Curitiba (Brazil) (AFP) – Gunshots fired at the bus convoy of fiery leftist former leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva plunged Brazil’s already turbulent presidential election into dangerous new territory Wednesday.
Lula, who is fighting in the courts to avoid starting a 12-year prison sentence for corruption, was due to wind up a campaign tour through southern Brazil with a rally in the city of Curitiba.
The 10-day trip had been previously targeted by opponents throwing stones and eggs at the buses and at the two-term former president, who despite his legal problems leads polls ahead of the October 7 election.
But the gunshots late Tuesday ramped up tension in what’s already shaping up to be the most volatile leadership contest since Brazil’s military dictatorship ended in 1985.
Lula and his Workers’ Party said the shots were fired in an apparent ambush, with two bullets hitting one bus, one bullet hitting another, and the third bus, where Lula was traveling, escaping unscathed. No one was hurt.
Gleisi Hoffmann, leader of the Workers’ Party, which Lula founded, said the incident should be investigated as a possible assassination attempt.
“We hope we will have security, that the national and state police, as well as the intelligence services, do their jobs so that we can rally in a peaceful and democratic way,” she told AFP.
Illustrating the ugly pre-election atmosphere, center-right candidate and Sao Paulo state governor Geraldo Alckmin reacted to the violence by saying that the leftists were “reaping what they sowed,” Folha newspaper reported.
On Wednesday, Alckmin rowed back, tweeting that “all forms of violence must be condemned…. The country is tired of division and calls to conflict.”
There was clearer condemnation of the incident from the economy minister and possible center-right presidential candidate Henrique Meirelles. He tweeted: “What happened yesterday… was an attack on freedom of expression of a political leader and was inadmissible in a democracy.”
However, there was still no reaction from Lula’s closest rival in the polls, the right-wing former army captain Jair Bolsonaro, who was also due to greet supporters in Curitiba on Wednesday.
Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly praised Brazil’s two-decade-long military dictatorship, taunted Lula, calling him a “bandit,” and challenging him in Curitiba to see “who can get the most people out on to the streets without paying them.”
Another right-wing group, the Movement for a Free Brazil, was planning its own anti-Lula rally in the city, just a short distance from where Lula and his Workers’ Party faithful were due to gather.
– Prison sentence decision –
The red-shirted Lula is no stranger to political drama, but even by his standards these are tempestuous times.
When Lula left office at the start of 2011, he was Brazil’s most popular president on record, having presided over a commodities-fueled economic boom and won plaudits for his social policies.
However, he also has high rejection ratings and is blamed by the right and many in the center for Brazil’s slide into the mammoth “Car Wash” corruption scandal that has shaken the country over the last four years.
Although dozens of other top politicians, including current center-right President Michel Temer, have also been charged or convicted, right-wing opponents see Lula as the graft scandal’s biggest culprit. On the left, Lula is seen as the victim of politicized judges.
On Monday, a court rejected Lula’s latest appeal against a conviction that he took a luxury apartment as a bribe.
That leaves him depending on a Supreme Court decision expected on April 4 if he is to avoid being ordered to start his 12-year prison sentence, let alone run for president.
Even then, he faces another six corruption cases.
Despite the daunting legal situation, Lula is a runaway favorite in opinion polls, with around 35 percent of voter intentions, followed by Bolsonaro with around 17 percent.
A veteran right-wing congressman, Bolsonaro is running as an anti-politician, often taking a leaf out of US President Donald Trump’s book.
He has praised torture under Brazil’s military dictatorship, insulted gays and even told a fellow politician she wasn’t “worth raping.” The more extreme Bolsonaro gets, the more it seems he thrills his supporters.