A former clown who is expected to win a seat in Brazil's congress when the country goes to the polls on Sunday will be prevented from taking office until he passes a test proving that he can read and write, a judge in Sao Paulo has ruled. Francisco Silva, a circus performer turned TV comedian who is better known by his stage name "Tiririca" – the colloquial Portuguese word for "grumpy" – is accused of being among the one in 10 of his countrymen who are virtually illiterate.
The allegation could prevent him sitting in congress, even though polls suggest that he will win more votes than any other candidate, since (for mostly practical reasons) the Brazilian constitution requires all of the nation's politicians to be able to read.
It marks the latest twist in an extraordinary political odyssey which began when Silva decided to join a string of celebrities and former sportsmen, such as the World Cup-winning footballer Romario, among the 6,000 people standing for one of the 513 seats in the country's lower house of parliament.
What started out as a joke quickly turned serious when tens of millions of people began watching satirical campaign adverts on YouTube, in which he dances around in a multicoloured outfit repeating slogans such as: "It can't get any worse!" and "What does a federal deputy do? Truly, I don't know. But vote for me and you'll find out!"
The adverts have struck a chord with voters, who are increasingly disillusioned with mainstream politicians following a string of corruption scandals. Opinion polls suggest that Silva is now on course to get more than a million votes, which would make him the most successful candidate in the election.
Silva's working-class background – he was brought up in the impoverished north-eastern state of Ceara – at first seemed to add to his populist allure. But as his stock has risen, so has the volume of public speculation about his literacy.
On Sunday, news magazine Epoca reported that people who have worked with Silva on his TV shows, and collaborated on a book credited to him, say he cannot read or write. A video on the publication's website showed an interview in which a reporter asked Silva to read from a sheet of questions about public policy. Visibly shaken, he began stammering; eventually aides were summoned to read them for him.
Silva's official campaign has refused to comment on the controversy. However, a federal prosecutor in Sao Paolo asked the country's electoral court to intervene. In a statement, the court said that Silva will still be allowed to stand in Sunday's election. But before he is sworn into office, he will be required to publicly take a literacy test to settle the matter once and for all.