AP International

Bolsonaro’s political future hangs in the balance as Brazilian court case begins

BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) — Brazil’s top electoral court on Thursday began hearing a case that could torpedo the political future of former President Jair Bolsonaro by rendering him ineligible for public office for eight years.

Judges are evaluating a case filed by Brazil’s Democratic Labor Party, which claims the far-right leader abused his power by using government communication channels to promote his campaign and cast unfounded doubts on the country’s electronic voting system.

While Bolsonaro often railed against the voting system, the suit’s focus is a meeting last year on July 18 that Bolsonaro convened at the presidential palace with foreign ambassadors, which was broadcast on state television for nearly an hour.

Thursday’s session in the capital, Brasilia, began with Judge Benedito Gonçalves reading his report on the case. Bolsonaro’s lawyer, Tarcísio Vieira de Carvalho, told judges the case was “riddled with ideological falsehood.” The court’s president Alexandre de Moraes suspended the session after roughly three hours, before any judge had cast a vote, citing time and scheduled obligations at the Supreme Court.

Already two subsequent sessions have been slated for next Tuesday and next Thursday, but the trial could extend for several months if any of the judges requests additional time to review the case.

In comments to journalists on Wednesday outside the Senate, the former president acknowledged he could be barred from public office, although he denied any wrongdoing.

Rodrigo Prando, a political science professor at Mackenzie University in São Paulo, said the evidence against Bolsonaro was robust. “Bolsonaro speaks in live broadcasts, on Twitter. I never saw anyone provide so much material against himself as Bolsonaro did,” he said.

In his report on the case, Paulo Gonet Branco, one of the top prosecutors at Brazil’s electoral court, recommended barring Bolsonaro from public office. The report will be analyzed by the court’s panel, which is comprised of judges from Brazil’s two top courts, the Supreme Court and the superior court of justice, plus two appointees.

Branco’s report asserts that Bolsonaro misled voters about a Federal Police investigation into the 2018 elections in order to claim the voting system isn’t reliable and that he presented that information to ambassadors in the meeting last year.

The Supreme Court is simultaneously investigating the former president for having shared details of that investigation — a case proceeding under seal.

“I would like to remain 100% active in politics, and taking away my political rights, which in my opinion is an affront, you lose a little bit of that fuel,” Bolsonaro said Thursday morning in comments published on his YouTube channel.

Bolsonaro left Brazil for Florida days before his term ended, and returned on March 30. He has a ceremonial leadership role within his political party and has travelled around Brazil as a critic of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who defeated him in last October’s election that featured the narrowest margin in over three decades.

On Thursday, Bolsonaro traveled to the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, where he will attend a transportation fair and an event of his Liberal Party.

He is also expected to help stump for mayors in next year’s municipal election — whether or not he has his political rights. Surfing the Bolsonaro wave in the 2022 general election, the Liberal Party won more congressional seats than any other and became the biggest in both the Lower House and Senate.

If the electoral court strips Bolsonaro of his political rights, he could appeal to the Supreme Court. However, there are other suits pending with the electoral court seeking the same outcome. And that is just a fraction of his legal troubles, which also include criminal investigations.

Bolsonaro, 68, will continue to wield some political power until the 2026 presidential elections, even if he is declared ineligible to run, said Carlos Melo, a political science professor at Insper University in São Paulo. If Bolsonaro is declared ineligible, the next presidential election he could contest would be in 2034, Melo noted.

“Bolsonaro will be finished as a presidential candidate if he indeed loses this trial,” he said. “Many voters would only vote for him, but from the polling we have seen, the vast majority of conservatives and right-leaning voters are ready to look beyond Bolsonaro and pick any other candidate, even if not supported by him.”

For the time being, though, Bolsonaro’s ineligibility would throw Brazil’s right-wing political hierarchy into disarray.

Other potential standard-bearers whose names have circulated are São Paulo’s Gov. Tarcísio de Freitas, Minas Gerais’ Gov. Romeu Zema and Bolsonaro’s wife, Michelle Bolsonaro. All of them, however, trail Bolsonaro in popularity, said Prando, of Mackenzie University.

Graphic novels are displayed for sale at a bookstore in New York City on Sunday, October 8, 2023. On Tuesday, the Commerce Department releases U.S. retail sales data for September. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)
Graphic novels are displayed for sale at a bookstore in New York City on Sunday, October 8, 2023. On Tuesday, the Commerce Department releases U.S. retail sales data for September. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)

“Bolsonaro’s profile became very unique, because the right also gets on board. Many (politicians) only include the extreme right,” Prando said. “In terms of charisma today, too, there is no name like Bolsonaro.”

___

Savarese reported from São Paulo. AP writer Diane Jeantet reported from Rio de Janeiro.

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