(Bloomberg) -- Jair Bolsonaro’s leadership of the Brazilian right is “undisputed” even as he faces a ban from office and coup allegations that could lead to his arrest, according to Sao Paulo Governor Tarcisio de Freitas, a potential heir to the former president’s political throne who insists he doesn’t want it.

“My focus is on Sao Paulo,” Freitas said in a wide-ranging interview with Bloomberg News on Tuesday, reiterating that he has not considered a run against President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Across Brazil, however, no one seems to believe him. The leftist Lula has spent a year cozying up to Freitas at official events and photo opportunities in thinly-veiled attempts to drive a wedge between Bolsonaro and the governor. Analysts and experts from across the political spectrum consider him among the likeliest of the conservative politicians who rode Bolsonaro’s coattails to power to seek the country’s highest office.

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At a Sunday rally in Sao Paulo, Bolsonaro’s first major mobilization of support since he returned to Brazil last March, Freitas was the only governor to speak alongside the former president. A clear majority of the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in attendance named him as their top choice if Bolsonaro can’t participate in the 2026 election, according to a poll from the University of Sao Paulo. Freitas, meanwhile, spent months denying he’d run for governor in 2022, before eventually doing just that. 

Bolsonaro’s legal and political woes have left any potential successor walking a delicate tightrope of the sort Republicans like Ron DeSantis struggled to traverse in the US, as they sought to craft themselves as simultaneous successors and challengers to Donald Trump.

An eight-year ban from seeking office means Bolsonaro won’t face off with Freitas or any other major right-wing figure, as Trump has in GOP primaries. But his enduring grip on the fiery, uncompromising movement he unleashed is still complicating any future moves they might make. Potential candidates need to build national profiles and expand their appeal to moderates Bolsonaro alienated without losing the blessing they need to follow in his footsteps.

“Bolsonaro remains a great leader and has a capacity for mobilization that nobody in Brazil has nowadays,” Freitas said in Sao Paulo, adding that he will stand by Bolsonaro no matter what.

“I have been with him, I will be with him,” he said. “I will always be with him.”

Countless Mistakes

Freitas, 48, is a former army engineer who served as Bolsonaro’s infrastructure minister. More technocratic than charismatic, he had never run for office before Bolsonaro urged him to seek Sao Paulo’s governorship, even though he hails from Rio de Janeiro. Freitas nevertheless sailed to victory, easily beating Lula’s handpicked candidate — current Finance Minister and former Sao Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad.

A win in Brazil’s most populous state virtually ensured Freitas’s name would end up on lists of future presidential candidates, especially after Bolsonaro’s defeat. In June, Brazil’s electoral court barred Bolsonaro from seeking or holding office until at least 2030 because of false claims about the country’s voting system, kicking off an informal search for his political successor.

Freitas has attempted to paint himself as a more moderate figure from within Bolsonarismo, as the right-wing movement is commonly known. As governor, he has focused heavily on economic proposals popular among Sao Paulo’s traditionally conservative elite, including the privatization of major state utilities.

He has faced criticism, at times, from Bolsonaro over his willingness to work with Lula’s government on tax reform and other issues. And during the interview, he attributed Bolsonaro’s 2022 defeat — by less than two percentage points — in part to “countless mistakes” Bolsonaro made, including his approach to the pandemic, questioning of vaccines and constant clashes with the Supreme Court and other institutions.

That puts him among the members of Bolsonaro’s inner circle — including Senator Flavio Bolsonaro, the former president’s first-born son, and Valdemar Costa Neto, the head of Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party — in calling for a softening of the right-wing’s rhetoric, and a shift toward a more centrist political approach.

Bolsonaro himself is on board with the strategy, Freitas said.

“From the moment that there is a self-criticism, this is in the past for him,” he said. “Many lessons were learned from that episode. I understand that in 2024 and 2026 there will be a much more prepared right.”

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Bolsonaro, however, thwarted other efforts to moderate throughout his presidency, often unleashing his most radical rhetoric in moments he faced his biggest political threats. 

Now those threats are mounting: Federal police targeted dozens of Bolsonaro’s closest allies earlier this month, alleging that a “criminal organization” tried to plot a “coup d’état, with the support of military personnel” in the wake of his defeat to Lula. Other federal probes into possible crimes that range from the illegal sale of luxury jewelry he received as president to the falsification of vaccine records have forced even those closest to Bolsonaro to consider the possibility that he will face arrest.

On those topics, Freitas eagerly came to Bolsonaro’s defense, endorsing his claims that there was no attempt to overthrow Lula’s government. 

“Widespread vandalism” that occurred during the Jan. 8, 2023 riots that ransacked Brazil’s capital city “has to be rejected, condemned and punished,” he said. But the left, the media and the country’s judiciary have “created a narrative that it was a coup attempt. What coup? It had no leadership, no purpose. Turning this into a coup d’état is pushing it.”

‘Outdated’ Lula  

Freitas dismissed the survey showing that he was more popular among Bolsonaro’s supporters than other potential candidates, saying that it was a result of rally’s location in his own state.

Any right-wing candidate “anointed” by Bolsonaro, Freitas said, will become an electoral force. He sees Trump’s potential return in the US, meanwhile, as another “factor that will make the right very competitive in 2026,” no matter who it ultimately chooses. 

But even as he maintains a cordial relationship with Lula, he offered pointed criticisms of the leftist’s government. Lula, he said, accomplished little over his first year in office — the Brazilian economy’s better-than-expected performance in 2023, he argued, was the result of Bolsonaro policy achievements that set the stage for growth.

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“I see Lula today as an outdated profile,” the governor said. “He brings nothing new, and I attribute his election much more to the mistakes we made than his merits or his project.”

Freitas questions whether Lula will be able to deliver on campaign promises to restore prosperity, and said the election will depend heavily on Brazil’s economic performance.

“If the economy goes well, Lula will be very competitive in 2026, there is no doubt about it,” he said. “If the economy starts to unravel or things get more difficult, Lula will have difficulty too.”

--With assistance from Barbara Nascimento.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.