Jair Bolsonaro
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Why Bolsonaro is no longer the Trump of the tropics

The political right knows that most Brazilians have rejected the coup-plotting, radical wing of the former president, but they also know that voters do not want a full return of the Workers’ Party in its purest form

Jair Bolsonaro
Jair Bolsonaro, former president of Brazil, in Porto Alegre, Brazil.DIEGO VARA (REUTERS)
Juan Arias

With the rise of far-right Bolsonarism and its Nazi-fascist overtones, the former president of Brazil came to be seen as the Trump of the tropics. His defeat at the polls against Lula, albeit by only 2% of the vote, dashed his hopes.

Instead of taking the rough with the smooth, though, Bolsonaro fled the country, to take shelter under the wings of his tutor Trump. He left the mission of muddying the waters of Lula’s victory to his supporters, who stormed the seats of power in Brasília.

However, he miscalculated his political strength and defied the judiciary with violent attacks on the Supreme Court, which dragged him into a judicial process that will most likely prevent him from contesting political elections for eight years, condemning him to wander alone in the political wilderness.

The former president had already disappointed his followers by fleeing the country to the United States and refusing to hand over the presidential sash to the winner. He thus returned to the country more crestfallen than triumphant and, as some political pundits have commented, like a “dumb cockroach” that does not know what to do.

If Bolsonaro, whose political support is crumbling, is disqualified from running for political office, it is most likely that his own people will also end up cornering him little by little. They will look for a successor, something they have already begun to do. In that case, it is possible that his great American godfather, Trump (also embroiled in judicial proceedings), will end up forgetting about his Brazilian friend.

His most loyal followers — generally the hardest right-wingers that always trusted him, and currently numbering about 15% of the electorate — are aware that support for their leader is dissolving like a sugar cube in (Brazilian) coffee, and they are already looking for a successor. Today, Bolsonaro and his extremist right wing are cornered in comparison with Lula’s government, which is being welcomed abroad as the savior of the threatened Brazilian democracy.

If the era of Bolsonarist extremism seems to be foundering everywhere, and Brazil has responded with a “no” to the failed attempts of a military coup d’état, it does not mean the tectonic plates of the right wing have taken a break. They are simply dormant in their attempt to corner the left and remain in power, even if it is only through the still largely conservative Parliament, which is giving the new democratic government a headache.

If it is true that with the collapse of radical Bolsonarism the danger of a Trump-like right wing seems to have vanished in Brazil, it is also true that the danger of democratic regression is still lurking and will do everything possible to make it difficult for the president to completely defeat the dangers of a coup d’état.

And therein lies the responsibility of Lula’s new progressive government (his third), which is torn between the most radical left-wing elements of his party, the Worker’s Party (PT), and the centrist elements that he introduced into his government, without which he would surely have lost the elections.

No. The troubled waters of Brazilian politics have not yet calmed down, and Lula’s task of defeating the advance of the extreme right once and for all is not over and will depend a lot on his political acumen.

In its specific actions, the Lula administration cannot forget that the current president won the elections not so much because of who he and his leftist party are. It was all more complex. Lula won because he had the intuition to win back a part of the center that did not want to vote for Bolsonaro but also did not want to vote for the left.

And this dialectic continues today and has prompted Lula to demonstrate in every decision that his is not a government of the left but against the Bolsonarist coup and the advance of conservative forces that are increasingly leaning towards the extreme right.

Perhaps for this reason, only six months into the new administration, there is already open talk of his possible successor in 2026, which will ultimately depend on his team’s success or failure.

The right wing knows that the majority of Brazilians today reject Bolsonaro’s coup-plotting, uncouth right wing, but they also know that Brazilians do not want a full return of the Workers’ Party in its purest form. It is a country that trusts more in a conservative center with strong social accents that also knows how to listen to the complaints of the millions of poor people still resounding in the country.

And those who know that the former president, nostalgic for dictatorships, has been discredited by revealing himself as a coward to his own people, are betting in a search for the leader of a modern “civilized” center-right.

It is this balance, in the face of the desire for change, that Brazilians still follow the movements of the new and unprecedented Lula government attentively. This will make it possible (or not) that in the next elections both the old left and the extreme right will have a better understanding of what the new political situation demands of them in their efforts to transform the country.

In the past, Lula has even called himself a “walking metamorphosis.” This is what he has sought to achieve in his third term in office with his progressive yet conservative government. His task will not be easy, judging by the opposition he is encountering in Congress.

Lula will have to pay attention to the new clandestine movements of a Bolsonarism that is wounded but not fatally, and that could recover in the hands of new false prophets that can already be seen on the horizon.

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