Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro and challenger Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva have resorted to unedifying attacks as they fight for crucial votes ahead of what is expected to be a tight second round poll at the end of the month.
Bolsonaro’s campaign on Tuesday released a television advert linking the leftwing Lula to criminality, saying he received the most votes from prison inmates in the recent first round of voting.
Another attack ad focused on the history of corruption under Lula’s Workers’ party, suggesting voters would be complicit if they backed the former president.
Allies of Lula, meanwhile, have seized on a 2016 video of Bolsonaro in which the then-lawmaker said he had been prepared to engage in cannibalism while on a trip to the Amazon rainforest with an indigenous tribe.
“Bolsonaro would eat human flesh,” screamed a campaign video released after the first-round vote on October 2 that was later banned by the country’s electoral court.
The attacks show how the gloves have come off in the race for the presidency of Latin America’s most populous democracy as the distance between the two candidates has narrowed.
The two polarising politicians will compete in a runoff on October 30, after a closer than expected but inconclusive first round. In that vote, Lula secured 48.4 per cent of valid ballots while Bolsonaro won 43.2 per cent, confounding pollsters who had pegged his support in the high thirties.
Bolsonaro will need more than 6mn additional votes in the run-off to be re-elected.
Lula’s rejection rate among voters has risen sharply since the first round vote. A survey by Datafolha late last week found it had risen by 6 percentage points, while Bolsonaro’s had dropped by one percentage point.
Both candidates have cried foul over the new attack videos and levelled charges of fake news, although the offending content is often not created by the campaign teams themselves.
Filipe Campante, professor at Johns Hopkins University, said such adverts were the “natural consequence of the dominant role of social media in the political media landscape”.
He continued: “Social media has two key distinctive features that matter here. One, outrageous content generates more engagement, and engagement is king.
“Two . . . anyone is a content provider. So outrageous content can be put out there with a bit more distance from the official campaign.”
After a first round campaign dominated by two divisive personalities that was short on policy details, citizens hopeful of more illuminating debate on topics such as the economy have so far been disappointed.
The baser allegations against Lula target the sensibilities of evangelical Christians, a growing community in Brazil that tends to be socially conservative, accounts for about one-third of the 215mn population and is a pillar of Bolsonaro’s support.
Lula’s team has been forced to deny he plans to close churches and defend him against accusations of Satanism, insisting on his own Christian faith. “Lula does not have a pact nor has ever conversed with the devil,” read one flyer published this week.
“This type of debate has been a fertile ground for Bolsonaro to keep his base energised over the past years,” said Mario Braga, a senior analyst at Control Risks.
Bolsonaro’s campaign has been boosted by key victories in gubernatorial races. In Minas Gerais, a key swing state in the country’s south-east, governor Romeu Zema has pledged support for Bolsonaro and could play a crucial role in turning the region that voted for Lula in the first round.
Additional reporting by Carolina Ingizza in São Paulo