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Bolsonaro rally exposes a weakened political leader

São Paulo Letter: The former president has many legal woes and fears arrest

Jair Bolsonaro got his photo. When Brazil’s far-right leader called on his followers to rally in São Paulo on Sunday he said a photograph of the event would be the most important part of proceedings.

It was a clear signal to supporters that he needed them to show the rest of the country that “bolsonarismo” is still a political force to be reckoned with, a year after it botched a coup attempt following his ejection by voters from office after just one tumultuous term as president.

Tens of thousands of yellow-topped Brazilians answered the former army captain’s call, filling several blocks of the main avenue in the country’s biggest city. Among those who turned out to stand with him was Tarcísio de Freitas, governor of São Paulo, the country’s most populous and economically powerful state, who said the former president was now no longer a man but a movement of those “who think it is worth fighting for family, the homeland and liberty”.

But while the photograph of the rally will reinforce the blind belief among the 25 per cent of Brazilians that pollsters classify as hard-core bolsonaristas that they still represent a majority, the demonstration was in reality a show of weakness after a year of accumulating political defeats and legal woes.


Bolsonaro must surely know Tarcísio likely attended only because he hopes to inherit his mantel as the right’s standard bearer. Bolsonaro has been banned from running for public office before 2030, punishment imposed by electoral authorities for his attacks on the integrity of Brazil’s voting system.

If Bolsonaro can still get leading right-wing politicians to show up at his events it is as much because they view him now as a potential kingmaker rather than leader. In a show of loyalty-cum-sop Tarcísio’s public security secretary later claimed 750,000 people attended the rally, which was clearly a wild exaggeration.

Questioned by the media about this figure, he attributed it to the police, who said they had nothing to do with it. An independent calculation by a monitoring unit at the city’s main university estimated the crowd to have been a far smaller, though not insignificant, 185,000.

The demonstration also showed how Bolsonaro is increasingly reliant on Brazil’s evangelical movement for a popular base. Many Israeli flags were in evidence on Sunday. Recent comments by the president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, comparing Israel’s military campaign in Gaza to the actions of the Nazis inflamed Brazil’s pro-Israel evangelicals and this helped stimulate turnout.

This evangelical Christian obsession with the Jewish state highlights the increasingly messianic tone in the remaining hard-core of Bolsonaro’s supporters. His wife Michelle, a fervent evangelical and the only woman to address Sunday’s rally, told supporters they were “God’s army in the street”, saying “we were negligent to the point of saying you cannot mix politics with religion and evil took over”.

Then there was Bolsonaro’s speech to the crowd, which was stripped of the habitual threats he made against other institutions when president. Instead he denied he had attempted a coup and called for an amnesty for his supporters convicted of ransacking the supreme court, congress and presidential palace in January of last year in an attempt to overturn his defeat to Lula.

Bolsonaro and several serving and retired generals are now under investigation for their role in the political turmoil that followed his loss in the October 2022 election as investigators dig up evidence of their plotting to institute a state of emergency, invalidate the results and rerun the vote after a purge of electoral authorities.

As much as a warning to police and judges of the potential unrest his arrest could cause among his supporters, Sunday’s rally also displayed how Bolsonaro now clearly fears arrest. He has already had his passport seized and maintained silence when questioned by federal police last week. But several of his former aides are co-operating with investigators as they seek plea-bargain deals, increasing the chances the former president will be indicted.

In this prosecutorial context it is little wonder that on Sunday Bolsonaro called for “pacification”, saying “it is time to forget about the past”. It has been a long march away from the days when he threatened to machine gun opponents.