Bolsonaro clashes with judges as voter fraud claim sparks constitutional row

Brazilian politics updates

Brazilian lawmakers are to vote on whether to adopt printed ballot receipts for elections next year after president Jair Bolsonaro clashed with senior judges over his unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud.

In tactics that echo his political soulmate Donald Trump, Bolsonaro has ramped up allegations that electronic ballot machines are susceptible to meddling, without providing evidence.

The populist’s ratings have slid after Brazil recorded more than half a million deaths from Covid-19 and discontent over rising living costs is growing; critics fear the far-right leader is casting doubt on the legitimacy of the ballot in preparation to undermine the credibility of any possible defeat. 

The country’s supreme court and top electoral tribunal last week opened investigations into the president’s attacks on the voting system. Either probe could potentially result in his disqualification from standing for re-election in 2022.

But Bolsonaro’s stance has become more aggressive. Last week he called the head of the electoral court a “son of a whore” and suggested in a radio interview that he might act outside the boundaries of the constitution, in remarks that were interpreted by commentators as a hint that he could seek to remain in power through undemocratic means.

“It’s not going to be one or two supreme court judges who decide the destiny of a nation,” he told supporters at a motorcycle rally on Saturday.

The speaker of Brazil’s lower house of Congress has sought to settle the matter by convening a parliamentary vote on the use of printed ballot receipts, which could take place as early as this week. 

“For the tranquility of the upcoming elections . . . all parliamentarians legitimately elected by the electronic ballot box will decide,” Arthur Lira said on Friday.

The proposed constitutional amendment would require a three-fifths majority in the Chamber of Deputies before going to the Senate.

Thiago Vidal of political consultancy Prospectiva said he expected Congress to reject the measure, which would add paper receipts to the electronic system so they can be recounted if a result is contested.

Vidal described the events as “unprecedented” since the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship in the mid-1980s.

Dozens of prominent business figures and intellectuals last week signed a manifesto voicing support for the electronic voting system, which was introduced in 1996. Without referring to Bolsonaro, they warned that Brazilian society “will not accept authoritarian adventures”.

In a front-page editorial article published on Friday, the influential newspaper Folha de S.Paulo described Bolsonaro as a “president against the constitution”. “He commits serial madness in his flight into tyranny and must be stopped by the law he despises,” it read.

Esther Solano, a professor of politics at the Federal University of São Paulo, said Bolsonaro’s rhetoric was radicalising his core base. If lawmakers rejected the constitutional change, it could play into the president’s hands and strengthen his anti-establishment messaging, she added. 

“His narrative is that he is the victim of the judiciary, Congress and the opposition,” she said.

In opinion polls Bolsonaro is trailing former leftist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose political rights were restored this year after a graft conviction was overturned. Although neither has officially declared their candidacy, both men are expected to run in 2022.

Bolsonaro’s opponents have held protests in major cities over the past two months calling for his impeachment. His supporters meanwhile have staged their own demonstrations in favour of changes to the voting set-up. 

“Above all, our plea is for freedom — to eliminate any risk of a coup happening in this country. Why do you have to hinder transparency in our electoral process?” said deputy Junio Amaral at a gathering of activists campaigning for printed ballot papers in Brasília last week.

During a visit to Brazil last week American national security adviser Jake Sullivan “underscored the importance of preserving confidence in the electoral process”, according to the US embassy. A US government official said Sullivan had “expressed confidence” that Brazil would “carry out a free and fair election”.

The presidency did not respond to a request for comment.

Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice

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