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Why Brazil was able to hold their former president accountable in election case

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: Nothing like this has ever happened before.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

That's former President Donald Trump speaking before his New York criminal trial began today. And Trump is right about that. A former president has never faced a criminal trial before. But in other democracies, that phenomenon is not rare. Brazil, France, South Korea and Israel - they've all prosecuted former heads of state.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And we're going to look closer at Brazil, whose former president, Jair Bolsonaro, has been called the Trump of the tropics. Both men are anti-establishment conservatives. Both falsely claim the presidential elections they lost were stolen. And Bolsonaro's followers attacked Brazil's Capitol building in an eerily similar way to January 6.

KELLY: But Bolsonaro has been banned from running for office until 2030, which was not a criminal penalty, although he may face those separately. So why has Brazil been able to hold Bolsonaro accountable? Our co-host Scott Detrow spoke with Bard College professor Omar Encarnación about just that.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: What are some differences between not only the Brazilian and American political system but also the way that Bolsonaro and Trump have been treated after they've left office?

OMAR ENCARNACIÓN: Well, Brazil has a law, for example, that prevents someone convicted for crime from running for public office. There's an electoral court, which is the one that sentenced Bolsonaro, that supervises federal elections, which, of course, we do not have. They also have a very activist Supreme Court which leans very much to the left, which is also very engaged in fighting corruption, which we don't have. And then the final point, which is one that I think is rarely mentioned, is that Brazil does have a political culture that appreciates and that is more receptive to arguments about protecting democracy. This is a country that endured a 20-some military dictatorship from the mid-'60s through the mid-'80s. So I think there's an effort to protect democracy resonates more broadly with Brazil than it does with the American electorate.

DETROW: Just to fully spell it out for listeners who might not be as familiar, it was the electoral court that made the decision to bar him from office for a decade.

ENCARNACIÓN: Correct. Yes. And the episode in question was a meeting that Bolsonaro had with ambassadors in Brasilia. He invited them to the presidential palace and basically made a presentation to them on why he thought the elections were rigged. The hope was that they would go and report to their countries about what was going on in Brazil. And that was the basis for the trial.

DETROW: How did the Brazilian public react when there were consequences?

ENCARNACIÓN: Well, again, now we have to look into the broader political picture. I mean, one big difference between Bolsonaro and Trump is that there's no Republican Party in Brazil, right? And one thing that we were seeing about Trump now but also in recent times is how much coverage, how much protection he gets from the party. That situation does not exist in Brazil. I think there are about almost, I think, like, 20 or 30 parties in the Brazilian Congress at the moment, which means that there's no one single entity that is there to protect him from the opposition or simply just to get stuff done, right? If you look at the polling now, for example, the sense that I get from talking to people is that Bolsonaro is done, that basically he no longer has any political viability, which, of course, is quite in contrast with Trump.

DETROW: The conversation in America is often shorthanded as, prosecuting and jailing former leaders is a sign of a failed state. It's a sign of political retribution being institutionalized. What do you make of that framing?

ENCARNACIÓN: Well, again, for someone who looks primarily at politics outside of the U.S., this is basically, you know, sort of normal political behavior. The French have persecuted the former presidents. The same goes for many other European countries, in Latin America, in Asia. It may be that we are the exception, frankly. But I don't think that we should fear prosecuting our leaders. And I think most democratic countries look, frankly, almost shocked at how slow the prosecution has been so far and also the fact that we would even fear that or that we might even deem that to be a weakness or a drawback to our system. I think it is a sign of strength that we can actually handle those things.

DETROW: That's Bard College's Omar Encarnación. He's an international studies professor. Thank you so much.

ENCARNACIÓN: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tyler Bartlam
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.