Brazil’s Democracy Is Put To the Test by Bolsonaro’s Brawl With a Top Justice

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Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro is up against Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a leftist former president, in Latin America’s most important election this year. However, an even bigger challenge may come from a Supreme Court judge.

Justice Alexandre de Moraes is in charge of a broad investigation into disinformation involving the president. Moraes has opened multiple criminal investigations into Bolsonaro, ordered the arrest of some of his top supporters, and briefly banned Telegram, a social-media platform popular among Bolsonaro supporters.

All of this has been done to protect Brazil’s young democracy. Moraes, the author of a widely cited work on the constitution, has been hailed as the guardian of the rule of law, as a result of his efforts.

“He is a warrior, the only one with the courage to stand up to the attacks on our democracy,” said Joice Hasselmann, the government party leader in the lower house before breaking with the president, becoming a vocal critic, and then finding images of herself on a pig’s body on social media.

Bolsonaro has responded to Moraes by defying the court, requesting the justice’s removal, and filing a criminal complaint against him for abuse of power. Even those who dislike the president admit he has a point, and some Moraes colleagues privately agree that the investigation should be closed.

As a result, an unprecedented battle between right-wing populism and Brazil’s governing institutions has erupted, resulting in the country’s worst crisis in 37 years of democracy. Bolsonaro is accused of demagoguery and undemocratic goals by courts, universities, and the media, while he and his supporters dismiss them as corrupt elitists.

This echoes political struggles in the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, and elsewhere, but Brazil’s institutional safeguards are younger and weaker, increasing the risk.

“We are living in a situation that is beyond absurd,” said Debora Santos, a former Supreme Court clerk who now works as a judiciary analyst for XP Inc., Brazil’s largest brokerage. “Excesses have not been limited to one side, and after each one is committed, it draws an even more drastic response.”

Moraes was not made available for comment by the Supreme Court. Numerous requests for comment were not returned by the presidential palace. Former and current justices, members of Congress, and legal experts expressed concern about the threat that Bolsonaro poses in more than a dozen interviews. Many people are also concerned about Moraes, who they believe is overreaching.

The feud appears to be getting worse. Bolsonaro, who is trailing Lula by double digits, is following Donald Trump’s lead in casting doubt on the voting process’s integrity. The fact that Moraes is set to take over the electoral authority six weeks before the election adds fuel to the fire.

Inquiry into Fake News

Moraes, 53, has been in charge of the Fake News Inquiry since 2019. He was appointed by the court’s former chief to look into lies and threats made against the justices and their families. Threats to kill and rape the justices’ daughters were among the tweets and online chatter, as were calls for a return to military dictatorship. Outside the court, angry mobs gathered.

According to Michael Mohallem, a professor at the Law Institute of the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, the court has cast itself as both victim and judge, which will come back to haunt it. “Once you cross that line, you have extra work to say why that same precedent doesn’t apply again,” he explained.

Defenders of the investigation argue that the justices are in jeopardy and must defend themselves and their institution – that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.

“When evil has all the audacity, good must have all the courage,” Christian Lynch, a political scientist at Rio de Janeiro’s State University, said in support of the investigation, quoting a 19th century French politician.

Bolsonaro, a former army captain who entered politics with no major party affiliation, made his name railing against Brazilian institutions. He praised the former military dictatorship and frequently stated that “only God can remove me from power.”

His favorite punching bag is the court. In rousing speeches delivered both inside and outside the courthouse, he incites crowds and blasts the judiciary for impeding his agenda and persecuting his family.

“We have everything to be a great nation,” Bolsonaro said at the presidential palace in April. “What’s missing? That a few stay out of our way. If you don’t have ideas, shut up. Put on your robe and stay put.”

Moraes has directed federal police to investigate the allegation that has dogged Bolsonaro since his election in the hunt for the source of death threats and online conspiracies: That lies and vitriol are being spread by a network of pro-Bolsonaro advisers, businessmen, and bots.

‘Office of Hate’

The organization has been referred to as a “digital militia” and Bolsonaro’s “office of hate.” Bolsonaro claims it does not exist. Moraes, on the other hand, claims there are “strong indications of the existence of a criminal organization” and has arrested some of the president’s most vocal supporters.

Moraes is not politically neutral. He began as a prosecutor at the University of Sao Paulo and developed ties with the state’s establishment. Later, he worked in the cabinet of three-term governor Geraldo Alckmin, Lula’s running mate in October. He’s been compared to the protagonist of the 1970s TV crime drama “Kojak” because of his shaved head and well-tailored suits.

Brazil has recently seen a president impeached (Dilma Rousseff in 2016) and the imprisonment of Lula, 76, who left office as the most popular leader in Brazilian history. Moraes was a member of the Supreme Court majority that denied Lula’s appeal and later overturned convictions, allowing him to run for a third presidential term. But in neither case was the backlash against the court as severe as it is today.

Moraes’ investigation is under seal, so his actions require trust in his integrity. But he is also in charge of other investigations into Bolsonaro, such as his spreading of lies about Covid-19 vaccines and unproven claims that the electronic voting system can be hacked.

The investigations are the most serious threat to the president’s ability to energize his base, and he has fought back hard.

On September 7, Brazil’s independence day, Bolsonaro rallied tens of thousands in major cities and called Moraes a “scoundrel,” declaring that he would no longer obey his orders: “To us, he is no more.”

Bolsonaro’s predecessor, Michel Temer, who appointed Moraes as justice minister and nominated him to the Supreme Court’s 11-member seat in 2017, facilitated a phone call between the president and the judge. Bolsonaro issued an apology in writing, but tensions have remained high.

Moraes and the president spoke privately last week at a closed-door dinner with congressional leaders. Bolsonaro later stated that the two were seeking an agreement but warned of the dangers of continued “interference” from the court. “At some point, a tragedy will happen that we don’t want,” he stated.

Some people who know Moraes describe him as a man in increasing distress. He and his family have received death threats and are always accompanied by security personnel. Others claim he enjoys the conflict and is doing important work.

“Those who are against say, ‘this has never happened before,’ but no one has ever threatened the Supreme Court like this,” said Rafael Favetti, a lawyer and consultant in Brasilia who previously worked as a Supreme Court aide.

Moraes has made it clear that the system must be protected from outside threats. In April, he told university students, “Freedom of speech is not freedom of aggression.”

Daniel Silveira, a Bolsonaro congressional ally, was sentenced to nearly nine years in prison for posting a video threatening the justices. Some called it excessive. Bolsonaro pardoned Silveira the next day.

“It is a game of cat and mouse,” Henrique Neves, a former minister of Brazil’s electoral court, said. “For every measure that’s taken, a countermeasure is created almost instantly.”


Information from Bloomberg Businessweek was used in this report

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