BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his base are energized and spoiling for a new fight, political analysts say, after he defied the Supreme Court by pardoning an ally who was sentenced to jail for threatening its judges.
Seven months after he sought to publicly defuse tensions with Brazil’s top court, Bolsonaro’s renewed challenge suggests he is ready to fire up his supporters and burnish his anti-establishment bona fides ahead of an October election.
“Bolsonaro has made it clear that the truce is over and that he will turn confrontation with the court into an important rallying call of his re-election campaign,” said University of Sao Paulo law professor Rafael Mafei.
By attacking Brazil’s most senior justices, who also have seats on the country’s top electoral court, Mafei said Bolsonaro may also be preparing the ground to challenge the results of the presidential election, following the example of his political role model former U.S. President Donald Trump.
Most polls show the right-wing Bolsonaro losing a second-round runoff to leftist former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva by double digits if it were held today.
Bolsonaro’s office did not reply immediately to a request for comment.
Since last year, the president has been arguing that the electronic urns used in Brazil’s elections are open to tampering and should be reinforced by paper ballots. He has attacked Supreme Court justices for defending the electronic voting system, although he has provided no evidence of fraud.
His campaign against Brazil’s electronic voting and the judges’ defense of it culminated in public rallies in early September, when Bolsonaro said he would no longer respect rulings from specific judges. That set Brasilia on red alert and the president soon walked back the comments.
However, the lingering tensions flared up again last week when Bolsonaro pardoned Congressman Daniel Silveira the day after the Supreme Court sentenced him to nearly nine years in prison for threatening and encouraging violence against judges and the Brazilian voting system.
Legal experts, former Supreme Court judges and even Lula recognize that Bolsonaro has a constitutional prerogative to pardon an individual. But his flagrant political use of that power in an election year has led opposition parties to file injunctions to block the Silveira pardon, arguing it emboldens more Bolsonaro allies to attack democratic institutions.
However, other presidential candidates have remained silent on the issue and the Supreme Court lacks support in Congress, where some lawmakers suggest it has gone to too far in trying to make an example of Silveira and other Bolsonaro allies.
The Supreme Court has not set a date to decide whether to contest the presidential pardon and rule on injunctions sought by opposition parties. Two sources at the court told Reuters it is possible that a decision would be left until after the October election to defuse the tense situation.
Ivar Hartmann, a law professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro, said the Silveira sentence was the latest example of judiciary excesses that have given Bolsonaro a political opportunity.
The confrontation plays into Bolsonaro’s appeal from 2018, when he ran as a political outsider taking on broken institutions in Brasilia, said Creomar de Souza, of Dharma Political Risk consultancy in Brasilia.
“With just one blow, Bolsonaro has put the Supreme Court on the defensive, and it does not matter what the justices do now, he is the winner,” De Souza said.
(Reporting by Anthony Boadle and Ricardo Brito in Brasilia, Eduardo Simoes in Sao Paulo, Gabriel Stargardter in Rio de Janeiro; Writing by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Brad Haynes and Aurora Ellis)