“I’m letting the scoundrels know,” President Jair Bolsonaro told supporters last year, “I’ll never be imprisoned!”
He was shouting. But then, Mr. Bolsonaro tends to become animated when talking about the prospect of prison. “By God above,” he declared to an audience of businesspeople in May, “I’ll never be arrested.” As he spends “more than half” of his time dealing with lawsuits, he surely feels well armed against arrest. But there’s desperation in his defiance. The fate of the former Bolivian President Jeanine Áñez, who was recently sentenced to prison for allegedly orchestrating a coup, hangs heavy in the air.
For Mr. Bolsonaro, it’s a cautionary tale. Ahead of presidential elections in October, which he’s on course to lose, Mr. Bolsonaro is plainly worried he too may be arrested for, as he put it with uncharacteristic understatement, “antidemocratic actions.” That fear explains his energetic attempts to discredit the election before it happens — such as, for example, gathering dozens of foreign diplomats to fulminate against the country’s electronic voting system.
Yet however absurd the behavior — and forcing ambassadors to sit through a crazed 47-minute diatribe is certainly on the wacky end of the spectrum — the underlying motive makes perfect sense. Because the truth is that Mr. Bolsonaro has plenty of reasons to fear prison. In fact, it’s getting hard to keep track of all the charges against the president and his government.
To start with, there’s the small matter of a Supreme Court investigation into Mr. Bolsonaro’s allies for participating in a kind of “digital militia” that floods social media with disinformation and coordinates smear campaigns against political opponents. In a related inquiry, Mr. Bolsonaro himself is being investigated for, in the words of a Federal Police report, his “direct and relevant role” in promoting disinformation.
Yet Mr. Bolsonaro’s wrongdoing is hardly confined to the digital world. Corruption scandals have defined his tenure, and the rot starts at home. [Continue reading…]