Bolsonaro, Lula go on offensive in Brazilian presidential debate

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Right-wing President Bolsonaro has trailed behind left-wing former leader Lula in polls ahead of the October elections.

Right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro and left-wing former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva both went on the offensive during the first presidential debate of Brazil’s election season.

The televised Sunday night event, which included six of the country’s 12 presidential candidates, saw Bolsonaro portray Lula as a corrupt former politician seeking to regain power, while Lula, who was president from 2003 to 2010, accused his right-wing opponent of driving the country’s economic progress into the ground.

In his opening remarks, Bolsonaro called Lula a “thief” and highlighted the so-called “Car Wash” scandal, a pay-for-play scheme that allegedly involved kickbacks to politicians and officials of the majority-state-owned Petrobas oil company in exchange for lucrative contracts.

Lula, who has maintained his innocence, was controversially convicted in 2017 of money laundering and corruption in connection with the scheme but was released from prison in 2019. The country’s Supreme Court annulled the conviction in 2021.

“Your government was the most corrupt in Brazilian history,” 67-year-old Bolsonaro said during the televised debate.

“It was a kleptocracy, a government based on robbery … What do you want to come back to power for? To do the same thing to Petrobras again?” he added.

Lula responded that Bolsonaro was spreading “untruths” and, in turn, accused the president of mishandling the country and undoing years of economic growth and anti-poverty initiatives.

“This country has been destroyed,” Lula said, citing increased poverty and hunger, soaring prices and a surge in destruction in the Amazon rainforest.

Bolsonaro also bore the brunt of attacks from less prominent candidates, with Senator Simone Tebet, who is running for the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement party, seizing on the right-wing president’s repeated efforts to cast doubt on the Brazilian election system, which some have argued is setting the groundwork for him to follow in the footsteps of US President Donald Trump and challenge the presidential election results.

“We have a president who threatens democracy. We need to change the president,” said Tebet, who also highlighted Bolsonaro’s downplaying of the coronavirus pandemic and spreading of misinformation related to vaccines, which included falsely suggesting that COVID-19 vaccines could raise the chance of developing AIDS.

But while the proceedings saw some tense moments, none of the candidates appeared to score a decisive victory.

Lula entered the event leading Bolsonaro in opinion polls 47 percent to 32 percent but delivered a staid performance that seemed to wane as the night went on.

Bolsonaro, meanwhile, sparked the latest bout of outrage by lashing out at moderator Vera Magalhaes after she referenced his vaccine disinformation.

“Vera, you think about me in your sleep, you must have a crush on me or something,” he said.

“You can’t take part in a debate like this and spread lies and accusations about me. You’re an embarrassment to Brazilian journalism.”

Social media users swiftly accused Bolsonaro of misogyny.

Voters will head to the polls in October, following a campaign season that Human Rights Watch has warned “is likely to be a critical test for democracy and the rule of law in the country and in Latin America”.

If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of valid votes in the first round on October 2, the election will go to a runoff on October 30.

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