São Paulo rally shows that Bolsonaro is still a player

Brazil

Published on Tuesday 27 February 2024 Back to articles

Rally in support of former president Jair Bolsonaro – São Paulo – 25.02.24

After months of relative inactivity the former far-right president Jair Bolsonaro (2019-2023) held a rally on Avenida Paulista in Brazil’s largest city of São Paulo on 25 February. Tens of thousands of supporters turned out to hear the former president assert that the far-right remains relevant in the country. The organisers hoped to rally half a million protestors; an independent assessment was that 185,000 actually turned out, which was a smaller but still significant number. Also present at the rally were far-right members of Congress and a handful of state governors. The latter included two political heavyweight governors, Tarcísio Freitas de Lima from São Paulo, and Romeu Zema from Minas Gerais. Both are mainstream right wingers who hope to run for the presidency in 2026 and calculate that to win they must also attract some degree of bolsonarista  support as Bolsonaro is banned from running for public office until 2030. 

The rally was designed as a political response to the former president’s increasing legal difficulties. Last year the Tribunal Superior Eleitoral (TSE) found him guilty of trying to undermine the 2022 democratic elections and imposed the ban on him running for public office. Bolsonaro now faces a total of eight Supremo Tribunal Federal (STF) cases including charges of plotting a military coup to remain in power. On 8 February the Supreme Court justice, Alexandre de Moraes, who is leading the investigations, ordered 33 police raids across the country with 48 cautionary measures and four arrests. 

Those arrested included some of the former president’s key advisers. Bolsonaro’s summer home was raided, and his passport was confiscated by the federal police. There were also raids at properties owned by retired military officers who had served in the last Bolsonaro government including:

  • General Walter Braga Netto, his former defence minister and chief of staff;
  • General Augusto Heleno Ribeiro Pereira, the former head of the presidential security bureau;
  • General Paulo Sergio Nogueira, who also served as defence minister; and
  • Admiral Almir Garnier, the former commander in chief of the Navy. 

To varying degrees, these, and other officials — including Valdemar Costa Neto, president of Bolsonaro’s Partido Liberal (PL) — are accused of preparing draft documents to justify declaring a coup-d’etat, including a State of Emergency and the ’intervention’ of the Supreme Court. 

The alleged conspirators are also accused of planning the mob attack on government buildings, including the presidential palace, which took place on 8 January 2023. The STF indictment identifies six groups that are said to have formed part of a ‘criminal enterprise’ to attack Brazilian democracy. It does not yet identify their leaders, leaving open the possibility that as investigations develop, Bolsonaro could be formally accused of leading the attempted coup. On 24 February he gave a ‘no comment’ interview, along with 22 other officials who were summoned by the Federal Police for cross-questioning. His legal team said he had exercised his constitutional right to remain silent. 

The Avenida Paulista rally was the largest gathering of Brazil’s far right supporters since the January 2023 riots. The organisers demonstrated sensitivity to the changed legal context. In previous bolsonarista  rallies the presence of placards and speeches calling for an army putsch or for the closure of the Supreme Court were routine. This time, fearful of further legal action, Bolsonaro made an appeal to his supporters not to attack ‘anyone’ in speeches and slogans. In his own speech he adopted a conciliatory tone, saying that he ‘seeks pacification to erase the past’. He denied any involvement in coup mongering, and called for an amnesty for those involved in the January 2023 riots. His supporters wore green and yellow football jerseys, with many waving Israeli flags, an indirect way of attacking President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (a.k.a. Lula), who has been declared ‘persona non grata’ by the Israeli government.

According to opinion polls Bolsonaro’ popularity has waned, and a majority of respondents reject any calls for a coup. A survey of over 600,000 social media posts conducted by Quaest in early February found that 58% were critical of Bolsonaro while 42% supported him. Another social media survey by Torabit on 24 February — the day before the rally — found 46.2% were hostile to Bolsonaro, 28% supported him, and 26.2% were ‘neutral’. However, it is also the case that general support for the former president continues significantly in above one third of the electorate.

Carlos Melo, a political scientist at Insper University in São Paulo argued that, since he is no longer in power, Bolsonaro’s ability to cause political turbulence is much reduced and ‘this new reality does not favour him with unpredictability and drama’. Other analysts believe he will use the rally to try and gain some momentum for his party ahead of the October municipal elections. Brazil’s former ambassador to the US, Rubens Barbosa, commented ‘the conservative movement is here to stay, and conservatives will vote for candidates supported by Bolsonaro and his party in the municipal elections. Bolsonaro’s electoral influence will eventually fade, but the right will stay.’ In this perspective, further legal complications for the former president, which are likely in the coming months, will influence the shape of the coalitions that will be struck between the right and the far right.

This excerpt is taken from Brazil Focus, our monthly intelligence report on Brazil. Click here to receive a free sample copy.

The February 2024 issue of Brazil Focus also includes the following:

Politics

  • São Paulo rally shows that Bolsonaro is still a player
  • Implications
  • Tension over investigation of bolsonarista officers
  • Haddad – facing key challenges this year?
  • Two factions fight over anti-corruption policy
  • Realignment on the left in São Paulo

Taking the Pulse

  • Brazilian politicians: who is in and who is out? 

Foreign Relations

  • Relations with Israel take another nose-dive

Security

  • Worries over maximum-security prison break
  • Amazon border tension leads to increased military presence 
  • Intelligence agency in the frame

Economy & Business

  • Central Bank forecasts 2%-plus growth this year
  • Inflation still trending down
  • Fiscal worries continue
  • Foreign investors are big players in M&A
  • Mahindra expands its Brazilian operation
  • Gol files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy
  • Counting the cost of dam disasters
  • Government’s mass dengue vaccination programme 
  • Volkswagen announces major investment
  • Charging stations on the way

Environment

  • Deforestation worries switch to the Cerrado

Energy Sector

  • Climate change partnership with UAE and Azerbaijan
  • Gas imports slump as renewables surge 

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