Brazil’s Lula campaigns after shots fired at buses

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva -- vying to make a political comeback this October -- is staging a rally on Wednesday, in the same city as his closest rival

Curitiba (Brazil) (AFP) – Brazil’s controversial former leftist leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was poised to address a campaign rally Wednesday after gunshots were fired at his bus convoy, ramping up tension in an already jittery presidential race.

The rally in the southern city of Curitiba is the culmination of a regional tour by the presidential frontrunner that has exposed jarring political divisions in Brazil ahead of the October 7 election.

Lula supporters dressed in the red of his Workers’ Party gathered just hours after right-wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro met nearby with several hundred cheering supporters — and branded Lula “a scoundrel.”

As he campaigns, Lula is simultaneously fighting in the courts to avoid having to start a 12-year prison sentence for corruption. It’s an all-or-nothing push to secure a spot once again in the presidential palace, rather than behind bars.

Despite the scandal, he leads easily in opinion polls, followed by Bolsonaro.

However, his 10-day bus tour was targeted by protesters, including opponents who threw stones and eggs at the buses and at him on stage. Then late Tuesday, his convoy came under fire — something shocking even in ultra-violent Brazil.

Lula and his allies 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.

Center-right President Michel Temer expressed “regret” Wednesday and said: “We need to reunite Brazilians. We need to pacify the country. This wave of violence, this climate of ‘us against them,’ cannot continue.”

However, Bolsonaro, a former army captain, arrived in Curitiba for his own rally with a more combative message.

“We can’t accept elections without Lula being locked up,” he said.

Bolsonaro, who has praised torture and Brazil’s two-decade-long military dictatorship, didn’t mention the shooting incident. 

Instead he repeated his campaign promise to loosen gun laws and get tough on crime.

“I want a … police that shoots to kill,” he said.

– Divisive Lula –

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 winning plaudits for his social policies.

However, he inspires equally passionate opposition 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 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 his latest appeal against a 12-year-and-one-month prison sentence for taking a luxury apartment as a bribe.

That leaves him depending on a Supreme Court decision expected on April 4 if he is to remain free, let alone be allowed on the presidential ballot. 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 frequently lauded the dictatorship that ended in 1985, 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.