Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro joins centrist party, eyeing re-election

The decision followed a meeting between Mr Bolsonaro and Liberal Party leader Valdemar Costa Neto in the capital Brasilia

After two years without a political party, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro sealed an agreement with the centrist Liberal Party to back his 2022 re-election bid, according to a party statement.

The decision followed a meeting between Mr Bolsonaro and Liberal Party leader Valdemar Costa Neto in the capital Brasilia, the statement said on Wednesday. The president’s formal enrolment to the party’s ranks will take place November 22.

Mr Bolsonaro intends for the alliance to aid him in battling his nemesis, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. "Lula," as da Silva is known universally, holds a handsome lead over Bolsonaro in early polls. Joining one of the parties that forms part of the so-called Centrao group also signals Mr Bolsonaro shifting course from his 2018 campaign strategy, when he sharply criticised their old-school political practices.

"It is very symbolic how Bolsonaro has started to play the traditional game of Brazilian politics," said Maurício Santoro, a political science professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.

"The PL is helping Bolsonaro survive." The Liberal Party – know by its Spanish initials PL – and other Centrao parties are known for their ideological malleability and swapping support for government appointments and earmarks. Bolsonaro was affiliated with such parties during most of his seven terms as a federal lawmaker, but cast himself as a political outsider during his 2018 presidential campaign. He vowed not to embrace the horse trading that benefited entrenched actors and enabled corruption.

Instead, he ran under the banner of the Social Liberal Party, which he left one year after his election victory amid disagreements with party leadership over funding and regional nominations. He set out to forge his own party, but failed to garner enough signatures and has been without a political home since.

Two of Bolsonaro’s ministers told The Associated Press the president’s decision to join the PL was influenced by his three politician sons, who believe the party will grant their father sufficient autonomy to pick allies as candidates for gubernatorial and congressional positions in next year’s election. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorised to speak publicly.

The presidential press office didn’t respond to a request for comment from the AP confirming the PL’s statement, nor the president’s justification for the decision. Earlier Wednesday, Mr Bolsonaro said in a radio interview there was a "99.9 per cent chance" he would join the PL.

Reports that Bolsonaro was seeking a Centrao party to sponsor his re-election bid had already generated commentary from analysts that he was fully departing from his prior anti-establishment stance. As rumours of his agreement with the PL intensified this week, a series of comments criticising party leader Costa Neto were deleted from the social media profiles of Bolsonaro family members.

Mr Bolsonaro himself has said Costa Neto was corrupt and a convict, noted Carlos Melo, a political analyst and professor at Insper University in Sao Paulo. In 2012, Costa Neto, then a lawmaker, was convicted for corruption and money laundering in a vast vote-buying scandal that almost brought down da Silva’s administration. He served time in prison.

"Bolsonaro was always affiliated with a Centrao party, his whole congressional career," Melo said. "He got elected criticising the Centrao, the Workers’ Party, the Brazilian Social Democracy Party, saying he was an outsider. It was a strategy for that election." Bolsonaro joining the PL will mark the continuation of his cosying up to the Centrao over the past year. The far-right president has turned to the Centrao for political shelter from increasing pressure on his administration, including more than 100 impeachment requests, a Senate investigation into his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and plunging popularity. In August, he appointed a senator from the Centrao to be his chief-of-staff, sealing his rapprochement with the power brokers.

"If you take away the Centrao, there’s the left," the president told a small conservative news outlet, Jornal da Cidade Online, on Tuesday. "So where do I go?"

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