Brazil’s Moro, graft-fighting ex-judge, to drop presidential bid, lawmaker says

FILE PHOTO: Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro looks on during a welcoming ceremony to receive Brazilians and foreigners evacuated from Ukraine during a repatriation mission, at Brasilia Air Base, in Brasilia, Brazil
FILE PHOTO: Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro looks on during a welcoming ceremony to receive Brazilians and foreigners evacuated from Ukraine during a repatriation mission, at Brasilia Air Base, in Brasilia, Brazil March 10, 2022. REUTERS/Adriano Machado/File Photo

March 31, 2022

By Ricardo Brito and Lisandra Paraguassu

BRASILIA (Reuters) -Sergio Moro, a graft-busting former judge, is set to drop his bid to become Brazil’s president after swapping parties to join Union Brazil, a party Congressman Alexandre Leite told Reuters on Thursday, although doubts swirled about Moro’s true intentions.

If confirmed, Moro’s decision serves to further narrow the country’s Oct. 2 presidential race between far-right President Jair Bolsonaro and his leftist rival Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. It also raises questions about where the roughly 8% of voters that polls suggest were backing Moro will place their support.

Moro’s team did not respond to a request for comment.

Speaking with Reuters on Thursday, Leite said he and his party were waiting for Moro to switch from the Podemos party to Union Brazil. Asked if Moro would still run for president, Leite said: “No, just a candidate for federal congressman.”

However, another Union Brazil source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said no decision on Moro’s presidential hopes had been taken, while Union Brazil was not pushing for the ex-judge to drop his presidential bid.

Moro made his name leading the massive “Car Wash” corruption probe that jailed some of Brazil’s political and business elite – including Lula.

He then joined Bolsonaro’s government as justice minister, before quitting after falling out with the president.

His reputation suffered over the fight with Bolsonaro, as well as the Supreme Court’s decision to throw out Lula’s graft convictions for prosecutorial bias. As a result, his presidential campaign has not made much headway in the polls.

Bolsonaro, a former army captain who has lost public support over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, is facing a tough re-election fight. His leftist rival Lula would get 43% of first-round votes, compared with 26% for Bolsonaro, pollster Datafolha reported last week.

POLITICAL UPHEAVAL

The question marks surrounding Moro’s political future came on a day of mass political upheaval, as Brazil’s campaign season gathers momentum.

Bolsonaro on Thursday relieved nine ministers in a formality that will pave the way for them to run in the elections and possibly bolster his struggling re-election campaign.

The list of names, released in the official government gazette on Thursday, includes heavy-hitters such as Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina Dias, Infrastructure Minister Tarcisio Freitas and Labor Minister Onyx Lorenzoni.

Bolsonaro is betting the ex-ministers, who are running for seats in Congress and governorships across the country, can drum up regional support and revitalize his campaign, which faces headwinds from high inflation, especially for fuel and food.

Their departures are part of a larger game of musical chairs in Brazil, where many of the country’s leading political figures are obliged by electoral law to make crucial decisions now about their own electoral aspirations in October.

Sao Paulo Governor Joao Doria, who leads Brazil’s most populous and richest state, will announce his decision not to run for president later on Thursday, local newspapers reported, citing close center-right allies of the governor.

According to the reports, Doria, a member of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), will stay on as governor. His office did not respond to a request for comment.

Doria’s decision could pave the way for Rio Grande do Sul Governor Eduardo Leite to run for president on the PSDB ticket. He stepped down as governor of Brazil’s southernmost state earlier this week.

One widely expected name that was missing from the list of ministers stepping down on Thursday was Defense Minister Walter Braga Netto, who is widely expected to run as Bolsonaro’s vice president. Although the defense minister’s resignation was not announced, his transfer has already been scheduled, with Army chief Paulo Sergio Nogueira due to take charge of the ministry.

The current vice president, Hamilton Mourao, is planning to run for a Senate seat.

(Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu; Writing by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Brad Haynes, Paul Simao and Andrea Ricci)