Brazil’s electoral court began hearing arguments Thursday on whether ex-President Jair Bolsonaro violated the law by making unfounded complaints about the voting system, a case that might exclude him from running for president in 2026.
The Superior Electoral Tribunal (TSE) is prosecuting the far-right former president on charges of abuse of office and misuse of state media when, in July 2022, three months before elections he would lose, he convened foreign diplomats for a meeting in which he insisted Brazil’s electronic voting machines were vulnerable to large-scale fraud.
Bolsonaro, 68, did not appear in court in Brasilia. According to his press office, he will be monitoring it from the southern city of Porto Alegre, where he will be conducting political meetings.
Bolsonaro spent over an hour outlining his case to the assembled ambassadors during the July meeting in the presidential palace, which was shown live on national television, equipped with a PowerPoint presentation but no concrete evidence.
Prosecutors claim the event broke electoral law because it took place during the divisive campaign for the October 2022 elections, which Bolsonaro narrowly lost to his leftist archrival, now-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Insiders say Bolsonaro will almost certainly be convicted, incurring an eight-year ban on running for public office.
The ex-army captain reiterated Wednesday that he had done nothing wrong.
“There was no criticism or attack on the electoral system” at the meeting, he told journalists.
“I simply explained how elections work in Brazil.”
However, he appeared to be coming to terms with his likely fate.
“Practically everyone’s saying I’m going to lose,” he told CNN Brasil.
But “we want to keep working, stay active, collaborating to build Brazil’s future. We have a lot to contribute.”
– Trump parallels –
Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party (PL) posted a video on Twitter of the former president cracking jokes and taking pictures with the crew of his flight to Porto Alegre Thursday morning before takeoff.
The TSE’s seven judges are unlikely to finish reading their rulings Thursday, sources said. Further hearings have been scheduled for June 27 and 29 if necessary — and the case could be extended even longer.
Bolsonaro can appeal to the Supreme Court if convicted.
His 2022 running mate, army reserve General Walter Braga Netto, is also on trial, though prosecutors have recommended he be acquitted.
Bolsonaro, who trailed Lula throughout the 2022 race, said at the meeting with diplomats that he wanted to “fix the flaws” in the electronic voting system Brazil has used since 1996, questioning the transparency of the elections.
“We still have time to resolve the problem, with the help of the armed forces,” he said.
The accusations surged to the forefront again on January 8, when his supporters ran riot in the presidential palace, Supreme Court and Congress a week after Lula’s inauguration, insisting the elections had been fraudulent and demanding the military intervene.
Both Bolsonaro’s unsubstantiated allegations of election fraud and the attack on the capital drew widespread comparisons to his political role model Donald Trump and the latter’s bid to hang onto power after his loss in the 2020 US presidential election.
– ‘Large base’ –
Bolsonaro, who spent three months in the US state of Florida after his election loss, has made few public appearances since returning to Brazil in March to serve as honorary president of his Liberal Party (PL).
But the man dubbed the “Tropical Trump” remains a powerful force in Brazilian politics, where conservative parties hold a strong majority in Congress.
Bolsonaro “has a large base that is very much influenced by him,” said political scientist Marco Antonio Teixeira, of the Getulio Vargas Foundation.
Even if convicted, “he’ll act behind the scenes and use his vote-winning power and influence to help other candidates,” he said.
But Bolsonaro faces a raft of other legal woes, from five Supreme Court investigations that could potentially send him to jail — including over the January 8 attacks — to police probes into allegations of a faked Covid-19 vaccination certificate and diamond jewelry snuck into the country from Saudi Arabia.