Brazil’s Election Enters Uncharted Territory

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The attack last Friday on Brazilian far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who was stabbed in the stomach during a rally and hospitalized in critical condition, has thrown an unpredictable election even further into uncharted territory.

How the brazen act will play out in the Oct. 7 vote is anyone’s guess. Some analysts reckon that Bolsonaro, who has led the field but also turned off many voters with his choleric rants and insults to gays, women and minority groups, will reap sympathy votes. The bump could guarantee him the top slot in the the first round and make him the man to beat for the runoff later in the month. On the other hand, his forced absence from the race — he’s due for more major surgery and will likely have to lay low for at least a month — could scramble all campaign signals as his rivals recalibrate their messages.

Optimists even suggested that shock over the savage act — by a lone attacker with a carving knife while Bolsonaro was borne on his supporters’ shoulders in a crowded rally — would restore civility to a race that has set friend against friend, and turned into a social media shouting match.

In this happier version, a more contrite Bolsonaro, having just skirted death, might even dial back the belligerent law-and-order shtick that has won him such an enthusiastic following.

But the former military captain and guns-for-all advocate doesn’t do humble: Just 24 hours after being rushed to the operating theater, wearing a blue hospital gown and tethered to a ventilator, he brandished both hands six-shooter style, thumbs cocked over forefingers — the cowboy gesture that has become his campaign signature. 

As reckless as that pose sounds, it owes more to tactics than to testosterone. Bolsonaro isn’t daft enough to jettison the attitude that set him apart from Brazil’s tarnished legacy politicians, threw his rivals off balance and juiced his base. What better way to show he’s still the sheriff than by doubling down even while convalescing?

His rivals have a tougher choice. Until last week, they had chipped away at his advantage by going negative. Soft-left environmentalist candidate Marina Silva dressed him down in a televised debate for his indifference to women receiving less pay than their male peers for equal work, and promptly lit up social media. Though favored by just 11 percent of voters, well behind Bolsonaro’s 24 percent in Monday’s Datafolha poll, Silva knew that the number of women saying they would never vote for him has spiked. Social Democracy Party hopeful Geraldo Alckmin also drew plaudits for a clever campaign spot tracing in slow-motion the ravages of a speeding bullet. The takeaway: Guns can’t solve hunger, poverty and failing classrooms.

But going aggressive against a bedridden rival is no longer an option. The dilemma now: how to show compassion for the wounded Bolsonaro without normalizing bolsonarismo. That imperative has shifted the race to shaky new ground, and the candidates’ responses may well determine the election. Bolsonaro’s party hacks are already spinning the wounded warrior trope, falsely spreading the word that leftist conspirators — and not a deranged loner — were behind the attack.

Yet the upheaval in the campaign is also an opportunity for candidates and voters. Until now, Bolsonaro has managed to make himself the race’s lightning rod, drawing much of the political current his way and energizing the campaign with his agenda.

That strategy will be hard to maintain from a hospital ward, and his physical absence from the campaign — no triumphant airport arrivals with shouting acolytes — creates an air hole for other much neglected issues to surface.

Sunday night’s televised debate offered a glimpse of that possibility, as candidates squared off for their first exchange without the frontrunner. True, Bolsonaro dominated the exchange’s first segment. Rival candidates gingerly plumped for peace and reconciliation before an empty lectern — placed on the stage as if Bolsonaro were playing Elijah to Brazil’s political Passover.

After that, the conversation broadened to issues that have gotten short shrift. Candidates debated how to rescue the country’s discredited public institutions, which have eroded trust in Latin America’s biggest democracy, and how to pacify Brazil’s bloody streets, where nearly 64,000 people were murdered in 2017, a shameful world record.

Granted, the proposals were sketchy and the rhetoric vague: Left-leaning Ciro Gomes vowed to mend the economy by reining in the “financial barony,” while conservative Alvaro Dias posed as the paladin of clean government by lavishing praise on the Carwash antigraft investigation, a process stewarded by the courts, not politics. And no one took the time to detail how to rescue Brazil’s profligate pension system, which threatens to consume 17 percent of national wealth by 2060.

Yes, absent Bolsonaro, Brazil’s presidential campaign may lose some of the thrill and manic energy. It’s also a chance for Brazilians to drop their fists and focus on the real problems and hard choices that await the next leader, whoever that may be.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

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