Brazil’s election officials on Friday appeared poised to bar former President Jair Bolsonaro from seeking public office for the next eight years, removing a top contender from the upcoming presidential contest and dealing a major blow to the country’s far-right movement.
A majority of judges at Brazil’s electoral court ruled that Bolsonaro had violated Brazil’s electoral laws when, less than three months before last year’s vote, he summoned diplomats to the presidential palace and made unsubstantiated claims that the voting systems of the nation would probably have been equipped.
Late Friday morning, four of the court’s seven judges voted that Bolsonaro had abused his power as president when he called the meeting with diplomats. Another judge voted that Bolsonaro had not abused his power, while two other judges had yet to vote. The sentence is expected to be finalized later on Friday.
The decision would be a sharp and quick rebuke to Mr. Bolsonaro and his attempt to undermine the Brazilian elections. Just six months ago, Bolsonaro was president of one of the largest democracies in the world. Now his career as a politician is in jeopardy.
Bolsonaro, 68, will be able to run for president in 2030, when he will be 75 years old.
Bolsonaro is expected to appeal the ruling to Brazil’s Supreme Court, though that body has acted aggressively to curb his power during his presidency. For years he has bitterly attacked the court and many of its judges, calling some of them “terrorists” and accusing them of trying to influence the vote against him.
Bolsonaro’s lawyers argued in electoral court that his speech to diplomats was an “act of government” aimed at raising legitimate concerns about electoral security.
“Meeting with Ambassadors: Is It a Crime?” Mr. Bolsonaro he told reporters recently. “Foreign policy is the prerogative of the president.”
Even if an appeal is successful, Bolsonaro would face 15 more cases in election tribunal, including allegations that he misused public funds to influence the vote and that his campaign ran a coordinated disinformation campaign. Any of these cases could also prevent him from seeking the presidency.
He is also linked to several criminal investigations, which concern whether he provoked his supporters to raid Brazil’s halls of power on Jan. 8 and whether he was involved in a scheme to falsify his vaccine records. (Mr. Bolsonaro has refused the Covid-19 vaccine.) A conviction in any criminal case would also make him ineligible.
Given all the legal challenges, the consensus in Brazilian political circles is that Bolsonaro probably won’t be able to run for president in 2026.
Even Mr. Bolsonaro seems prepared for that fate. “I will not become desperate” She said the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo. “What can I do?”
Bolsonaro came as a shock to Brazilian politics when he was elected president in 2018. A former army captain and far-right fringe congressman, he rode a populist wave to the presidency in a campaign against corruption.
His lone tenure has been marked by controversy from the start, including a sharp increase in deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, a no-action approach to the pandemic that has claimed nearly 700,000 lives in Brazil, and harsh attacks on the press, judiciary, and the left.
But it was his repeated tirades against Brazil’s voting systems that alarmed many Brazilians, as well as the international community, fueling concerns that he might try to hold on to power if he lost last October’s election.
Mr Bolsonaro lost by a slim margin and at first refused to concede. Under pressure from allies and rivals, he finally accepted a handover to president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
However, after years of hearing Bolsonaro’s false claims, many Bolsonaro supporters remained convinced that Lula, a leftist, stole the election. On January 8, a week after Lula took office, thousands stormed Brazil’s Congress, Supreme Court and presidential offices, hoping to get the military to take over the government and restore Bolsonaro to the presidency.
Since then, more evidence has emerged that at least some of Bolsonaro’s inner circle were contemplating a coup. Brazil’s federal police found separate drafts of Bolsonaro’s retention plans at the home of Bolsonaro’s justice minister and on the phone of his former aide.
Bolsonaro’s attacks on the voting system and the January 8 riot in Brazil bore a striking resemblance to former President Donald J. Trump’s denials that he lost the 2020 election and the January 6, 2021 storming of the US Capitol. United States.
Yet the outcome for the two former presidents has so far been different. While Mr. Bolsonaro looked set to be barred from the next presidential race, Mr. Trump remains the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination. Mr. Trump could also run for president even if he is convicted of any of the various criminal charges he faces.
The ruling against Bolsonaro would upend politics in Latin America’s largest nation. For years, he has dragged Brazil’s conservative movement further to the right with harsh rhetoric against rivals, skepticism of science, a love of guns and adherence to the culture wars.
He received 49.1 percent of the vote in the 2022 election, just 2.1 million votes behind Lula, in the nation’s closest presidential race since he returned to democracy in 1985 following a military dictatorship.
Yet conservative leaders in Brazil, with one eye on Bolsonaro’s legal challenges, have begun to press forward, touting Tarcísio Gomes de Freitas, the right-wing governor of Brazil’s largest state, São Paulo, as the right’s new standard bearer and one challenger of 2026 for Mr. Lula.
“He’s a much more attractive candidate because he doesn’t have Bolsonaro’s responsibilities and because he’s moving towards the center,” said Marta Arretche, a political science professor at the University of São Paulo.
The head of the electoral tribunal is Alexandre de Moraes, a Supreme Court judge, who has risen to become one of the most powerful men in Brazil.
During Bolsonaro’s administration, he acted as perhaps the most effective check on Bolsonaro’s power, conducting investigations into Bolsonaro or his allies, jailing some of his supporters for what he saw as threats against Brazilian institutions, and ordering tech companies to remove the stories of many other right-wing voices.
Those tactics have raised concerns that he was abusing his power, and Mr Bolsonaro and his supporters have called Mr Moraes an authoritarian. On the left, he has been lauded as the savior of Brazilian democracy.
Moraes should have voted last in the Bolsonaro case. Any judge could try to delay an official result for weeks or months. Judges could also change their votes, but they were not expected to do so.
Bolsonaro’s case before the electoral tribunal stemmed from a 47-minute meeting on July 18 in which he summoned dozens of foreign diplomats to the presidential residence to present what he promised would be evidence of fraud in Brazil’s past election.
Mr Bolsonaro has made unsubstantiated claims that Brazil’s voting machines switched ballots for him with other candidates in a previous election and that a 2018 hack of the electoral court’s computer network showed voting could be rigged . But security experts said hackers could never access voting machines or change votes.
The speech was broadcast on the Brazilian government television network and its social media channels. Some tech companies later removed the video for spreading election misinformation.
Yet it was clear that the electoral court judges were considering the threat Bolsonaro posed to Brazilian democracy beyond that single meeting. Benedito Gonçalves, the lead judge in the case, had ruled months earlier that judges should consider draft coup plans found at the home of Bolsonaro’s justice minister.
As for Bolsonaro’s future plans if convicted? I have he told Folha de Sao Paulo that during his three months in Florida this year, he was offered a job as a “poster boy” for American companies that want to reach Brazilians.
“I went to a burger joint and it filled up with people,” he said. “But I don’t want to leave my country.”
Letizia married AND Lisa Moriconi contributed report.