Silent Bolsonaro leaves void in Brazil presidency

Since losing his reelection bid, outgoing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has virtually disappeared from view, holing up in his official residence -- and leaving the country with the uneasy feeling of a power vacuum.

Nearly three weeks after losing to leftist rival Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the far-right president -- who remains in office until January 1 -- has gone uncharacteristically silent, shunning official events and even his beloved social media accounts.

As pundits speculated on the cause -- Is he sulking? Consumed by rage? -- Vice President Hamilton Mourao finally offered an explanation Wednesday: his boss, he said, has a skin infection known as erysipelas on his leg.

"He has a health problem. He can't wear pants. How could he come here in shorts?" Mourao told newspaper O Globo.

But the president's office did not confirm the information, and Mourao's own statements appeared to leave room for doubt.

Shortly before, he told another daily, Valor, that Bolsonaro was in isolation for "a spiritual retreat."

Mourao appeared to think the lame-duck leader's reclusion could last until the end of his term, amid reports Bolsonaro plans to travel abroad on inauguration day to avoid handing the presidential sash to Lula, as tradition dictates.

"I'm not the president. I can't be the one to hand over the sash," Mourao said.

- Near-empty agenda -

Bolsonaro's retreat from public view began the night of the runoff election, October 30, when he lost by the narrowest margin in Brazil's modern history -- less than two percentage points.

He didn't reappear until nearly 48 hours later, when he gave a terse speech saying he would respect the constitution -- but neither conceding defeat nor congratulating Lula.

The leader of Latin America's largest economy skipped the G20 meeting in Bali this week, and left his vice president to fill traditional roles such as accepting new ambassadors' credentials.

Bolsonaro's official agenda has been nearly empty, aside from short, sporadic meetings -- almost all at his official residence, not the presidential offices.

Once a voluble presence on Twitter and Facebook, Bolsonaro has even gone virtually silent online, including the weekly live address he used to deliver directly to his base throughout his presidency.

- 'Wounded ego' -

With Brazilians wondering whether the "Tropical Trump" will try to make a comeback in four years' time, analyst Oliver Stuenkel said he saw Bolsonaro's silence as a strategic move.

"He can't accept the (election) result explicitly, but at the same time he can't question it explicitly, because that could make the electoral court punish him" by stripping him of his right to run for office, Stuenkel told AFP.

"Staying silent is the best solution."

Bolsonaro is keen to encourage hardline supporters who have been protesting outside army bases since the election, Stuenkel added.

The protesters, who allege the election was stolen -- without evidence -- are urging the military to intervene to keep Bolsonaro in power.

Thousands turned out for the demos Tuesday, a holiday in Brazil -- though they are smaller on working days.

Online, speculation on the cause of Bolsonaro's silence tends toward the psychological.

"Where is the wound that is preventing Bolsonaro from working? On his leg? His ego?" quipped one Twitter user.

Sylvio Costa, founder of the news site Congresso em Foco, said Bolsonaro may have "a case of denial that has evolved into depression."

"It was Bolsonaro's first electoral defeat" since entering politics in 1988, first as a Rio de Janeiro city councilor, then a seven-term congressman, Costa said.

The president, he added, is facing "dozens of investigations and lawsuits, and fears being taken to prison. I believe Bolsonaro is lost."

But he is also "totally unpredictable," Costa added, saying Bolsonaro may "reappear with a coup speech and try to disrupt the beginning of the new government as much as possible."

Meanwhile, there are national security fears over the seeming void at the top.

"One wonders whether the president would be ready to take the necessary measures in a national emergency," said Stuenkel.

Biding his time, Lula has looked a lot like head of state, holding high-level meetings and traveling this week to the United Nations climate summit in Egypt, where he declared: "Brazil is back."

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