor is the willingness of the judicial system to keep pursuing accountability. Bolsonaro is barred from seeking office, but he kept his rights — he can plainly participate in Brazilian society’s civil and political life by exercising free speech, campaigning for other politicians, etc. Intentionally or not, the ruling aimed at Bolsonaro but not at his ability to propagate his broader authoritarian neoliberal project for Brazil.

Intentionally or not, the ruling aimed at Bolsonaro but not at his ability to propagate his broader authoritarian neoliberal project for Brazil.

Bolsonaro’s running mate, Gen. Walter Souza Braga Netto, was also a defendant in the case considered by the electoral court. Bolsonaro, however, went down alone, with Braga Netto spared of any charges. This is noteworthy, confirming the impression that Bolsonaro was “sacrificed” — several former allies have been lukewarm about him since his trip to Florida at the end of his term, and even some main voices of Bolsonarismo in Congress have only discreetly expressed their dissent against the electoral court’s decision. Such a shift in alliances is understandable when one remembers that Bolsonaro was not the elite’s first or favorite choice — he was only embraced once other candidates espousing an aggressive neoliberal, or anti-Workers’ Party, model flopped. The latest electoral court decision indicates that the right wing will sharpen its efforts to build a new figure to keep carrying out its project, following the uncertainties of the last election and the aftermath of the January 8 attack. São Paulo Gov. Tarcísio de Freitas, who was elected in 2022 with Bolsonaro’s backing, has been labeled in the media as a potential successor. The attempts to elevate Ron DeSantis to the national spotlight in the U.S. have shown the complications of such an endeavor. But in Brazil, the bets are on the possibility of “Bolsonarismo without Bolsonaro,” in which the former president contributes to the making of a successor but does not jeopardize the broader reactionary project.

Whether Brazilian conservatives will be able to reap the benefits without the drawbacks remains to be seen. The rise and success of Bolsonaro and other neo-fascists require popular mobilization that ultimately cannot be fully controlled. Bolsonaro is a piece of a larger movement that is present in every corner of Brazilian society and now operates through numerous hubs in a hydra-headed structure, both within and outside political institutions. Coordination exists, and some hubs are more prominent than others. But within such a right-wing movement ecosystem, Bolsonaro has served, essentially, as a symbolic unifier and a reference for a base that is not clear-cut — a combination of die-hards and loose supporters. Such an ecosystem has been going through changes since the January 8 attack, but once the electoral court decision was announced, these networks started advancing the old narrative that “the system” is against Bolsonaro, seeking “revenge” against him. Therefore, the latest court decision may even generate further attachment to Bolsonaro himself, ultimately forcing a realignment of right-wingers in office, who conveniently sway between closeness to and distance from Bolsonaro, friendliness with and criticism of “extremists.” How Bolsonaro will respond to the narrative of his conviction — whether he will willingly pass the baton and remain discreet, or work to recuperate his role as the protagonist — is now the key factor shaping the subsequent developments of the right wing in Brazil.

Legal actions such as the ones facing Bolsonaro (and, for what it’s worth, Trump) cannot alone match up to the extent of the right-wing movement.

Bolsonaro’s career as a politician suffered a blow, but his career in politics is not over yet — nor is the country’s right-wing movement. The consequences of the electoral court’s decision to bar him from public office are yet to unfold; therefore, the decision is not a total victory — indeed, one should see it as a cautionary tale. Legal actions such as the ones facing Bolsonaro (and, for what it’s worth, Trump) cannot alone match up to the extent of the right-wing movement in Brazil, whose components operate both openly and underground, both inside and outside political institutions. The decision, particularly notable in its limited scope, does not inevitably translate into a loss of prestige or leverage for Bolsonaro, so the risk lies in mystifying the power of the courts — in addition to sidelining a much-needed progressive critique of the judiciary system. Yet, despite the limitations, the decision is an opportunity for the left to shape the narrative about Bolsonaro’s legacy to the country, as well as gain ground — for which a good performance by the current Lula administration will be crucial to shift the country’s culture away from right-wing values, provide tangible improvements in people’s lives and, finally, defeat the reactionary project for Brazil.

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