Why the Trump and Bolsonaro cases were handled differently

Down in the polls, the far-right president has warned of vote-rigging, despite a lack of evidence. After losing, he claimed the vote was rigged. Thousands of his supporters, draped in the national flag and misguided by conspiracy theories, then stormed Congress in an attempt to overturn the results.

This scenario describes the latest elections in the largest democracies in the Western Hemisphere: the United States and Brazil.

But while the behavior of the two former presidents, Donald J. Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, has been remarkably similar, the political consequences have been drastically different.

While Mr. Trump faces federal and state charges accusing him of paying a porn star and mishandling confidential documents, he remains the most influential figure on the American right. More than two years after leaving the White House, he once again seems poised to become the Republican presidential candidate, with a large lead in the polls.

In Brazil, Bolsonaro faced a much quicker and fiercer backlash. He too faces numerous criminal investigations. The authorities raided his home and confiscated his cell phone. And on Friday, less than six months after he left power, Brazil’s electoral court voted to block Bolsonaro from political office for the rest of the decade.

The court ruled that he had abused his power when he made unsubstantiated claims about the integrity of Brazil’s voting systems on state television. His next shot at the presidency would be in the 2030 election, when he’s 75.

Mr. Trump, even if he is convicted in a case before next year’s election, could still run.

The conflicting consequences for the two men reflect fundamental differences in the two countries’ political and government structures. The US system has left Trump’s fate up to the voters and the slow and methodical process of the justice system. In Brazil, the courts have been proactive, quick and aggressive in suppressing anything they see as a threat to the nation’s fledgling democracy.

US elections are run by states, with a patchwork of rules across the country about who is eligible to run and how. In many cases, one of the few hurdles to appearing on a ballot is collecting enough signatures from eligible voters.

In Brazil, elections are governed by a federal electoral court, which, as part of its functions, regularly evaluates whether candidates have the right to run.

“The mayor, governor or president tends to abuse their power to get re-elected. So we created the ineligibility law,” said Ricardo Lewandowski, a retired Brazilian Supreme Court judge and former head of the electoral tribunal.

Brazilian law stipulates that politicians who abuse their positions are temporarily ineligible for office. As a result, the electoral court has systematically prevented politicians from running, including, with Bolsonaro, three former presidents.

“What our system has tried to do is protect the voter,” Lewandowski said. “Those who have committed crimes against the public must stay out of the game for a certain amount of time until they rehabilitate.”

The approach has also placed what some analysts say is too much power in the hands of the seven judges of the electoral court, rather than the voters.

“It’s a structural difference between the two countries,” said Thomas Traumann, a political analyst and former press secretary for a leftist Brazilian president. Politicians in Brazil know the rules, he said, and the system has helped keep some corrupt politicians out of power. “On the other hand, you’re preventing people from deciding,” he said.

Brazil’s centralized electoral system has also prevented Bolsonaro from waging a long fight over election results the way Trump has.

In the United States, slow vote counting delayed declaring a winner by a week, and the Electoral College process took several months. Each state also conducted its own elections and audits. This has given Trump, politicians and groups who support him time and various fronts to launch attacks against the trial.

In Brazil, a nation of 220 million people, the electronic voting system counted ballots in two hours. The central election authority, not the news media, then declared the winner that night, in a ceremony involving congressional leaders, the courts and the government.

Mr Bolsonaro was silent for two days but, with few options, he finally stepped aside.

But this approach also carries risks.

“It can be argued that being so centralized it is also subject to more abuse than the American system, which is more decentralized and allows for fundamentally local oversight,” said Omar Encarnación, a Bard College professor who has studied democratic systems in both countries. .

Yet in the United States, several states have recently passed restrictive voting laws, he added. “So clearly, these are two very different models, and you can argue both ways, which is better or worse for democracy.”

In the run-up to the election, Brazil’s system also allowed it to fight much more aggressively against any disinformation or anti-democratic plots. The nation’s Supreme Court has ordered raids and arrests, blocked members of Congress from social networking and moved to ban tech companies in Brazil that didn’t comply with court orders.

The result has been a large and relentless campaign aimed at combating electoral disinformation. But the moves have also sparked widespread claims of overreach. Some raids have targeted people just because they were part of a WhatsApp group that had mentioned a coup. Some people have been temporarily jailed without trial for criticizing the court. A member of Congress has been sentenced to prison for threatening judges during a live stream.

Such tough actions by the courts extend their enormous influence in Brazilian politics in recent years, including their central role in the so-called car wash investigation that sent President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to prison.

“The audacity, the courage with which the courts have acted, not only against Bolsonaro, but also against Lula, would suggest that the courts are behaving a little – I hate to use the word reckless – but perhaps also repressive, said Mr. Encarnacion.

Yet despite the court’s efforts, thousands of Bolsonaro supporters still raided and looted the nation’s halls of power a week after Lula took office in January.

While the scenes were eerily similar to the storming of the US Capitol on January 14th. On January 6, 2021, the roles of the two former presidents were different.

Both had stoked the flames, convincing their followers that there had been fraud, but Mr. Trump explicitly ordered his supporters to march to the Capitol during a speech nearby.

When Bolsonaro supporters formed their own mob, Bolsonaro was thousands of miles away in Florida, where he stayed for three months.

In both countries, hundreds of offenders have been arrested and charged, and congressional investigations are investigating what happened. Otherwise the consequences were different.

Like Trump, Bolsonaro has also stood up for his supporters.

Mr Bolsonaro said on Friday the uprising was not a coup attempt, but rather “old ladies and gentlemen, with Brazilian flags on their backs and Bibles under their arms”.

But the political reverberations have been different.

In the United States, many members of the Republican Party have embraced unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, states have passed laws making it more difficult to vote, and voters have elected candidates denying elections to Congress and state legislatures.

In Brazil, the political establishment has largely moved away from talk of vote-rigging and from Bolsonaro himself. Conservative leaders are now pushing a more moderate governor as the new standard bearer of the Brazilian right.

Mr. Encarnación said that despite its problems, Brazil’s democratic system can provide a model on how to combat new anti-democratic threats.

“Democracies are basically fighting disinformation and God knows what else with very antiquated institutions,” he said. “We need to upgrade the hardware. I don’t think it was designed for people like the ones these countries are facing.”