Brazil's presidential campaign kicks off amid violence fears

JUIZ DE FORA, Brazil (AP) — Brazil's presidential election campaign officially began Tuesday with former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva leading all polls against incumbent Jair Bolsonaro amid growing concern of political violence and threats to democracy.

Da Silva, whose two-term presidency ran from 2003 to 2010, has already taken to 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 due to security concerns, according to his campaign. Instead, the leftist launched his seventh bid for the presidency 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 spot 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 plunged unprotected into the thronging crowd.

Creomar de Souza, founder of 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 of his first presidential run in 1989 and hinting at his legacy. De Souza added that he expects candidates to attack one another more than present plans for voters.

“I want this election to end as soon as possible with Lula winning it, so there’s less risk of violence and more talk about the future,” Vanderlei Cláudio, a metalworker, said at the event.

Bolsonaro's return to the site of his stabbing is an attempt to invoke the same outsider profile that enabled the seven-term lawmaker to cruise to victory in 2018, said Maurício Santoro, a political 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 that narrative," said Santoro. "For him and his supporters, the man who stabbed him was not a ‘lone wolf’, but part of a conspiracy of the political elite against Bolsonaro.”

The race in Latin America's largest democracy is a clash of titans, with all other candidates lagging far behind. Both have been publicly rallying supporters for months, although they hadn't been permitted by the electoral authority to ask for votes nor air ads. So far, no debates between da Silva and Bolsonaro have been scheduled.

“It's impossible not to be moved, returning to this city,” Bolsonaro told the crowd in Juiz de Fora, where people were patted down before being allowed past metal barriers to approach the president's stage. “The memory that I carry with me is of a rebirth. My life was spared by our creator.”

After his speech, Bolsonaro made a speedy exit standing on the bed of a truck, waving to the crowd while tightly encircled by security personnel.

Despite the 2018 attempt on Bolsonaro's life, recent events have caused greater concern his supporters could engage in attacks. Bolsonaro backers surrounded da Silva’s car to hurl verbal abuse earlier this year, and in July one of them killed a local official of da Silva's Workers’ Party in the city of Foz de Iguaçu.

Da Silva's supporters have also been targeted. At a rally in June, a drone sprayed a crowd with a fetid 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 AP.

“Lula cancelled his first event due to security risks, and that kind of thing has taken over all camps. I don’t think Bolsonaro runs the same risk, but he was stabbed last time,” said Carlos Melo, a political science professor at Insper University in Sao Paulo. “These terrible events are now part of Brazil’s elections, and that matters.”

Bolsonaro is a staunch pro-gun advocate and has loosened restrictions, enabling his supporters to stock up on firearms and munitions. At the launch of his candidacy on July 24, he asked supporters to swear they would give their lives for freedom, and has repeatedly characterized the race as a battle of good versus evil. His wife, Michelle, said at that same event that the presidential palace had been consecrated to demons before her husband assumed office.

In Sao Bernardo do Campo, da Silva rattled off the Bolsonaro administration’s failings during the COVID-19 pandemic — which a Senate investigation found contributed to the world's second-highest death toll — then said, “If there’s anyone possessed by the devil, it’s that Bolsonaro.”

Bolsonaro's supporters frequently cite da Silva's 580 days of imprisonment after he was found guilty of corruption and money laundering. Those convictions ejected da Silva from the 2018 race and cleared the way for Bolsonaro. They were first annulled on procedural grounds by the Supreme Court, which later ruled the judge had been biased and colluded with prosecutors.

Trailing in the polls, Bolsonaro, a former army captain, has sowed concern that he could reject results if he loses the October vote. The far-right leader has raised unfounded doubts about the nation's electronic voting system in use since 1996, notably in a meeting he called with foreign diplomats. His insistence elicited a reaction last week from hundreds of companies and over a million Brazilians who signed a pair of letters demanding the nation's democratic institutions be respected.

When Bolsonaro's candidacy was confirmed, he called on supporters to flood the streets for Sept. 7 independence day celebrations. 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 he is setting the stage to follow the lead of former U.S. President Donald Trump and attempt 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 should condemn political violence and call on their supporters to respect the right of Brazilians to peacefully elect their representatives and to run for office without fear,” it said.

In the evening, da Silva and Bolsonaro met in the capital city of Brasilia at the innauguration of the new president of Brazil's electoral court, Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes. He will oversee October's vote, and also chairs a probe into false news that has hit many allies of the president.

Moraes is also a staunch supporter of the country's electronic voting system.

“We are the only democracy in the world that tallies and presents election results on the same day, with agility, security, competence, transparency. That’s a cause for national pride,” Moraes said before several applauding candidates and authorities. Bolsonaro, instead, stood still. ___ Savarese reported from Sao Bernardo do Campo. Associated Press writer David Biller in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.

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