Outgoing Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has broken an almost six-week silence after his election defeat in October, telling supporters they will decide his next steps.
“Who decides where I go are you. Who decides which way the armed forces go are you,” the rightwing populist told radical supporters, who are calling for a military intervention against the election of leftwing leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
For almost 40 days, the once-fiery Bolsonaro holed up in the presidential palace in Brasília, eschewing professional appointments and the regular social media self-promotion that had been a hallmark of his presidency.
His disappearance was beginning to cause consternation among members of his Liberal party, who want him to rally the opposition to the incoming administration, which takes office on January 1.
“We want him to command our party, to be at the forefront of this fight, to take our party to a more important level,” said Valdemar Costa Neto, the president of the party, known as the PL. “It is very important that he travels around Brazil, that he continues to engage in politics.”
Two sources close to the outgoing president, who is believed to be suffering from an infection that has caused his legs to swell, say he has been taking a break and plotting how he will return to the fray.
“It’s just a breather. The president will be back with a bang, I can assure you,” said one close ally of the Bolsonaro family.
“He was candidly not expecting to lose the election. So he is figuring out how to best serve as an effective opposition leader — for which he has a strong mandate, having won a majority of the vote essentially all over Brazil with the exception of the north-east region,” the person added.
Allies say that the former army captain is also wary of making any public statement that might put him in legal jeopardy.
In the weeks since the election, Bolsonaro’s most devout supporters have rallied outside army bases across the nation, calling for a military intervention against Lula.
The demonstrations have been deemed “anti-democratic” by Brazil’s Supreme Court, which has taken a hard line with protesters and politicians questioning the legitimacy of the polls.
In the comments to supporters on Friday, Bolsonaro did not endorse calls for a military intervention, but said: “Nothing is lost . . . the Armed Forces are united . . . and they are responsible for our freedom.”
One individual who met the president following the election said: “He [Bolsonaro] knows if he travels the country and starts making rallies, he could say something that might be considered anti-democratic. That worries him.”
The Liberal party was recently fined $4mn by the top electoral court for what its chief justice called a “bad faith” attempt to legally challenge the election results. Several pro-Bolsonaro lawmakers have also been banned from social media by the court after questioning the polls.
The decisions have sparked claims of censorship from the Brazilian right.
“The president needs to walk a fine line between not seeming to encourage nor dissuade the massive, grassroots surge of people who are very concerned about losing their freedoms,” said the family ally.
Bolsonaro had publicly admitted before the election that he fears prosecution when he loses presidential immunity. He faces multiple legal cases, including one that accuses him of spreading fake news during the Covid pandemic.
Despite a large show of popular support for him immediately following the election, demonstrations have since dwindled and only a core of radical Bolsonaro supporters remain outside the country’s military bases.
“In the immediate aftermath of the elections, Bolsonaro expected a strong political, military and popular outpouring against the results. But as time went by, it became clear that this movement was weak,” said Bruno Carazza, a professor at the Dom Cabral Foundation. “So instead of being a lame duck, he decided to just disappear.”
Costa Neto, the leader of the PL, has tried to coax Bolsonaro back into political action by offering him an honorary presidency of the party, which comes with a remuneration package including a house, office, political aides and drivers and a monthly salary of $7,500 — a payment that would put him in the top 1 per cent of earners in Brazil. Bolsonaro has yet to accept the offer.
Rodrigo Prando, a political scientist at Mackenzie Presbyterian University in São Paulo, said “the big issue for Bolsonaro now is the fear of legal consequences. His priority is to get the protection of his party, with an office, a team of lawyers and even a salary.”
Bolsonaro’s leadership of the Brazilian right is also threatened by the emergence of more moderate, technocratic figures.
In the recent elections, the governorships of São Paulo and Minas Gerais — two of Brazil’s biggest states — were both won by rightwing candidates who eschew Bolsonaro’s more extreme rhetoric and policies.
“Bolsonaro’s ability to be an effective opposition leader is affected by the facts that the bolsonarismo is not organised in one single political party and that other leaders have emerged, who could be seen as more interesting by the elites,” said Carazza.
As his terms draws to a close at the end of this month, Bolsonaro’s allies are certain of one thing: he will not attend the inauguration of Lula on January 1 nor will he pass the presidential sash to the leftwing leader, as has happened at every handover since the restoration of democracy in 1985.
“He is not going [to the ceremony], full stop,” said one ally. “One hundred per cent not happening.”