By Gabriel Stargardter and Lisandra Paraguassu
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) -Brazil’s political leaders lined up on Thursday to stress next year’s presidential election is certain to take place, after a bombshell newspaper report that Brazil’s defense minister had issued a threat about holding the highly polarized vote.
The Estado de S. Paulo story landed at a fraught time in Brazil, amid repeated – and unfounded – allegations by President Jair Bolsonaro that the country’s electronic voting system is vulnerable to fraud.
With his popularity falling after overseeing the world’s second deadliest coronavirus outbreak, the far-right former army captain is pushing to replace the system with printed ballots, but the bill has not gained much traction in Congress.
Critics allege that Bolsonaro, like his idol, former U.S. President Donald Trump, is sowing election doubts to pave the way for him not to accept any loss. Opinion polls show he trails former leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, although neither of them has officially announced their candidacy yet.
In its story, Estado de S. Paulo reported that Defense Minister Walter Braga Netto, a former army general, had told powerful House Speaker Arthur Lira via an interlocutor that the 2022 election would not take place unless printed ballots were used. Reuters was unable to independently verify the story, which cited anonymous sources.
Both Lira and Braga Netto denied the report.
Lira, who serves as a crucial bulwark against the multiple impeachment proceedings Bolsonaro faces, tweeted that Brazilians will vote next year in a “secret and sovereign” election.
His Senate counterpart Rodrigo Pacheco also assured Brazilians that the 2022 election will take place, either with printed or electronic ballots.
Brazil’s vice president, former army general Hamilton Mourao, said it was “logical” the vote would take place.
“Who’s going to prohibit an election in Brazil?” he said. “We’re not a banana republic.”
Braga Netto, speaking at an event in Brasilia, said the armed forces were committed to democracy and freedom.
In a statement released by the Defense Ministry, Braga Netto said “the discussion about auditable electronic voting through printed proof is legitimate,” adding that he believed “all citizens desire the utmost transparency and legitimacy” in the electoral process.
Bolsonaro, speaking in a weekly live video address on social media, declined to address the allegations in the story, referring people to the Defense Ministry statement. He said there needed to be elections but said they must be clean and transparent for people to have faith in the result.
The Estado de S. Paulo defended its reporting.
Joao Caminoto, director of news for the media group that runs the paper, tweeted: “I consider it important to reaffirm in full the contents of the published report.”
Bolsonaro has said https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/brazils-bolsonaro-says-may-not-accept-2022-election-under-current-voting-system-2021-07-07 he may not accept the result of an election using electronic voting in 2022.
“There will be printed ballots, because if there are no printed ballots, this is a sign that there will be no election. The message is clear,” Bolsonaro said earlier this month.
The news story resonated in Brazil, where an anti-communist coup in 1964 led to 21 years of military rule.
Bolsonaro has stocked his administration with current and former military officials. Many in Brazil wonder what path the armed forces, who bristled under leftist Lula governments, would take if the president were to reject the elections results.
“In a democracy, it is not the military who decides if there will or will not be an election but the constitution which they have sworn to defend and obey,” said lawmaker Marcelo Ramos, vice-president of the lower house, in a note.
Brazil’s electoral court has repeatedly denied that the system is vulnerable to fraud or that there is evidence of fraud in previous elections, and Bolsonaro has yet to provide proof to back up his claims.
(Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu, writing by Carolina Mandl, Stephen Eisenhammer and Gabriel Stargardter, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Richard Pullin)