Down in the polls, the far-right president warned of voter fraud, despite no evidence. After losing, he claimed the vote was rigged. Thousands of his supporters — draped in the national flag and misled by conspiracy theories — then stormed Congress in a bid to overturn the results.
That scenario describes the latest elections in the Western Hemisphere’s largest democracies: the United States and Brazil.
But while the behavior of the two former presidents — Donald J. Trump and Jair Bolsonaro — was remarkably similar, the political aftermath has been drastically different.
While Mr. Trump faces federal and state charges that accuse him of paying off a porn star and mishandling classified documents, he remains the most influential figure on the American right. More than two years after leaving the White House, he again appears poised to become the Republican nominee for president, with a wide lead in the polls.
In Brazil, Mr. Bolsonaro has faced much swifter and fiercer blowback. He, too, faces numerous criminal investigations. The authorities have raided his house and confiscated his cellphone. And on Friday, less than six months after he left power, Brazil’s electoral court voted to block Mr. Bolsonaro from political office for the rest of the decade.
The court ruled he had abused his power when he made baseless claims about the integrity of Brazil’s voting systems on state television. His next shot at the presidency would be in the 2030 election, when he is 75.
Mr. Trump, even if he is convicted in a case before next year’s election, could still potentially run.
The contrasting fallout for the two men reflect key differences in the two countries’ political and governing structures. The U.S. system has left Mr. Trump’s fate up to voters and the slow, methodical process of the justice system. In Brazil, the courts have been proactive, fast and aggressive in snuffing out anything they see as a threat to the nation’s young democracy.
U.S. elections are run by the states, with a patchwork of rules across the country on who is eligible to run and how. In many cases, one of the few hurdles to appearing on a ballot is collecting enough signatures from eligible voters.
In Brazil, elections are governed by a federal electoral court, which, as part of its duties, regularly weighs in on whether candidates have the right to seek office.
“The mayor, governor or president tend to abuse their power to be re-elected. So we created the law of ineligibility,” said Ricardo Lewandowski, a retired Brazilian Supreme Court justice and former head of the electoral court.
Brazilian law states that politicians who abuse their positions are temporarily ineligible for office. As a result, the electoral court has routinely blocked politicians from running, including, with Mr. Bolsonaro, three former presidents.
“What our system has tried to do is protect the voter,” Mr. Lewandowski said. “Those who committed crimes against the public have to stay out of the game for a certain amount of time until they rehabilitate.”
The approach has also put what some analysts say is too much power in the hands of the electoral court’s seven judges, instead of voters.
“It’s a structural difference between the two countries,” said Thomas Traumann, a political analyst and former press secretary for a leftist Brazilian president. Politicians in Brazil know the rules, he said, and the system has helped keep some corrupt politicians from power. “On the other hand, you are preventing the people from deciding,” he said.
Brazil’s centralized electoral system also thwarted Mr. Bolsonaro from waging as protracted a fight over the election’s results as Mr. Trump did.
In the United States, a slow vote count delayed the declaration of a winner for a week, and the Electoral College process then took several more months. Each state also ran its own election and audits. That gave Mr. Trump and politicians and groups supporting him time and various fronts to mount attacks against the process.
In Brazil, a nation of 220 million people, the electronic voting system counted the ballots in two hours. The central electoral authority, not the news media, then declared the winner that night, in a ceremony involving leaders of Congress, the courts and the government.
Mr. Bolsonaro remained silent for two days but, with few options, eventually stepped aside.
But that approach also carries risks.
“You can argue that being that centralized is also prone to more abuse than the American system, which is more decentralized and allows for basically local supervision,” said Omar Encarnación, a Bard College professor who has studied the democratic systems in both countries.
Yet in the United States, several states have recently passed restrictive voting laws, he added. “So clearly, these are two very different models, and one can argue in either direction, which one is best or worst for democracy.”
In the run-up to the election, Brazil’s system also allowed it to fight far more aggressively against any anti-democratic misinformation or plotting. The nation’s Supreme Court ordered raids and arrests, blocked members of Congress from social networks and moved to ban tech companies in Brazil that did not comply with court orders.
The result was a sweeping and unrelenting campaign aimed at fighting election misinformation. But the moves also drew widespread claims of overreach. Some raids targeted people just because they were in a WhatsApp group that had mentioned a coup. Some people were temporarily jailed without a trial for criticizing the court. A congressman was sentenced to prison for threatening judges on a livestream.
Such stringent actions by the courts extends their outsized influence in Brazilian politics in recent years, including their central role in the so-called Car Wash investigation that sent President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to prison.
“The boldness, the fearlessness in which the courts have acted, not just against Bolsonaro, but even toward Lula, would suggest that the courts are behaving in a somewhat — I hate to use the word reckless — but perhaps even in a repressive mode,” Mr. Encarnación said.
Yet regardless of the court’s efforts, thousands of Mr. Bolsonaro’s supporters still raided and ransacked the nation’s halls of power a week after Mr. Lula’s inauguration in January.
While the scenes were eerily similar to the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, the roles of the two ex-presidents were different.
Both had fanned the flames, convincing their followers there had been fraud, but Mr. Trump explicitly directed his supporters to march to the Capitol during a speech nearby.
When Mr. Bolsonaro’s supporters formed their own mob, Mr. Bolsonaro was thousands of miles away in Florida, where he remained for three months.
In both countries, hundreds of trespassers were arrested and charged, and congressional investigations are digging into what happened. Otherwise the aftermath has been different.
Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Bolsonaro has also defended his supporters.
Mr. Bolsonaro said on Friday that the riot was not an attempted coup, but instead “little old women and little old men, with Brazilian flags on their back and Bibles under their arms.”
But the political reverberations have differed.
In the U.S., much of the Republican Party has embraced the baseless claims of election-fraud, states have passed laws that make it harder to vote, and voters have elected election-denying candidates to Congress and state legislatures.
In Brazil, the political establishment has largely moved away from talk of election fraud — and from Mr. Bolsonaro himself. Conservative leaders are now pushing a more moderate governor as the new standard-bearer of the Brazilian right.
Mr. Encarnación said that, despite its problems, Brazil’s democratic system can provide a model on how to fight new anti-democratic threats.
“Democracies basically are fighting misinformation and God knows what else with very antiquated institutions,” he said. “We do need to upgrade the hardware. I don’t think it was designed for people of the likes these countries are facing.”