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Sao Paulo governor turns heads on Brazil’s right after Bolsonaro election ban

The governor of Brazil’s wealthiest and most populous state, Tarcisio de Freitas, has emerged as an early contender to lead conservatives after his mentor, far-right former President Jair Bolsonaro, was barred from elected office for eight years.

Although the governor and his closest advisers insist he is focused on serving Sao Paulo state, many of Brazil’s seasoned conservative power brokers are already calling the pro-business moderate a natural candidate for the presidency in three years.

Stoking the speculation, Freitas showed his political mettle this month by backing a landmark tax reform in a sharp break with Bolsonaro, who had thrust him to prominence by making him infrastructure minister in his administration.

Their differences boiled over in a meeting the day before a decisive July 7 congressional vote. As Freitas made his case for the merits of the tax reform, Bolsonaro interrupted him twice to disagree, videos showed, grabbing a microphone and insisting it would give an unacceptable victory to President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s new leftist government.

The governor’s stand helped to consolidate his image as a technocrat who eschews the scorched-earth political style, say allies and analysts. It also helped shore up three-quarters support among Sao Paulo lawmakers for the reform as it cleared one chamber of Congress.

“He is consolidating himself as a skilled politician and without being an extremist,” said Marcos Pereira, head of the Republicans, a party linked to the powerful evangelical Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.

Freitas, who has shied away from Bolsonaro’s favorite hot-button issues such as gun rights and gay marriage, joined the Republicans last year ahead of his run for governor instead of the former president’s more right-wing Liberal Party.

With Bolsonaro mired in criminal investigations and barred by the courts from running for office due to his attacks on the electoral system, Brazil’s conservative kingmakers are placing their bets on Freitas. Arthur Lira, the speaker of Brazil’s lower house of Congress, and Ciro Nogueira, Bolsonaro’s former chief of staff, have cited the former engineer and civil servant as a compelling prospect for the 2026 presidential race.

“He is a strong candidate because he is more technical and balanced than Bolsonaro,” said Antonio Queiroz, a political consultant, citing the pro-market agenda that Freitas emphasizes over the conservative culture wars of the Bolsonaro era.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for an interview or questions about his political future.

Army Engineer

A former captain in the Brazilian Army’s engineer corps, Freitas was one of the most high-profile members of Bolsonaro’s cabinet, often crisscrossing the country for presidential events to inaugurate bridges, tunnels and other public works. Aides would remark on his granular grasp of the country’s complex highway system.

Freitas gained that familiarity as a civil servant running DNIT, the national roads department, under leftist President Dilma Rousseff, the Workers Party candidate who succeeded Lula at the end of his 2003-2010 mandate.

While Bolsonaro cast his political mission as an existential battle against the Workers Party, Freitas has touted a constructive relationship with Lula’s new government, while criticizing it for a lack of “technical excellence.”

Still, Freitas is quick to draw a contrast with Lula’s party on economic issues, emphasizing his own business-friendly agenda. He is pushing to privatize the port of Santos on the Sao Paulo coast, a bid blocked for now by the federal government. And he has vowed to revive efforts to privatize state water utility Sabesp (SBSP3.SA), while Lula has decried recent privatizations under Bolsonaro.

Aides insist the 48-year-old governor is in no rush to leave the statehouse.

“He has to finish his mission in Sao Paulo with a second term,” said one close aide, asking not to be named as he was not authorized to speak about the governor’s plans. “He has time, he is young.”

Another adviser said Freitas has his eye on a 2030 presidential run.

Queiroz, the political consultant, said that may be the smart move if Lula finishes his current term with robust economic growth and broad support, as he did his last. But if Lula stumbles, Queiroz added, the pressure will quickly mount on Freitas to run sooner.

Source: Reuters