Friday, July 19, 2024

LATIN AMERICA | 22-06-2023 11:26

Jair Bolsonaro's political future at stake in Brazil trial

Jair Bolsonaro faces make-or-break trial in Brazilian courts that could determine the former president's political future and stoke uncertainty.

Far-right ex-president Jair Bolsonaro risks being banned from running for office for eight years when Brazil's top electoral court puts him on trial Thursday on charges stemming from his accusations against the nation's voting system.

The case before the Superior Electoral Tribunal (TSE) stems from a televised meeting Bolsonaro held with foreign diplomats in July 2022 – in the midst of his ultimately failed re-election campaign – at which he presented a litany of undocumented accusations against Brazil's electronic voting system.

The TSE's seven judges are due to begin delivering their verdicts on charges the former president abused his office and misused state media by holding the meeting at the presidential palace, which was attended by representatives of the European Union, France, Spain and other countries, and carried live on public television.

Insiders say the court is almost sure to convict the ever-divisive Bolsonaro, 68, who lost the October 2022 elections to veteran leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and now stands to lose his right to run in the next presidential elections, in 2026.

"The only question-mark is how many [judges] will decide against him," a judicial source told AFP.


Fix the flaws

Bolsonaro, who trailed Lula throughout the race, convened the meeting at the Alvorada Palace, the official presidential residence, after months of attacking allegedly rampant security shortfalls in the electronic voting machines Brazil has used since 1996.

Backed by a PowerPoint presentation – but no hard evidence – he spent nearly an hour making his case to the assembled diplomats, saying he wanted to "fix the flaws" in the system to ensure the "transparency" of the elections.

"We still have time to resolve the problem, with the help of the Armed Forces," he said.

Prosecutors cried foul, accusing Bolsonaro of violating fair-play election laws. They asked the TSE to bar him and his running mate, Army General Walter Braga Netto, from running for office for eight years.

Bolsonaro's 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.

A conviction for Bolsonaro could fragment the right, which remains a powerful force in Brazilian politics. Bolsonaro narrowly lost the run-off election by 1.8 points, and conservatives currently dominate Congress.

But there is no obvious heir to the man known as the "Tropical Trump" if he is sidelined in 2026.

"There's a real risk of division in the right-wing and far-right camp," said political analyst Leandro Consentino of the Insper institute in São Paulo.

But the former president could use a conviction to cast himself as a "martyr," he added.

"Bolsonaro will try to maintain his hardline base by painting himself as a victim of political persecution," he said.

"He will be an important asset to attract votes for whoever ends up being the [right-wing] candidate."

Bolsonaro has already begun positioning himself ahead of the verdict.

"No-one is going to change how we act," he said last week. "Whatever happens, we're proudly preparing to seek alternatives."

It is just one on a long list of legal headaches for Bolsonaro.

Supreme Court cases

Bolsonaro faces five Supreme Court investigations that could send him to prison – four for alleged crimes during his 2019-2022 term, and one over accusations he incited a riot by supporters who invaded the presidential palace, Congress and the Supreme Court on January 8, protesting his election loss.

The first investigation was opened in 2020, when Bolsonaro's former justice minister Sergio Moro accused him of interfering in federal police investigations to shield family members from corruption charges.

Bolsonaro also faces investigations by federal police, including over allegations he tried to illegally import and keep an estimated US$3.2 million in diamond jewelry given as a gift to first lady Michelle Bolsonaro by Saudi Arabia in 2021.

Brazilian law bars public officials from keeping expensive gifts.

The scandal broke in February, when newspaper Estado de São Paulo reported customs officials had seized a set of jewels from a government aide who tried to bring them into the country undeclared in his backpack in 2021.

It later emerged Bolsonaro had kept another set of jewellery that made it through customs undetected.

Both sets came from Swiss luxury house Chopard.

Bolsonaro has since handed them over to the authorities. Police questioned him over the case in April.

Bolsonaro also faced questioning by federal police in May over accusations an aide faked a Covid-19 immunisation certificate for him and other high-ranking administration officials.

Police raided Bolsonaro's home in Brasília and seized his cell phone as part of their investigation.

The former president, who defied expert advice on managing Covid-19, has repeatedly questioned the vaccines and said he was not vaccinated himself.

The TSE case will likely be extended to two further sessions on June 27 and 29, and possibly beyond, sources said.

Bolsonaro can appeal if convicted.


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