Brazil’s presidential campaign begins amid fears of violence

JUIZ DE FORA, Brazil (AP) – Brazil’s presidential campaign officially kicked off on Tuesday with former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva topping all polls against incumbent Jair Bolsonaro amid growing concerns about political violence and threats to democracy.

Da Silva, whose two-year presidency ran from 2003 to 2010, has already made a commitment to wearing a bulletproof vest to public appearances. He was scheduled to speak at an engine factory on Tuesday morning, but federal officers asked him to cancel the event over security concerns, according to his campaign. Instead, the left is launching his seventh run for the presidency at a Volkswagen plant in Sao Bernardo do Campo, an industrial town outside Sao Paulo where he rose to fame as a union leader in the 1970s.

Bolsonaro revisited the intersection in the town of Juiz de Fora, where he was stabbed to death by a mentally ill man on the campaign trail in 2018. He arrived on a motorbike surrounded by security guards and wearing a bulletproof vest, unlike in 2018 when he launched himself unprotected into the throbbing crowd. He shook hands as he walked to the raised stage to address her.

Creomar de Souza, founder of political risk consultancy Dharma Politics, said da Silva’s visit to an automaker was typical of Brazilian symbolism.

“Lula evokes a certain nostalgia, elements of his first bid in 1989 that point to a legacy left by his presidency,” de Souza told The Associated Press.

And Bolsonaro’s return to the scene of his stabbing is an attempt to conjure up the same underdog profile he projected after the corruption revelations that rocked the nation and enabled the seven-year lawmaker to ride to victory in 2018, said Maurício Santoro, a politician and science professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.

“For Bolsonaro, this is the image of himself as a rebel, anti-system candidate, and the attack on his life is central to this narrative,” Santoro said. “For him and his supporters, the man who stabbed him was not a ‘lone wolf’ but part of a conspiracy by the political elite against Bolsonaro.”

The race in Latin America’s largest democracy is a battle of titans, with all other candidates lagging far behind. The two frontrunners are household names, as virtually all Brazilians are familiar with them, according to the latest poll by polling firm Datafolha last month. Both have been publicly soliciting supporters for months, although they have not been allowed by the electoral authority to solicit votes or broadcast advertisements. So far, no debates between da Silva and Bolsonaro have been scheduled.

“It’s impossible not to be moved and to come back to this city,” Bolsonaro told the crowd in Juiz de Fora, where people were frisked before being allowed past metal barriers to the president’s stage. “The memory I carry with me is that of rebirth. My life was spared by our Creator.”

After his speech, Bolsonaro made a quick exit while standing in the back of a truck and waving to the crowd while being tightly surrounded by security personnel.

Despite the attack on Bolsonaro in 2018, recent events have raised concerns that his supporters are more likely to be involved in attacks. Bolsonaro supporters surrounded da Silva’s car to spread abuse earlier this year, and in July one of them killed a local da Silva Labor Party official in the town of Foz de Iguaçu.

Da Silva’s supporters were also targeted; At a rally in June, a drone sprayed a crowd with a stinky liquid, and at another last month, a man detonated a homemade explosive containing feces. The attackers in both cases were Bolsonaro supporters, according to social media posts verified by the AP.

“Lula canceled his first event due to safety concerns and something like that took over all the camps. I don’t think Bolsonaro is taking the same risk, but last time he was stabbed,” said Carlos Melo, a political science professor at Insper University in Sao Paulo. “These terrible events are now part of the elections in Brazil and that matters.”

A staunch supporter of guns, Bolsonaro has eased restrictions during his tenure to allow his supporters to stock up on guns and ammunition. He has repeatedly described the race as a battle between good and evil and, at the launch of his candidacy on July 24, asked supporters to swear they would give their lives for freedom.

His supporters often cite da Silva’s 580-day prison sentence after he was found guilty of corruption and money laundering. These beliefs knocked da Silva out of the race in 2018 and paved the way for Bolsonaro; they were initially canceled for procedural reasons by the Supreme Court, which later ruled that the judge had been biased and cooperating with prosecutors.

The former army captain, who is trailing again in the polls, has raised concerns that he could reject the results if he loses the vote in October. The far-right leader has expressed unfounded doubts about the country’s electronic voting system, which has been in use since 1996, particularly at a meeting he called with foreign diplomats. His persistence prompted a response from hundreds of companies and over a million Brazilians last week who signed a pair of letters demanding that the nation’s democratic institutions be respected.

When Bolsonaro’s candidacy was confirmed, he urged supporters to flood the streets for the September 7 Independence Day celebrations. On this day last year, he declared to tens of thousands of supporters that only God could remove him from power. Analysts have repeatedly expressed concern that he is setting the stage to follow former US President Donald Trump‘s lead in trying to hold on to power.

For this year’s Independence Day, Bolsonaro announced his plan for the military to parade along Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach, where his die-hard supporters make regular appearances. Experts are concerned about the signal that could be sent ahead of the election and it remains unclear whether the armed forces are ready to go along with it.

Human Rights Watch said Monday that the campaign “is likely to be a critical test of democracy and the rule of law in the country and in Latin America.” The nonprofit organization accused Bolsonaro of “undermining trust in the electoral system by claiming, without providing evidence, that it is unreliable.”

“Candidates should condemn political violence and call on their supporters to respect the right of Brazilians to peacefully elect their representatives and run for office without fear,” it said. ___

Savarese reported from Sao Bernardo do Campo. AP writer David Biller contributed from Rio de Janeiro.

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