Will knife attack on Jair Bolsonaro impact Brazil’s election?

Sao Paulo, Brazil – The stabbing of Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right frontrunner in Brazil’s presidential race, has added an extra layer of chaos to an already turbulent and polarised election campaign.

Brazilians will head to the polls to pick their next president on October 7, in what has been described as the most uncertain vote in the country’s recent history.

While campaigning on Thursday on the streets of Juiz de Fora, a city in the southeastern Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, Bolsonaro was stabbed in the abdomen by a man wielding a kitchen knife.

The 63-year-old former army captain was rushed to hospital where he underwent surgery for injuries to his small and large intestines.

On Friday morning, Bolsonaro was transferred to Sao Paulo’s Albert Einstein Hospital, where he is expected to remain in intensive care for the next seven days.

Police identified the attacker as Adelio Bispo de Oliveira, a 40-year-old man from the town of Montes Claros in Minas Gerais. According to the police report, while being carted away, Oliveira claimed he was “fulfilling an order from God”. Officers at the scene expressed doubts over his psychological integrity.

Violent year

The knife attack on Bolsonaro represents an escalation in what has already been a violent year in Brazilian politics.

For the first time in decades, a presidential candidate in Brazil has suffered an assassination attempt, with recent incidents of violence largely being restricted to local politics.

In March this year, left-wing councillor Marielle Franco was assassinated in Rio de Janeiro. Less than two weeks later, former President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva‘s campaign bus was shot at in southern Brazil.

Jose Alvaro Moises, a political scientist and scholar of global democracies, argued that Brazil is witnessing the “reintroduction of violence” into its politics.

“There is growing intolerance in Brazil and an enormous difficulty of its principal political actors in accepting the legitimacy of their opponents,” he told Al Jazeera.

“These factors generate violence.”


Following the stabbing attack, Bolsonaro’s presidential opponents were quick to condemn the attempt on his life.

Marina Silva, a centrist politician and a former environment minister, characterised the incident as a “two-pronged attack: against [Bolsonaro’s] physical integrity and against democracy”.

Centre-left candidate Ciro Gomes, of the Democratic Labor Party, expressed “solidarity” with Bolsonaro, renouncing “violence as political discourse”.

Both Silva and Gomes, as well as centre-right candidate Geraldo Alckmin, suspended their campaigns after the incident.

In a tweet, Fernando Haddad, the soon-to-be Workers’ Party presidential candidate following the recent barring of Lula by Brazil’s electoral court, repudiated all acts of violence and wished Bolsonaro a speedy recovery.

In an interview with Brazilian online magazine Crusoe,  Hamilton Mourao, Bolsonaro’s vice-presidential candidate and retired army general, blamed the attack on what he called a “Workers’ Party militant”. 

“The Workers’ Party has incited violence on the streets. This is not good. If they want to use violence, we [the military] are the professionals of violence,” he said.

However, Brazil’s highest electoral court confirmed that the Oliveira, the suspect, was not currently affiliated to any political party and that he was a member of the left-wing Socialism and Liberty Party until 2014.

Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist and professor of international relations at Rio de Janeiro State University, said the reaction of the presidential candidates was quick, precise and unambiguous.

“It was a very civilised moment in the campaign, something which we’ve rarely seen,” he told Al Jazeera. “Now would be a good time for all of the candidates to get together and make a political pact of non-aggression and transmit this message to the electorate,” added Santoro.

“However, it is worrying that the response of Bolsonaro’s party was very violent,” he noted, referring to Mourao’s comments.

“It gives an insight into the political atmosphere we can expect in the coming weeks.”

Impact on election

It’s not yet clear how soon Bolsonaro will able to return to the campaign trail.

Following the barring of Lula’s candidacy, opinion polls show Bolsonaro as the clear frontrunner, with a projected 22 percent share of the vote. Silva and Gomes are tied for second place at 12 percent each.

Santoro predicted that the popularity of Bolsonaro, who has managed to present himself as a credible outsider candidate despite a track record of homophobic, racist and sexist statements, is unlikely to be altered by Thursday’s attack.

“We have seen many people condemning this incident, but it hasn’t strayed into any growing sympathy for Bolsonaro,” he said.

“On the contrary, often these condemnations of violence were suffixed with criticisms of Bolsonaro, suggesting that he is to blame for this violent atmosphere in Brazil’s current moment.”

Still, the campaigns of Bolsonaro’s opponents are expected to undergo changes as they battle it out for a place in the expected runoff vote on October 28 against the former army captain.

The immediate effects of the attack on Bolsonaro will be known next week, after two of Brazil’s leading pollsters release their latest opinion polls on Monday and Tuesday.

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