Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro has been forced into a political retreat following strong pushback to speeches he made on Tuesday at large rallies of supporters in which he made threats against the country’s democracy.
After heavy criticism of the speeches, which saw him once again threaten not to respect presidential elections next year and vow that only God could remove him from office, the far-right leader released a statement on Thursday night saying he had spoken “in the heat of the moment” when threatening to ignore decisions by the country’s supreme court.
Mr Bolsonaro had called supreme court justice Alexandre de Moraes a “scoundrel” and demanded he be “reined in” during his address to more than 120,000 supporters in São Paulo, which saw the largest of a series of rallies held across the country on Tuesday.
Mr Moraes has become an arch-rival for the president as he is overseeing investigations into alleged crimes by his administration and its supporters. But on Wednesday, the head of the court, Luiz Fux, in a strongly worded rebuttal said “no one will close this court” and warned that any failure by the president to abide by its rulings would constitute a crime of responsibility, an impeachable offence.
Leading figures in Congress also criticised the president’s speeches, which the head of the Senate labelled “authoritarian outbursts”, and several parties said they would open discussions on whether to support a push to impeach Mr Bolsonaro.
Amid warnings that the intensifying institutional tensions could further hamper his administration’s attempts to manage a deepening economic crisis, Mr Bolsonaro released a conciliatory statement in which he claimed it was never his intention to attack any of the other powers.
He also committed to resolving his differences with Mr Moraes through “judicial measures”. The statement was drawn up with the help of former president Michel Temer, who also facilitated a phone call between his successor and Mr Moraes in a bid to defuse some of the tension gripping the capital.
The climbdown was met with widespread dismay by Mr Bolsonaro’s supporters, who after weeks of intense efforts to mobilise his base had celebrated Tuesday’s rallies as a major political victory. On social media, prominent pro-Bolsonaro commentator Allan Dos Santos wrote “Game Over”. Meanwhile, the president’s opponents were quick to mock him.
“The lion has turned into a mouse,” said João Doria, the governor of São Paulo and one of Mr Bolsonaro’s main rivals on the right of Brazil’s political spectrum.
But other politicians warned the president has retreated before only to quickly renege on commitments to cease attacking other institutions. Shortly after the statement’s release, he used his weekly live broadcast on social media to once again attack the integrity of the country’s widely respected voting system.