Campaigning in Brazil’s most important election for years formally gets under way this week amid fears of political violence on the campaign trail and possible turmoil before and after the October ballots.
A former army captain, Bolsonaro has sharpened his rhetoric in recent weeks, telling foreign diplomats that Brazil’s electronic voting system is not reliable and ordering army officers to monitor the source code used in more than half a million ballot boxes.
His supporters have attacked two Lula rallies in recent weeks, throwing faeces, urine and a crude explosive device at Lula backers, as well as shooting dead one prominent Workers’ party official in the western city of Foz de Iguacu.
Politicians and poll watchers fear that political violence will only escalate ahead of the 2 October elections for president, congress and 27 state governors.
“There is real reason for concern because even though political violence has been a fact of life here for years the situation today has been exacerbated by the way Bolsonaro has promoted violent discourse as a way to resolve political conflicts,” said Pablo Nunes, head of the CESeC thinktank.
On the national stage, Lula’s security details have requested more manpower to deal with the threats and the 76-year-old now wears a bulletproof vest at public events. His campaign kicks off this week with rallies in São Paulo and Belo Horizonte.
Ironically, the most prominent victim of violence in recent years is Bolsonaro, who was stabbed at a campaign event in September 2018just weeks before the election that brought him to power.
He spent three weeks in hospital and was forced to undergo surgeries as a result of the attack, carried out by a lone assailant with mental health problems.
The incident, though, did not temper his outlook.
The former army captain was already notorious for his love of weapons and his close links to the military, where he served for 15 years. One of his trademark moves is to make a gun with his thumb and index finger and he once joked he would like to “strafe” members of the Workers’ party.
It was only weeks after taking power that his justice minister sought to reduce punishment for law enforcement officials who killed suspects while acting with “excusable fear, surprise or violent emotion”.
The wording was removed from the eventual bill but under Bolsonaro’s watch congress has passed 20 different measures making it easier to buy weapons. In the first two years of his government alone the number of gun licenses issued in Brazil rose by 65% to more than 1m, according to the NGO Instituto Sou da Paz.
Bolsonaro, a former paratrooper, has also spent much of the last year undermining the electoral system, repeating baseless claims about the reliability of Brazil’s electronic ballot boxes and insulting the judges who preside over the supreme electoral court, which organizes the election and sanctions results.
He has hinted at the possibility of closing congress and in May told evangelical voters that “Only God can remove me” – a comment that prompted fears of a Trump-like insurrection if the vote goes against him.
“There is good reason to fear a possible Brazilian January 6 kind of situation,” said Nunes. “The conditions are there for this to happen.”
Although Bolsonaro has the backing of many in the military, it is unclear whether the top brass would support any attempt to subvert the democratic process.
Bolsonaro, though, is obviously preparing his supporters for action. Last week he told agricultural leaders, “Buy your guns! It’s in the Bible!”
“He is doing it to focus attention away from the country’s real problems and frighten the opposition, as well as to keep his militant base charged,” said Felipe Borba, the coordinator of a political violence thinktank at Rio’s Unirio university.
“It’s also done to prepare his side for a violent reaction if they lose.”
Borba said Bolsonaro wants to accumulate chips for the high-stakes poker game that will come after the election, which will go to a runoff on 30 October if no candidate gets a majority on 2 October.
A congressional inquiry into his disastrous handling of the pandemic – 680,000 Brazilians perished from the Covid-19 virus, more than any other country outside the United States – accused the president of nine offences, including crimes against humanity. He also faces charges related to his spread of fake news.
If he loses, he could face jail time and those close to the president said he is terrified at the prospect. Borba believes the sabre-rattling is a tactic aimed “at gaining power in any possible amnesty negotiation for him and his family. He needs to show strength.”
Bolsonaro continues to trail in the polls with one study this week giving Lula a 12-point leadalthough the gap has narrowed slightly in recent weeks.
Lula remains the favorite but Bolsonaro has the government machine at his disposal and has already increased the amount of monthly aid handouts given to 18 million of Brazil’s poorest families.
Whether that will be enough to close the gap remains to be seen but political analysts said the incumbent can win only by taking votes directly from Lula.
“If he keeps growing by consolidating votes from those who in theory should be voting for him, the kind of people who hate Lula more than anything and who were maybe not entirely happy with his government, then that won’t change the game,” said Vítor Oliveira, a political scientist with the Pulso Público consultancy.
“He needs to take votes from Lula to win; there is no other way.”