Brazilian election officials on Friday appeared poised to block former President Jair Bolsonaro from seeking public office for the next eight years, removing a top contender from the next presidential contest and dealing a significant blow to the country’s far-right movement.
A majority of the judges in Brazil’s electoral court ruled that Mr. Bolsonaro had violated Brazil’s election laws when, less than three months before last year’s vote, he summoned diplomats to the presidential palace and made baseless claims that the nation’s voting systems were likely to be rigged.
By late Friday morning, four of the court’s seven judges had voted that Mr. Bolsonaro had abused his power as president when he convened the meeting with diplomats. One other judge voted that Mr. Bolsonaro had not abused his power, while two other judges were yet to vote. The ruling was expected to be made final later on Friday.
The decision would be a sharp and swift rebuke of Mr. Bolsonaro and his effort to undermine Brazil’s elections. Just six months ago, Mr. Bolsonaro was president of one of the world’s largest democracies. Now his career as a politician is in jeopardy.
Mr. Bolsonaro, 68, will next be able to run for president in 2030, when he is 75.
Mr. Bolsonaro is expected to appeal the ruling to Brazil’s Supreme Court, though that body acted aggressively to rein in his power during his presidency. He has harshly attacked the court and many of its justices for years, calling some of them “terrorists” and accusing them of trying to sway the vote against him.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s lawyers argued to the electoral court that his speech to diplomats was an “act of government” aimed at raising legitimate concerns about election security.
“Meeting with ambassadors: Is that a crime?” Mr. Bolsonaro told reporters recently. “Foreign policy is the prerogative of the president.”
Even if an appeal is successful, Mr. Bolsonaro would face another 15 cases in the electoral court, including accusations that he improperly used public funds to influence the vote and that his campaign ran a coordinated misinformation campaign. Any of those cases could also block him from seeking the presidency.
He is also linked to several criminal investigations, involving whether he provoked his supporters to raid Brazil’s halls of power on Jan. 8 and whether he was involved in a scheme to falsify his vaccine records. (Mr. Bolsonaro has declined the Covid-19 vaccine.) A conviction in any criminal case would also render him ineligible for office.
Given all the legal challenges, the consensus in Brazil’s political circles is that Mr. Bolsonaro would not likely be able to run for president in 2026.
Even Mr. Bolsonaro seems prepared for that fate. “I’m not going to get desperate,” he told the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo. “What can I do?”
Mr. Bolsonaro was a shock to Brazil’s politics when he was elected president in 2018. A former Army captain and fringe far-right congressman, he rode a populist wave to the presidency on an anti-corruption campaign.
His lone term was marked by controversy from the start, including a sharp rise in deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, a hands-off approach to the pandemic that left nearly 700,000 dead in Brazil and harsh attacks against the press, the judiciary and the left.
But it was his repeated broadsides against Brazil’s voting systems that alarmed many Brazilians, as well as the international community, stoking worries that he might try to hold on to power if he lost last October’s election.
Mr. Bolsonaro did lose by a slim margin and at first refused to concede. Under pressure from allies and rivals, he eventually agreed to a transition to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Yet, after listening to Mr. Bolsonaro’s false claims for years, many Bolsonaro supporters remained convinced that Mr. Lula, a leftist, stole the election. On Jan. 8, a week after Mr. 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 Mr. Bolsonaro as president.
Since then, more evidence has emerged that at least some members of Mr. Bolsonaro’s inner circle were entertaining ideas of a coup. Brazil’s federal police found separate drafts of plans for Mr. Bolsonaro to hold on to power at the home of Mr. Bolsonaro’s justice minister and on the phone of his former assistant.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s attacks on the voting system and the Jan. 8 riot in Brazil bore a striking resemblance to former president Donald J. Trump’s denials that he lost the 2020 election and the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol.
Yet the result for the two former presidents has so far been different. While Mr. Bolsonaro appeared set to be excluded from the next presidential race, Mr. Trump remains the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination. Mr. Trump could also still run for president even if he is convicted of any of the various criminal charges he faces.
The ruling against Mr. Bolsonaro would upend politics in Latin America’s largest nation. For years, he has pulled Brazil’s conservative movement further to the right with harsh rhetoric against rivals, skepticism of science, a love of guns and an embrace of the culture wars.
He received 49.1 percent of the vote in the 2022 election, just 2.1 million votes behind Mr. Lula, in the nation’s closest presidential contest since it returned to democracy in 1985, following a military dictatorship.
Yet conservative leaders in Brazil, with an eye toward Mr. Bolsonaro’s legal challenges, have started to move on, touting Tarcísio Gomes de Freitas, the right-wing governor of Brazil’s largest state, São Paulo, as the new standard-bearer of the right and a 2026 challenger to Mr. Lula.
“He is a much more palatable candidate because he doesn’t have Bolsonaro’s liabilities and because he is making a move to the center,” said Marta Arretche, a political science professor at the University of São Paulo.
The head of the electoral court is Alexandre de Moraes, a Supreme Court justice, who has become one of Brazil’s most powerful men.
During Mr. Bolsonaro’s administration, he acted as perhaps the most effective check on Mr. Bolsonaro’s power, leading investigations into Mr. Bolsonaro or his allies, jailing some of his supporters for what he viewed as threats against Brazil’s institutions and ordering tech companies to remove the accounts of many other right-wing voices.
Those tactics raised concerns that he was abusing his power, and Mr. Bolsonaro and his supporters called Mr. Moraes an authoritarian. On the left, he was praised as the savior of Brazil’s democracy.
Mr. Moraes was scheduled to vote last in Mr. Bolsonaro’s case. Any of the judges could seek to delay an official result for weeks or months. Judges could also change their votes, but were not expected to.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s case in front of the electoral court stemmed from a 47-minute meeting on July 18 in which he called dozens of foreign diplomats to the presidential residence to present what he promised was evidence of fraud in past Brazilian elections.
Mr. Bolsonaro made unfounded claims that Brazil’s voting machines changed ballots for him to other candidates in a previous election and that a 2018 hack of the electoral court’s computer network showed the vote could be rigged. But security experts have said the hackers could never gain access to the voting machines or change votes.
The speech was broadcast on the Brazilian government’s television network and its social media channels. Some tech companies later took the video down because it spread election misinformation.
Yet it was clear that the electoral court’s judges were taking into account the threat Mr. Bolsonaro posed to Brazil’s democracy beyond that single meeting. Benedito Gonçalves, the lead judge on the case, ruled months earlier that the judges should consider the drafts of coup plans found at the home of Mr. Bolsonaro’s justice minister.
As for Mr. Bolsonaro’s future plans if he is convicted? He told Folha de São Paulo that during his three months in Florida this year, he was offered a job as a “poster boy” for American businesses wanting to reach Brazilians.
“I went to a hamburger joint and it filled with people,” he said. “But I don’t want to abandon my country.”
Letícia Casado and Lis Moriconi contributed reporting.