RIO DE JANEIRO — For weeks, Brazil has enjoyed a relative calm. Following the most divisive election in its history, which culminated in thousands of rioters seizing and vandalizing the capital’s most important federal buildings, the country has celebrated weeks of Carnival revelry and quiet news cycles.
But now Bolsonaro, who rose to power by exploiting a succession of culture war battles and spent his four years as president deepening those divisions, says he’ll return soon to the country he polarized like few politicians before. His reappearance carries grave risks, not only for Bolsonaro, who is facing multiple criminal inquiries and the possibility of arrest on a wide range of alleged wrongdoing, but also for Brazil, whose barely salved political wounds Bolsonaro’s inflammatory politicking could reopen.
“Bolsonaro’s return will swell the belligerence and polarization in a society that is already polarized,” said political scientist David Magalhães, coordinator of Brazil’s independent Observatory of the Extreme Right. “He’s not coming back to talk about high interest rates and the central bank. He will go the ideological path.”
Injecting more uncertainty into the coming months will be the outcomes of the bevy of inquiries that have put increasing pressure on Bolsonaro and his associates. Investigators are probing, among other things, whether the former president spread fake news about the country’s electoral system or if he instigated the mob that attacked government institutions on Jan. 8.
If Bolsonaro is ultimately arrested — which as of now seems unlikely — or disqualified from running for office, the fallout could once more plunge the country into political turbulence.
“There will be protests,” said Dener Souza, 49, a staunch bolsonarista. “The people will rise up. We’ll fight against the persecution of Bolsonaro.”
There was a time when politics here were calmer. But in the past decade, as the economy stagnated and leading politicians were tarred by corruption scandals, the earliest skirmishes of the new culture war broke out — and its greatest warrior was Bolsonaro. He reframed politics as an existential clash between a persecuted right and a corrupt left, between what he called the “cidadão de bem” — the good citizen — and the criminals and minority groups trampling on their rights.
He said a good criminal was a dead criminal. He said he’d rather have a dead son than a gay son. He defined Brazil simply: “A Christian, conservative country.”
“Bolsonaro was able to Americanize Brazilian politics,” said Guilherme Casarões, a political scientist at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, a degree-granting university. “He basically shifted the whole discussion in Brazil to something that Brazilians weren’t used to talking about on a political level.”
But the positions he took were often so extreme — and his manner of speaking so crass — that his emergence as a major national political figure polarized the country. As president and a candidate for reelection, he exploited those divisions, demonizing political opponents, undermining confidence in the country’s electoral systems, refusing to recognize Lula as the rightful victor — and pushing the sides still farther apart.
Now Bolsonaro wants back in to Brazilian politics. He frequently discusses his return with advisers. But it has been repeatedly delayed, by the legal jeopardy he faces in Brazil — and his own diminished spirits.
“He’s become reclusive, very saddened and shaken,” said one close Bolsonaro adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment. “He’s a strong man, strong emotionally, but he has been very impacted by everything that has happened.”
He has often voiced concerns over his legal liability in Brazil. Legal advisers have been telling him since January that the risk of his arrest would be low. Senior Brazilian judicial officials told The Washington Post in January that there was insufficient evidence to order his arrest. It’s unclear whether anything has happened since to change that thinking, but Bolsonaro has been reluctant to test it.
“A prison order can come out of nowhere,” he told the Wall Street Journal in February.
He has said he was planning to return to Brazil in late March. But earlier return plans have been scuttled, and this one could be, too.
“Bolsonaro is not a normal person, like you and me,” said a political ally in frequent communication with him, also speaking on the condition of anonymity. “He is not a normal politician who follows common behavior. He hides his game; he is unpredictable.”
Some former supporters say they have lost faith in their erstwhile leader. They think his decision to skip town days before his term ended, snubbing Lula’s inauguration to begin his self-imposed exile in Florida, where he has been seen eating fast food and shopping at Publix, was a mistake.
“A leader doesn’t abandon their allies,” said Claudinei Junior, 36, a bolsonarista in rural São Paulo state.
But Bolsonaro’s political party, the Liberal Party, is bullish on his appeal. It has announced plans for a tour of Brazil’s northeast, a largely impoverished region that rejected him in his two presidential runs. He’s slated to lead motorcycle rallies throughout the region as he attempts to take command of the opposition before the 2024 municipal elections.
Party leaders point to loyal bolsonaristas such as Esmeralda Silveira Soares as proof that people will rejoice at his return. The 75-year-old Salvador resident says Lula stole the election. She’s eagerly awaiting Bolsonaro’s return, she said, and hopes he’ll resume his political quest.
“Lula is a thief,” Soares said. “He got everything with money robbed from our country. I see communism in the government’s behavior, in that truth has become lies and lies have become truth. They’re preparing a vaccine to kill the people.”
Political observers expressed concern over how Bolsonaro could further exploit such widespread and entrenched political enmity.
“The presence of Bolsonaro is terrible for our democracy,” said Jairo Pimentel, a political scientist with the Brasília consultancy firm Ponteio Politica. “He treats his adversaries as enemies rather than adversaries.”