JUIZ DE FORA, Brazil –
Brazil’s presidential election campaign officially kicked off on Tuesday with former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva leading all polls against incumbent Jair Bolsonaro amid growing concern about political violence and threats to democracy.
Da Silva, whose two-term presidency ran from 2003 to 2010, has already made a habit of wearing a bulletproof vest for public appearances. He was scheduled to speak at an engine factory Tuesday morning, but federal police officers asked him to cancel the event for security reasons, according to his campaign. Instead, the leftist launched his seventh presidential bid at a Volkswagen plant in Sao Bernardo do Campo, a manufacturing city outside Sao Paulo where he rose to fame as a union leader in the 1970s.
Bolsonaro revisited the place in the city of Juiz de Fora where he was stabbed by a mentally ill man on the campaign trail in 2018. He arrived on a motorcycle surrounded by security guards and wearing a bulletproof vest, unlike in 2018 when he launched without crowd protection. crew.
Creomar de Souza, founder of the political risk consultancy Dharma Politics, told The Associated Press that da Silva’s visit to an auto plant is typical of Brazilian symbolism, evoking nostalgia for his first presidential bid in 1989 and hinting at his legacy. De Souza added that he expects the candidates to attack each other rather than present plans to voters.
“I want this election to end as soon as possible with Lula winning it, so there is less risk of violence and more talk about the future,” Vanderlei Claudio, a 32-year-old metalworker, said at the event.
And Bolsonaro’s return to the scene of his stabbing is an attempt to invoke the same external profile that allowed the seven-term lawmaker to sail to victory in 2018, said Mauricio Santoro, a political science professor at Rio de Janeiro State University.
“For Bolsonaro, this is the image of himself as a rebellious and anti-establishment candidate, and the attack on his life is central to that narrative,” Santoro said. “For him and his supporters, the man who stabbed him was not a ‘lone wolf,’ but part of a political elite conspiracy against Bolsonaro.”
The contest in Latin America’s largest democracy is a clash of titans, with all other candidates far behind. Both have been publicly rallying their supporters for months, although the electoral authority had not allowed them to solicit votes or advertise on the air. So far, no debates between da Silva and Bolsonaro have yet been scheduled.
“It’s impossible not to be moved, to return to this city,” Bolsonaro told the crowd in Juiz de Fora, where people were frisked before being allowed past metal barriers to get closer to the president’s stage. “The memory I carry with me is that of a rebirth. Our creator spared my life.”
After his speech, Bolsonaro made a quick exit while standing in the back of a truck, waving to the crowd while closely surrounded by security personnel.
Despite the attempt on Bolsonaro’s life in 2018, recent events have caused increased concern that his supporters may engage in attacks. Bolsonaro supporters surrounded da Silva’s car to hurl insults earlier this year, and in July, one of them killed a local official from da Silva’s Workers’ Party in the city of Foz do Iguaçu.
Da Silva’s supporters have also come under attack; at one rally in June, a drone sprayed a crowd with a foul-smelling liquid, and at another last month, a man detonated a homemade explosive containing feces. The assailants in both cases were Bolsonaro supporters, according to social media posts reviewed by the AP.
“Lula canceled his first event due to security risks, and that kind of thing has taken over all the fields. I don’t think Bolsonaro runs the same risk, but last time he was stabbed,” said Carlos Melo, a political science professor. at the Insper University of São Paulo. “These terrible events are now part of the Brazilian elections, and that matters.”
Bolsonaro is a staunch supporter of guns and has loosened restrictions, allowing his supporters to stock up on firearms and ammunition. At the launch of his candidacy on July 24, he asked his supporters to swear they would give their lives for freedom, and has repeatedly characterized the contest as a battle of good versus evil. Her wife, Michelle, said at the same event that the presidential palace had been consecrated to demons before her husband took office.
In Sao Bernardo do Campo, da Silva recited the failures of the Bolsonaro administration during the COVID-19 pandemic, which according to a Senate investigation contributed to the second highest death toll in the world, then said: “If there is someone possessed by the devil, it’s that Bolsonaro.”
Bolsonaro’s supporters frequently cite da Silva’s 580 days in prison after he was convicted of corruption and money laundering. Those convictions kicked da Silva out of the 2018 race and cleared the way for Bolsonaro; They were first overturned on procedural grounds by the Supreme Court, which later ruled that the judge had been biased and in cahoots with prosecutors.
Trailing in the polls, the former army captain has raised concerns that he could reject the results if he loses the October vote. The far-right leader raised unfounded doubts about the nation’s electronic voting system in use since 1996, especially in a meeting he convened with foreign diplomats. His insistence provoked a reaction last week from hundreds of companies and more than a million Brazilians who signed a couple of letters demanding that the nation’s democratic institutions be respected.
When Bolsonaro’s candidacy was confirmed, he called on his supporters to flood the streets for independence day celebrations on September 7. On that date last year, he declared before tens of thousands of supporters that only God can remove him from power. Analysts have repeatedly expressed concern that he is setting the stage to follow the example of former US President Donald Trump and try to cling to power.
Human Rights Watch said Monday that the campaign “is likely to be a critical test for democracy and the rule of law in the country and in Latin America.”
“Candidates must condemn political violence and call on their supporters to respect the right of Brazilians to peacefully elect their representatives and run for public office without fear,” he said.
Savarese reported from Sao Bernardo do Campo. AP reporter David Biller contributed from Rio de Janeiro.