Campaign chaos: stabbing of candidate in Brazil’s presidential election could reshape race

Jair Bolsonaro may be out of action for two months, missing crucial campaign time, but his son insists the incident has given his father a boost

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 September, 2018, 7:30pm
UPDATED : Friday, 07 September, 2018, 10:33pm

The run-up to a presidential election in Brazil was plunged into chaos on Friday after a knife attack on far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro put the front runner in intensive care just a month before the vote.

Congressman Bolsonaro, who has enraged some Brazilians with controversial comments but has a devout following among conservative voters, could take two months to recover and will spend at least a week in hospital, said Dr Luiz Henrique Borsato, who operated on the candidate.

“His internal wounds were grave and put the patient’s life at risk,” Borsato said. The challenge now is preventing infection that could result from the perforation of Bolsonaro’s intestines, he said.

On Friday, Bolsonaro was moved from Santa Casa hospital in the southeastern city of Juiz de Fora to one in Sao Paulo.

The attack on Bolsonaro, 63, is a twist in what was already Brazil’s most unpredictable election since it returned to democracy three decades ago. Corruption investigations have jailed scores of businessmen and politicians in recent years, and alienated voters.

There were concerns about violence flaring across the country on Friday, as the nation celebrates Independence Day with political groups expected to march in hundreds of cities. Bolsonaro’s rival candidates called off campaign activities for the day following the stabbing.

Under Brazil’s campaign laws, Bolsonaro’s tiny coalition has almost no campaign time on government-regulated candidate ad blocs on television and radio, so Bolsonaro relies on social media and rallies around the country to drum up support. Not being able to go out in the streets could affect his campaign.

But Flavio Bolsonaro, the candidate’s son, said earlier on Friday outside the hospital where his father was that the attack was a political boost.

“I just want to send a message to the thugs who tried to ruin the life of a family man, a guy who is the hope for millions of Brazilians: you just elected him president. He will win in the first round,” he said.

The retired army captain is running as the law-and-order candidate and has positioned himself as the anti-politician, though he has spent nearly three decades in Congress.

He has long espoused taking a radical stance on public security in Brazil, which United Nations statistics showed has more murders than any other country.

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Bolsonaro, whose trademark pose at rallies is a “guns up” gesture with both hands to make them resemble pistols, has said he would encourage police to kill suspected drug gang members and other armed criminals with abandon.

He has openly praised Brazil’s military dictatorship and in the past said it should have killed more people.

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But Bolsonaro also faces trial before the Supreme Court for speech prosecutors claim incited hate and rape. He calls the charges politically motivated.

His stabbing is the latest instance of political violence in the country – especially at a local level.

In the months before the 2016 city council elections in Baixada Fluminense, a region the size of Denmark surrounding Rio de Janeiro, at least 13 politicians or candidates were murdered before ballots were cast.

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And earlier this year, Marielle Franco, a Rio city councilwoman who was an outspoken critic of police violence against slum residents, was assassinated.

But violence is rare against national political figures, even in the extremely heated political climate that has engulfed Brazil in recent years.

The Federal Police in a statement said its officers were escorting Bolsonaro at the time of the knife attack and that the “aggressor” was caught in the act. It said the circumstances were being investigated.

Police in Juiz de Fora said the suspect, Adelio Bispo de Oliveira, 40, was in custody and appeared to be mentally disturbed.

“Our agents there said the attacker said he was ‘on a mission from God’,” said Luis Boudens, president of the National Federation of Federal Police. “Their impression is that they were not dealing with a mentally stable person.”

Supporters outside the hospital in Juiz de Fora where Bolsonaro was being treated included Bruno Engler, 21, who is running for a Minas Gerais state congressional seat for the candidate’s Social Liberal Party. He said if he could, he would lynch the suspect.

“They call us on the right the intolerant, the violent ones, but those who are intolerant and violent are them,” Engler said, referring to left-wing voters.

Additional reporting by Associated Press, Agence France-Presse