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Brazil’s top electoral authority has launched a counter-offensive against Jair Bolsonaro’s Donald Trump-style campaign against the country’s voting system by announcing it will investigate his potentially criminal propagation of groundless vote-rigging claims.
Bolsonaro has stepped up his long-running crusade against Brazil’s electronic voting system in recent weeks, apparently hoping to energize supporters at a time when his ratings are plunging over his handling of a Covid outbreak that has killed nearly 560,000 Brazilians.
Addressing followers on Sunday, the populist leader warned that next year’s presidential election – which polls suggest Bolsonaro would lose to his leftwing rival Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – might not be held if physical ballots were not reintroduced.
Bolsonaro made a similar threat last month, leading another prominent leftwing rival, Ciro Gomes, to urge the international community to signal that “the premature death of Brazilian democracy” would be intolerable.
Last week, Bolsonaro, who has a long history of anti-democratic bombast, caused outrage by using public television to make unsubstantiated allegations about past elections that Bolsonaro himself admitted were not grounded in fact.
“There’s no way of proving whether the elections were rigged or not,” Bolsonaro conceded during the rambling two-hour broadcast.
The transmission, which was followed on Sunday by a series of pro-Bolsonaro protests where hardcore supporters demanded the introduction of printed ballots – drew a steely response from Brazil’s superior electoral court (TSE) on Monday.
The court voted unanimously to launch an inquiry into Bolsonaro’s claims of electoral fraud and ask the supreme court to include Brazil’s president in an investigation into the dissemination of fake news because of “possible criminal conduct” during Bolsonaro’s televised broadcast.
In a combative speech, the TSE president Luís Roberto Barroso said: “Threatening the realization of an election represents anti-democratic behaviour … Polluting the public debate with disinformation, lies, hatred and conspiracy theories represents anti-democratic behaviour.”
“Wrong things are happening in our country and all of us must be alert,” added Barroso, whom Bolsonaro recently called an idiot and an imbecile.
Barroso made no explicit reference to Bolsonaro but the target of his remarks was clear. In an editorial, the Rio broadsheet O Globo praised efforts to combat Bolsonaro’s crusade against Brazil’s internationally celebrated electronic voting system, which it called “nothing more than an attack on democracy”.
“Bolsonaro is lying shamelessly in order to be able to challenge the election result in case he is defeated next year, just as Donald Trump did in the United States,” O Globo warned.
Brazil’s electronic voting system was implemented in 1996 and has been widely praised for helping eliminate fraud and accelerate election results in a vast country more than 2.5 times larger than India. According to the TSE, more than 147 million voters spread across 5,567 municipalities used more than 400,000 voting machines to cast their ballots in last year’s municipal elections.
Bolsonaro’s attempts to undermine confidence in the system – which have echoes of Trump’s “stop the steal” campaign and similar efforts by Peru’s rightwing presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori – predate his landslide election in October 2018.
During a campaign trail interview in April that year, Bolsonaro’s politician son, Eduardo, told the Guardian he feared his father might lose the presidential race because of vote rigging involving the electronic machines. “The TSE’s fear about introducing paper ballots shows that, as we say around here, there’s a dog in that there forest,” he said, hinting, without proof, at a top-level political conspiracy.
Seeming to confuse electronic voting machines with paper ballots, Eduardo Bolsonaro added: “There are lots of stories of ballot boxes being opened at the start of the day and there already being votes in there for such and such a candidate.”