Jair Bolsonaro won Brazil’s last presidential election pledging to clean up politics, and since taking office in 2019, he had said at least 237 times that his government had “zero corruption”.
Those assertions resonated with supporters of Bolsonaro as he faced a tight runoff for the presidency against the once-imprisoned former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
In recent weeks, however, Bolsonaro worried about the prospect of prison himself, according to two senior officials who heard those concerns from the president and spoke anonymously to describe private conversations.
Despite his assertions, Bolsonaro and his inner circle have faced investigations on accusations including the embezzlement of public funds, theft of staff wages and mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The inquiries had been staved off or blocked so far, given his political influence and presidential immunity.
But that may change now that Bolsonaro lost the presidential election.
“After leaving office, there is no immunity, none, for crimes committed by a former president in Brazil,” said Eloísa Machado, a law professor at Fundação Getulio Vargas, a university and research organization in São Paulo, Brazil.
Brazilian law leaves less room for interpretation on the issue than in the United States, where former president Donald Trump’s assertions of presidential immunity have helped him manoeuvre around investigations and lawsuits.
In Brazil, only the attorney general can investigate an acting president, and only the Supreme Court can prosecute one, which “definitely helps prevent investigations,” according to Davi Tangerino, a law professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.
In 2019, Bolsonaro appointed Augusto Aras as attorney general, ignoring a two-decade tradition of federal prosecutors’ choosing their chief. Since then, the attorney general’s office has shelved more than 100 inquiry requests, most related to Bolsonaro’s chaotic and possibly corrupt response to the pandemic and his attacks on the Supreme Court.