Late in the evening of May 30, 2020, a group of some 30 far-right activists carrying store-bought tiki torches — in a clumsy homage to white supremacist Ku Klux Klan protests — launched fireworks in the direction of the Brazilian Supreme Court building, demanding military intervention in the name of President Jair Bolsonaro and the arrest of all 11 justices of Brazil’s highest court.
The protest raised tensions in Brasília to unprecedented levels, as the political establishment accused the government of not only failing to condemn such actions — but actively endorsing them on private social media channels.[restricted]
As authorities bumped heads on how to enforce social isolation measures as a way to control the coronavirus spread, the Bolsonaro administration engaged in a series of attacks against its fellow branches of government. At one point, the president even threatened to send military troops to shut down the Supreme Court, before being talked down by some of his closest aides.
As the pandemic raged in Brazil, the president and his allies defied democratic institutions on a weekly basis — and calls for impeachment erupted in many circles.
Five months removed from that moment, the political climate could not be any more different. Jair Bolsonaro, the president elected on an anti-establishment message, is now going mainstream.
Last week, he chose to fill his first Supreme Court vacancy with Federal Judge Kássio Nunes, a candidate endorsed by two Supreme Court justices who, just months ago, Bolsonaro supporters wanted to see behind bars.
After nearly two years in office, Mr. Bolsonaro’s political strategy has seemingly made a U-turn. Instead of shattering the establishment, the president now seems more interested in co-opting it. After compromising with the so-called “Big Center” — a caste within Brazil’s Congress made up of veteran pork-barreling politicians — Mr. Bolsonaro is now looking to get the courts on his side.
The move makes a lot of sense for the president, as his close family are targeted by a series of criminal investigations. Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, his eldest son, has been charged with money-laundering, embezzlement, and criminal association. Meanwhile, his other two politician sons — Rio de Janeiro City Councilor Carlos Bolsonaro and Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro — are suspected of operating an illegal underground misinformation network.
Push towards establishment infuriates core Bolsonaro supporters
Mr. Bolsonaro’s recent pandering to politicians he once described as members of “old politics” has certainly frustrated his core group of ultra-conservative supporters.
Sara Winter, the far-right influencer who organized the KKK-like demonstration in May, declared on social media that she was “tired” of supporting the administration, and even accused the president of “purging” his hardcore base from the government. Meanwhile, highly influential televangelist Silas Malafaia has called the president’s latest moves a “shameful outrage.”
Even his most loyal political commentators have started to bash his recent turn.
Still, those outbursts do not mean the pro-Bolsonaro train is falling off the tracks. Instead, frustrating his own supporters is a key part in the project to consolidate the president’s power. His defense of far-right causes still makes him the best — and perhaps the only — option for the extreme right in 2022. Meanwhile, his recent implementation of welfare policies and alliance with moderately conservative forces may help him attract a voter base that seemed unreachable just months ago.
Every poll shows Mr. Bolsonaro head and shoulders in the lead for the 2022 presidential election. And while it remains too early to predict how the race will end, not a single credible alternative has emerged.
If Mr. Bolsonaro’s recent moves allow him to approve a bold welfare-transfer program from 2021 and beyond, the 2022 election will be his to lose.[/restricted]