Bolsonaro in Brasilia on May 5, 2021.
São Paulo, Brazil CNN  — 

As Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro falls further and further behind in the polls, his unsupported claim that the 2022 elections could be rigged have only increased in fervor and frequency. But those freewheeling statements have now sparked investigations that could threaten his very eligibility to run as a presidential candidate at all.

After a series of claims by Bolsonaro that the country’s electronic voting system is insufficient and that it has been “violated” in past years, Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court (TSE), which oversees elections, has opened an administrative inquiry into the president’s statements. It has also requested that Bolsonaro be investigated as part of a larger ongoing probe into the proliferation of “fake news” and disinformation campaigns in Brazil. Both could come with significant political consequences for Bolsonaro.

If the TSE inquiry finds that the president abused his position to spread misinformation, Bolsonaro could be barred from running for office for eight years, according to Wallace Corbo, professor of constitutional law at Getúlio Vargas Foundation University (FGV).

“As president, Bolsonaro is allowed and expected to take part in public discussions,” Corbo said. “What he cannot do – and has been doing – is systematically attack the electoral system by which he was elected.”

In a press conference last week, Bolsonaro promised to prove that Brazil´s internationally praised voting system is rigged, but provided no evidence and acknowledged, “we don’t have proof.” He only played a series of inconclusive YouTube videos and media reports, examples that Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court (TSE) refuted.

This week, he doubled-down on his attempts to foster doubts about the electoral system, tweeting confidential documents from a 2018 federal investigation that Bolsonaro claims show the country’s voting system was “violated.”

But according to the TSE, which has repeatedly rebutted Bolsonaro’s claims about election-rigging, the hacking episode did not result in fraud. “It is worth reiterating that electronic voting machines are never networked. As they are not connected to the internet, they are not subject to remote access, which prevents any kind of external interference in the voting and counting process. For this reason, it is possible to say, with a margin of certainty, that the investigated invasion had no impact on the outcome of the elections,” the court said in a statement.

In response to the court’s decision to investigate him, the President has insisted that his concern is purely about the elections’ integrity, and said that he “won’t accept [any] intimidation.”

“Questionable elections will not be permitted next year. Brazil will have an election next year. Clean, democratic elections,” Bolsonaro said.

Nevertheless, his repeated attacks on the current systems have raised concerns that the incumbent is preparing to reject unfavorable results.

During a YouTube livestream on Thursday, Bolsonaro – who has repeatedly insisted on the need to audit ballots with paper records – said he would not ask to audit the 2022 elections if he emerges victorious. “Any side can question the elections. If I win I won’t question them … I won’t waste my time,” he said.

A Datafolha poll from July 7 and 8 currently shows Bolsonaro more than 20 points behind his main opponent, former leftwing president Lula da Silva, in a first round of voting.

Electronic voting

Bolsonaro’s comments have particularly targeted electronic voting, warning that his supporters may not accept the results of the current system. Brazil has had fully computerized elections since 2000 and the TSE has identified no fraud since then.

“If this method continues, they’re going to have problems,” the President said in a July radio interview, according to Reuters. “Because one side, which is our side, may not accept the result.”

Earlier this year, in the wake of the January 6 Capitol riot in Washington, Bolsonaro claimed that Brazil could face even worse repercussions if it doesn’t implement paper ballots. “If Brazil doesn’t have a printed vote in 2022, a way of auditing the vote, we will have a worse problem than the US,” he told supporters in front of the Alvorada Palace in Brasilia then.

(Electronic voting systems can however be audited, as they were when 2014 presidential candidate Aecio Neves demanded a recount after losing to Dilma Rousseff. The audit, which took one year, confirmed Rousseff’s victory.)

In an interview with CNN Brasil on Wednesday, Brazilian parliamentary leader and Bolsonaro ally Arthur Lira said that he trusts electronic voting machines, but that he would support changing legislation about voting procedure in order to increase public trust, including the potential use of the printed vote system.

But some election officials fear Bolsonaro’s claims may have already damaged public confidence in the upcoming vote. “The threat against elections, polluting the public debate with disinformation, lies, hatred and conspiracy theories is an anti-democratic behavior,” wrote TSE President Luis Barroso this week.

Bolsonaro nevertheless argues that even in his role as president, he has the “right to criticize” electoral processes – wrong or not. “The TSE has taken certain steps to investigate and accuse me of undemocratic acts,” Bolsonaro responded in an interview with the radio program Jovem Pan on Wednesday. “I can be wrong, but I have the right to criticize. We are not wrong. We didn’t make mistakes!”