RIO DE JANEIRO - The wounding of a leading Brazilian presidential candidate has the potential to reshape the election contest after dramatically exposing the deep polarization in Latin America’s largest nation.
Far-right congressman Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain who has promised to crack down on crime, has long argued that Brazil is in chaos and needs a strong hand to be steadied.
After a knife-wielding man stabbed the candidate in the abdomen during a campaign event Thursday, Brazilians surged onto social media to argue over whether the attack supports Bolsonaro’s assertions that the country is off the rails or whether his heated rhetoric contributed to inciting the attack.
Dr. Luiz Henrique Borsato, who performed emergency surgery on the candidate, said Bolsonaro’s recovery so far was “satisfactory.” He said the candidate would remain hospitalized for at least a week after a two-hour operation to stop serious internal bleeding.
In numerous videos posted on social media of the moment of the attack, Bolsonaro could be seen on the shoulders of a supporter, looking out at the crowd and giving a thumbs-up with his left hand. He is seen flinching and then goes out of view. Other videos show supporters carrying him to a car and hitting a man who was apparently the attacker.
A suspect, identified by authorities as 40-year-old Adelio Bispo de Oliveira, was arrested within seconds. He was identified as Adelio Bispo de Oliveira, 40, and said to be a member of the left-leaning PSOL party from 2007 to 20014. After his arrest, Bispo de Oliveira said he was “carrying out a divine mission, a mission from God.”
After more than four years of revelations of widespread corruption within Brazil’s political class, anger is running high. Analysts initially predicted this would be an election bringing change, but no true outsider has emerged.
Instead, Bolsonaro, despite being a congressman since 1991, has harnessed much of the anger and presented himself as a maverick who will clean up a corrupt system. He also promises to confront a surge in crime, in part by giving police a freer hand to shoot and kill while on duty.
The public’s anger is partially responsible for making this year’s campaign the most unpredictable in years for Brazil, and the attack could lead to another seismic shift.
The man leading polls, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has been barred from running by electoral authorities because he was convicted of corruption and is in jail.
With da Silva ruled out, the latest polls from the Ibope Institute put Bolsonaro in a clear lead with 22 percent, compared with 12 percent each for environmentalist Marina Silva and center-left academic Ciro Gomes.
In the hours following the attack in Juiz de Fora, about 125 miles (200 kilometers) north of Rio de Janeiro, Bolsonaro supporters predicted it would carry him to the presidency in the Oct. 7 ballot.
“They made Bolsonaro a martyr,” said Jonatan Valente, a student who joined a small vigil for Bolsonaro in Sao Paulo. “I think the left shot itself in the foot, because with this attack they will end up electing Bolsonaro.”
But it is unknown when he can get out again on the campaign trail and if his injuries will impede his ability to campaign.
While Bolsonaro has a strong following, he is a deeply divisive figure. He has been fined, and even faced charges, for derogatory statements toward women, blacks and gays.
He speaks nostalgically about the country’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship and has promised to fill his government with current and former military leaders. His vice presidential running mate is a retired general.
“It’s likely that Bolsonaro will use the attack to argue his opponents are desperate, that they had no other way to stop him,” said Mauricio Santoro, a political science professor at Rio de Janeiro’s state university.