Former President of Brazil, Jair Messias Bolsonaro, ended his self-imposed exile on March 30th, 2023, when he returned from Florida to Brazil’s capital, Brasília. It is the place which only months before saw a damaging attack on the federal government buildings—and the reason why Bolsonaro left the country in the first place. On the morning of the 8th of January 2023, thousands of Bolsonaro supporters stormed the federal government buildings in Brasília, known as the “Praça dos Três Poderes” (Three Branches Plaza). What followed was the destruction and theft of federal property which has been estimated at a total of 14.9 million Brazilian Real (2.9 million USD). Unlike the Capitol attacks in Washington, the federal buildings in Brasília were not swiftly protected by the military police.
Instead, some police officers filmed the events unfolding before them, or stood by in silent agreement with the Bolsonaro supporters destroying the Three Branches. Some consider the attack on the Three Branches Plaza as an attack on Brazil’s young democracy itself, as it targeted the three pillars of the Brazilian government: the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judiciary. Unlike most capital cities, Brasília was created to become a capital, designed with the purpose of being a utopia that could represent Brazil. Its role as a Brazilian utopia is contested, however, with many arguing its design is inherently flawed and instead symbolises the exclusivity of a modern Brazil. Yet a common understanding of what the Three Branches Plaza represents remains: it symbolises the order and progress Brazil continuously strives towards.
Bolsonaro’s role in the riots is highly contested, but ongoing investigations are seeking to clarify if his rhetoric and his behaviour on social media platforms can be tied to the violent acts done in the name of ‘Bolsonarism’ (the ex-presidents far-right movement and ideology). Brazil’s recent tendency to prosecute presidents shows a repetitive pattern, and the discussion of whether prosecuting presidents is a good idea is a complex one. Some argue that prosecuting former presidents is indicative of a strong rule of law, which no one is above. Whilst others consider the potential risk of prosecuting presidents turning into a political weapon, especially if – as in the case of current president Lula – the proceedings against the former president violate due process guarantees. In order for the prosecution of former presidents to truly uphold the rule of law, the trials need to be fair, just and impartial, and not conducted with the aim of barring candidates from future elections. Ensuring legitimate trials also assures that sentences cannot be annulled.
Since Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s presidency ended in 2002, every president (Lula, Dilma, and Temer) of Brazil has either been charged or faced criminal charges. This now extends to Bolsonaro, as he is facing potential charges from several investigations ranging from falsification of his COVID-19 vaccination records, crimes against humanity and his alleged role in the Brasília attacks. Whilst these investigations are still ongoing, the question everyone is asking is whether Brazil’s young democracy will have another prosecuted president in its history.
The Ongoing Investigations
As of early May 2023, Bolsonaro is subject to several investigations including; not declaring jewellery worth $3.2 million given to him by the Saudi Arabian government, falsification of COVID-19 vaccination documents and accusations of involvement in the Brasilia attacks.
The currently most pressing investigation regards his alleged involvement in the Brasília attacks. A statement by the Brazilian Supreme Court cites Bolsonaro’s repeated undermining of the legitimacy of the election process and results and a video posted after the attacks as delivering a public “incitement to commit crimes”. Bolsonaro’s pessimistic attitude towards Brazil’s highly developed electronic electoral system dates back months prior to the elections, and his sentiment towards the past military dictatorship predates his presidency. In 1999, a mere eleven years after the end of the dictatorship which saw thousands brutalised and tortured, Bolsonaro argued that “Elections won’t change anything in this country. It will only change on the day that we break out in civil war here and do the job that the military regime didn’t do: killing 30,000…” Thereby, Bolsonaro’s stance on elections and democracy is neither surprising nor new.
Prosecutors are also investigating a video Bolsonaro reposted to his Facebook of a woman questioning current president Lula’s victory in the 2022 general elections. The video showed a woman arguing that Lula was not democratically elected but instead selected by the supreme court and the electoral authority. Bolsonaro’s posting of the video has been stated by the supreme court as delivering “a public incitement to commit crimes”. The problem with the video is that Bolsonaro posted it to his Facebook two days after the attacks on The Three Branches Plaza, making its correlation with the attacks harder to determine.
However, prosecutors argue that the content of the video was sufficiently concerning to warrant an investigation into his actions prior to posting the video. Bolsonaro contends that he accidentally posted the video to his Facebook when trying to add it to his private files on WhatsApp. A mistake, he argues, that was made while being heavily medicated in a hospital in Orlando being treated for intestinal issues. The video was eventually deleted by Bolsonaro’s team a few hours later, with Bolsonaro repeating his condemnation of the attacks in Brasília. As of the 8th of May, 2023, Bolsonaro has testified on his involvement but no further legal action has been taken.
Brazil’s History of Prosecuting Presidents
It is undeniable that Bolsonaro has faced a considerable amount of pressure since losing the election in October, but the question remains if the several investigations will result in prosecution or—as some consider more realistic—Bolsonaro being barred from running for president in the 2026 election.
Lula’s previous terms as president lasted from 2003 to 2010, after which he left office with a record-high approval rating of 87%. Upon leaving office, Lula appointed Dilma Rousseff as his official successor for the “Partido dos Trabalhadores” (Worker’s Party). Dilma in turn served from 2011 until her impeachment in 2016, which followed an investigation where Dilma was found guilty of “breaking budgetary law”. After Dilma’s impeachment, Michel Temer took over as President until the 2018 presidential elections, although he too faced two impeachment attempts. In 2017 both Lula and Dilma were charged with corruption, and in 2019, Michel Temer was arrested on charges of corruption.
Operacão Lava Jato, or Operation Car Wash, is one of the largest corruption investigations in modern history, and began in 2014 when executives at Petrobras, the state oil company, had allegedly accepted bribes from construction firms and in return awarded said firms with contracts at grossly inflated prices. This investigation quickly turned into a national scandal, where politicians from multiple parties, parts of government and regions of Brazil were arrested. In 2019, Lula was convicted of corruption and money laundering, and sentenced to twelve years in prison, a ruling which he argued as being politically motivated and aimed at hindering him from running in the 2022 presidential election. However, the biassed actions of now-former Federal Criminal Court Judge Sergio Moro led to Lula only serving 580 days.
The impact of Operation Car Wash on Brazil’s political landscape was immense. A country which prides itself on its hardwon yet young democracy took much insult in seeing democratically elected presidents, and large parts of the cabinet being prosecuted, charged and convicted. Any country would arguably question its political institutions after the names of almost a third of its cabinet (during Temer’s presidency) were released on a list of individuals to be investigated for corruption.
Arguably, the distrust sown by Operation Car Wash gave Bolsonaro the foundations on which he built his presidency. The much-approved and loved Workers Party (PT) had taken a considerable hit, whilst Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party (PL) had escaped relatively unscathed. What happened in Brazil’s 2018 presidential elections is not an uncommon tale. The distrust of the old government was strong, and Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party emerged as the solution to a struggling nation. However, after four years of Bolsonaro being president, distrust once again allowed the pendulum to swing back to the other end of the political spectrum, with a more leftist government being once again in power.
The attacks in Brasília go beyond the destruction of federal property and instead signal the very dangerous and distinct divisions existing in Brazil. Lula’s greatest challenge will be to unite Brazil and recover its reputation and standing on the international stage. Something which he has already proved to struggle with given his controversial comments made regarding the Russia-Ukraine war in the last two months. Regardless of the current challenges facing Lula, the investigations into the several alleged crimes committed by Bolsonaro take the forefront in global media outlets.
Whether Bolsonaro will be charged in any of the myriads of ongoing investigations remains to be seen, but 55% of the Brazilian population believes he holds some responsibility for the attacks. If Bolsonaro’s investigations were to prove some kind of criminal conduct, it could bar him from running for president in the 2026 elections, an outcome which would undoubtedly disappoint his millions of supporters
By Laura Lima Borge