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June 19, 2020

BRAZIL: Judiciary prevailing as Bolsonaro family targeted

BY Mario Marconini

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( 5 mins)
  • The arrest of a close Bolsonaro family friend sought as a key part of investigations against Flavio Bolsonaro intensifies judiciary versus government feuding.
  • Impeachment still requires irrefutable evidence and popular support – in that order.
  • The president may be spared but his children will continue to be targeted.

The arrest of Fabricio Queiroz, former aide to President Jair Bolsonaro’s oldest son, Senator Flavio Bolsonaro, yesterday, 18 June, confirms the stamina with which judicial authorities are pursuing cases against the presidential family. In the current context of the open skirmish between the Supreme Court (STF) and the government over investigations involving the president (undue interference in the Federal Police), the presidency (fake news), and his supporters (anti-democratic protests), the arrest came as a surprise. The case against Flavio´s alleged appropriation of salaries from employees (fake and real) during his tenure as a Rio de Janeiro state lawmaker does not implicate the president as such. The combination of the coming to a head of STF-mandated investigations with ongoing trials at the electoral court (TSE) that could technically (but probably will not) lead to the annulment of the 2018 presidential elections, however, makes the arrest look like a cog in a much bigger wheel. The Bolsonaro clan is undeniably under attack.

Theoretical threat

Potentially, the biggest damage could be inflicted on the president by the ongoing TSE trials regarding the impact of the action of hackers and the financing of fake news schemes on the 2018 elections. The TSE has the power to oust a president and his VP with the stroke of one decision. Neither needs to be found culpable of any of the investigated actions but instead proof needs to be found that the actions themselves altered significantly the result of the elections. This will not happen this time. Accurately linking actions to outcomes is a tall order. The TSE has never annulled a presidential ticket or a presidential election. It did not do so with the Dilma Rousseff-Michel Temer ticket, which admittedly had much evidence against it, and it will not do so now when the political climate is so heavily charged with institutional conflicts. The court functions well checking campaign financials and applying fines accordingly – not bringing down governments.

Ineffective charges

The second biggest source of damage for the president could result from the Supreme-Court-mandated investigations and their follow-up: the bringing of related charges by the Prosecutor-General, the acceptance of the charges by the STF, and the final double vote in both chambers of Congress – whether to authorize the STF to judge the president or to move forward itself with an impeachment process. As things stand, that may also not prosper given the president’s renewed alliance with former “old-politics” targets. The STF has never coalesced into such a united front as it has now in face of perceived threats to democracy on the part of the president and his entourage. The Prosecutor-General, until recently an ally of the president, has demonstrably changed his stance and will indeed bring charges against him if needed. However, unless evidence is truly damning for the president and a strong anti-Bolsonaro majority finds a way to express itself convincingly during a pandemic, impeachment is going nowhere.

Worse without him

Bolsonaro’s ways may be reproachable to much of the population but there seems to be a growing consensus amongst parliamentarians that it is better to allow the current presidential mandate to run its course than to risk handing it to an army general, VP Hamilton Mourao. If only the Supreme Court, the Federal Police, and the Prosecutor’s Office managed to calm Bolsonaro down, so the logic goes to a lot of them, it may be best to live with the president. Perhaps sufficient electoral damage has already been inflicted on the president for him not to fare well in 2022. The economy will in any case have a difficult 2021. And, most importantly, the political Center – not just the Centrao – needs time to groom a new candidate without which 2022 may be another contest between extremes. To expend limited political capital on an impeachment during or immediately after a pandemic is not good politics for many in Congress.

The flight to balance

The issue is then how to provide for stability and governability despite the president – but short of taking him down. Presumably, he has to be made to see the limits of his power – or the damage the power of others can cause him. This is where the Judiciary and the Prosecutor’s Office will loom large as active protagonists in the weeks to come. They seem well positioned to exert this “power correction” on the president. In that sense, the arrest of an old-time family friend and aide of Senator Flavio Bolsonaro may not be a coincidence after all. The youngest son, Rio alderman Carlos Bolsonaro, is also a likely target in the Supreme Court case on a fake news ring run out of the presidency while the second son, Representative Eduardo Bolsonaro, is likely to be investigated for crimes against national security (threats to institutions if decisions are taken against the president). The president may be ultimately preserved but pressure on his offspring is likely to increase as balance is sought – the hard way – across branches of government.

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