Brazil’s “Donald Trump” Dominates Key Presidential Debate Despite Absence After Stabbing

The far-right presidential candidate dubbed as Brazil’s “Donald Trump” – Jair Bolsonaro – is headed for victory Sunday as Brazilians go to the polls to choose among 13 candidates in the October 7 first-round elections, from which two candidates will emerge. This after he was nearly assassinated a mere month ago when a mentally disturbed socialist man stabbed the populist candidate at a campaign rally, puncturing his intestines in three places, sending him to the intensive care unit.

And incredibly telling was that in spite of being absent from the key most-watched TV Globo presidential debate Thursday night due his continued slow recovery from the severe wounds, his name still managed to dominate the national presidential debate

International media reports widely acknowledged the obvious after the high stakes event — that Bolsonaro was “the main topic — and target” among his fellow contenders even as a no-show due to doctor’s orders. Though he was merely able to give a televised interview from home, he remains the frontrunner in Sunday’s critical elections. 

The prospect of a far-right Bolsonaro rapid come-from-behind upset victory has sent a number of media outlets and left-leaning organizations into a frenzied panic, with The Guardian, for example, warning in a Friday headline that the “prospect of Bolsonaro victory stokes fears of return to dictatorship.” And The Intercept lamented that Brazil’s current frontrunner is a “fiery former army captain with a history of homophobic, racist, and misogynistic remarks, including pro-torture statements and support for police killings.” 

Weeks before the September 6th stabbing incident, The Economist featured a story outlining how the man who reportedly relishes in being compared to Donald Trump is “a threat to democracy” (at the time the publication described him as “a flame-throwing right-winger who is second in the polls”).

But apparently this deluge of attention especially after the gruesome stabbing and attempted assassination thrust him into the international media spotlight — has only increased his popularity at the street level even as media elites claim Brazil is on the path of return to dictatorship. 

Brazilian presidential candidates (left to right): Henrique Meirelles, Alvaro Dias, Ciro Gomes, Guilherme Boulos, Geraldo Alckmin, Marina Silva and Fernando Haddad. Via AFP

France24 charted the clear focal point of Thursday night’s presidential debate in the following

  • Second place candidate Fernando Haddad, who was hand-picked by jailed former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, attacked Bolsonaro’s record as a lawmaker.
  • Third place Ciro Gomes said that electing the far-right hopeful would be like dancing near an abyss.
  • Leftist Guilherme Boulos said he feared a new military dictatorship would begin with a Bolsonaro presidency.

Currently Fernando Haddad of Lula’s Workers’ Party is a not too distant second behind Bolsonaro in the polls. However, years of corruption scandals and constant media attacks mean Brazilians sitting on the fence, but who by and large reject the Workers’ Party, could turn to Bolsonaro as the most viable alternative. 

The latest figures have Bolsonaro polling at 35% support, which is a 3 percentage point jump since Tuesday, and Haddad at 22%, and the Datafolha poll has the pair deadlocked in a possible runoff vote. But perhaps most shocking is that support among women has shot up according to reports, with polls finding a 6% rise in support from women, apparently trumping his supposed history of sexism.

It is not likely that a president will be decided in the first round, something which hasn’t happened since 1998. France24 reports that the latest polls show “Bolsonaro has 39 percent of the valid votes, 11 points short of a majority needed for a first-round victory. Failing that, the two top vote-getters will face off on Oct. 28.”

Prior to the attack Bolsonaro was losing votes, but the incident brought instant national and international attention, and he’s spent much of September in the hospital.

The federal congressman has been hospitalized for most of September, and has frequently issued statements while in recovery — all of which appears to have helped him. 

“People will start to see Bolsonaro as a victim,” predicted Luiz Roberto Monteiro, an analyst with Renascenca brokerage, in the immediate aftermath of the stabbing. 

Bolsonaro, once feared by investors because of comments against privatizations and private investments, has become the most viable option against the left. And now he’s dominating even while absent from the campaign trail.