Brazilian election officials on Friday barred former president Jair Bolsonaro from running for public office until 2030, removing a top contender from the upcoming presidential contest and dealing a major blow to the country’s far-right movement.
Brazil’s electoral court ruled that Bolsonaro had violated Brazil’s electoral laws when, less than three months before last year’s vote, he called diplomats to the presidential palace and made unsubstantiated claims that the nation’s voting systems were likely to be rigged against him.
Five of the court’s seven judges voted that Bolsonaro had abused his power as president when he called the meeting with diplomats and broadcast it on state television.
“This response will confirm our faith in democracy,” said Alexandre de Moraes, a Supreme Court justice who leads the electoral tribunal, as he cast his vote against Bolsonaro.
The decision is 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.
Under the ruling, Bolsonaro, 68, will be able to run for president in 2030, when he will be 75. The next presidential elections are scheduled for 2026.
Mr Bolsonaro said on Friday he was not surprised by the 5-2 decision because the court had always been against him. “Come on. We know that since I took office they have been saying I was going to do a coup,” he told reporters (although he too had hinted at that possibility). “This is not democracy.”
His lawyers had argued that his speech to diplomats was an “act of government” aimed at raising legitimate concerns about electoral security.
Mr Bolsonaro appeared to accept his fate, saying on Friday he would focus on campaigning for other right-wing candidates.
Yet he is still expected to appeal the ruling to Brazil’s Supreme Court, although that body has acted aggressively to curb his power during his presidency. For years he has bitterly attacked the High Court, calling some judges “terrorists” and accusing them of trying to influence the vote against him.
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, including whether he provoked his supporters into storming Brazil’s halls of power on January 14. 8 and if he was involved in a plan to falsify his vaccine records. (Mr. Bolsonaro has refused the Covid-19 vaccine.) A conviction in any criminal case would also make him ineligible for office, as well as carry a possible prison term.
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 listening to Bolsonaro’s false claims, many Bolsonaro supporters remained convinced that Lula, a leftist, stole the election. Gen. On the 8th, a week after Lula took office, thousands of people stormed Brazil’s Congress, Supreme Court and presidential offices, hoping to induce the military to take over the government and restore Bolsonaro to the presidency.
Mr Bolsonaro said on Friday the uprising was not a coup attempt, but rather “old ladies and gentlemen, with Brazilian flags on their backs and Bibles under their arms”.
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 Jan. 8 uprising in Brazil bore a striking resemblance to former President Donald J. Trump’s denials that he lost the 2020 election and the 2020 election. 6, 2021, storming of the United States Capitol.
Yet the outcome for the two former presidents has so far been different. While Bolsonaro has already been ruled out of the upcoming presidential race, 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.
Bolsonaro’s ruling disrupts 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 it returned to democracy in 1985 following a military dictatorship.
Yet conservative leaders in Brazil, with an eye to Bolsonaro’s legal challenges, have begun to move forward, while Tarcísio Gomes de Freitas, the right-wing governor of Brazil’s largest state, São Paulo, as the right’s new standard bearer and a 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 Brazilian press and pollsters speculated that Bolsonaro’s wife Michelle or two of his children would run for president. Mr. Bolsonaro said recently who told Ms Bolsonaro she does not have the necessary experience, “but she is an excellent activist”.
Friday’s decision is also further proof that Moraes, head of the electoral tribunal, has become one of the most powerful men in Brazil.
During the Bolsonaro administration, Moraes acted as the most effective check on the president’s power, conducting investigations into Bolsonaro and his allies, jailing some of his supporters for what he saw as threats against Brazilian institutions, and ordering tech companies to remove the accounts of so 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.
Bolsonaro’s case before the electoral court arose 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 was evidence of fraud in Brazil’s past election.
He 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 that voting may 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.
As for Bolsonaro’s future plans? HEY he told Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo that during the three months he spent in Florida this year following his election loss, 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.”
Ana Ionova, Leticia Casado AND Lily Moriconi contributed report.