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Bolsonaro goes on trial over electoral fraud claims that could bar him from elections

Brazil's former President Jair Bolsonaro speaks to the press as he leaves the Federal Senate in Brasília on June 21.
Evaristo SA/AFP via Getty Images
Brazil's former President Jair Bolsonaro speaks to the press as he leaves the Federal Senate in Brasília on June 21.

RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil's former President Jair Bolsonaro goes on trial Thursday, facing charges that he spread false information about Brazil's election system just months before he lost his reelection bid last October. He's also facing allegations that he abused his power to spread the misstatements.

The former far-right leader will be tried by a panel of seven judges in the country's electoral court system, so while he won't face criminal penalties, he could see his political career cut short. The sentence for such crimes is a ban on running for office for eight years.

The trial will be shown in its entirety on YouTube.

An opposing party in last year's presidential election brought the accusation to the electoral court, regarding a speech Bolsonaro gave to foreign diplomats in July 2022. In a nearly 50-minute presentation, Bolsonaro rehashed many of his previous attacks on Brazil's electronic voting system. He claimed, without providing evidence, that its electronic machines are vulnerable to hackers and prone to fraud.

Some of the foreign diplomats in attendance told the New York Times that Bolsonaro, who was trailing in the polls at the time, appeared to be preparing to challenge his inevitable defeat and discredit the vote before it even took place. He ultimately lost by the slimmest margin since Brazil returned to democracy in the 1980s. And while Bolsonaro never conceded defeat in the election, he didn't block the transfer of power, instead opting to leave the country for the United States two days before current President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's Jan. 1 inauguration.

This is the one of 16 cases against Bolsonaro

Thursday's case is one of 16 that Bolsonaro is facing in Brazil's Superior Electoral Court. There are multiple civil and criminal cases, including one into his possible encouragement of attacks on the capital's government center by a mob of his supporters on Jan. 8.

"This is not the strongest case, but it is the first that is going to trial," says Malu Gaspar, a columnist with O Globo newspaper.

Prosecutors allege that Bolsonaro abused his power to try to influence voters with his criticisms of Brazil's elections. They say he used the government airwaves, the public broadcaster TV Brasil and social media to disseminate disinformation.

Lawyers for Bolsonaro have said the evidence is weak and that the diplomats the president was speaking to were all foreign citizens who can't even vote in Brazil.

NPR sought comment from one of Bolsonaro's lawyers, Tarcisio Vieira de Carvalho, but calls were not returned.

His supporters fear judicial overreach

Defense lawyer Karina Kufa, who has represented Bolsonaro in several other cases, but not this one, says the former president was just refuting claims by election officials that the machines worked flawlessly. "He did it to show other governments how the electronic ballot box actually works, because, according to him, only one version was shown," she told NPR. He was just giving his version, she says, which is not a crime.

She says the court is rushing this case and that a possible ban on Bolsonaro's future political eligibility is a dangerous overreach by the justices and "very worrying for our democracy." She also says the courts are removing other politicians, including mayors and governors, from office "for any reason."

President Lula has not commented directly on the case, but has openly criticized his political rival, accusing him of encouraging supporters to ransack the capital. But he said this week, before leaving on a state visit to Italy and France, that justice will be meted fairly.

"Everyone will have a chance to defend themselves. I want people to rest assured that we are going to investigate. They will be judged by the common justice and will go to jail if they have committed a crime. If not, people go back to living their lives in peace," he said.

Even if he's disqualified from office, he'll remain a strong political figure

If Bolsonaro were barred from running for office for eight years, that wouldn't mean he'd be out of politics completely, says Gaspar. "I think he is very strong; he is kind of a symbol on the right. And he is going to travel Brazil all year to attract mayors and governors and other politicians to his party," she says.

Bolsonaro is not required to be present at the proceedings and even has scheduled a rally in the conservative south of the country, to take place at the same time as the trial on Thursday.

But if barred from office, it will be very difficult for Bolsonaro to remain the leader of the right in Brazil, says Guilherme Casarões, a political scientist at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo.

"It's going to be even harder for him to sustain his position and to keep his supporting base together," he says.

And given Brazil's fractious and multiple political party system, Casarões says there are plenty of other politicians in the wings ready to fill the role of leader of the right.

A ruling may come quickly

The Superior Electoral Court has only three more sessions before it recesses for all of July. It could quickly rule in Bolsonaro's case since only a simple majority is needed to convict.

However, a single judge could ask for a review of the case, leading to a lengthy postponement. With 15 other cases before the court, including more accusations of coordinating misinformation campaigns and abuse of power, Bolsonaro's lawyers will be back before the justices soon enough.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.
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