Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his main election rival Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva traded insults Sunday during a charged election debate which saw Bolsonaro launch a deeply personal attack on a journalist who questioned his response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think you go to sleep thinking about me. You have a crush on me,” Bolsonaro told Vera Magalhães after she asked him about Brazil’s Covid-19 vaccination rate. “You are a disgrace to journalism in Brazil,” he said.
Magalhães later said Bolsonaro’s attitude was “absolutely out of control, unnecessary, and… harmful to himself.” She said she believed Bolsonaro “doesn’t like to be questioned by women.”
Bolsonaro’s insulting comments to Magalhães came after he faced criticism for his attitudes towards women. The far-right leader defended his government’s support for laws in favor of women and claimed “a large part of women in Brazil love me” because he opposes legalizing drugs.
Bolsonaro and former president Lula joined four other candidates in what was the first televised debate ahead of the October presidential election. The debate focused on a range of issues including the economy, climate change, and the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, but was peppered with personal attacks.
Bolsonaro was forced onto the defensive over his handling of the economy, the climate crisis and the pandemic. The president claimed the Brazilian economy was “booming,” despite record unemployment under his administration.
Meanwhile, Lula, the most popular candidate according to recent opinion polls, denied accusations of corruption and defended his innocence.
Lula was convicted of corruption in 2017 and surrendered to federal authorities in April 2018 to begin serving a 12-year prison sentence. However, in 2021, the Supreme Court annulled the conviction, allowing him to run for president again.
“I was arrested so you could be elected president but then I was found not guilty. But I’m going to win now to see in one stroke what you want to hide so badly!” Lula said in reference to Bolsonaro’s alleged efforts to conceal information and weaken transparency since he took office.
Senator Simone Tebet, of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party and a member of the country’s Covid-19 parliamentary commission, accused Bolsonaro of delaying Covid-19 vaccines and spreading fake news about the virus, a claim which the president denied.
The three other candidates who took part in the debate were Soraya Thronicke of the Brasil Union Party, former finance minister Ciro Gomes of the Democratic Labour Party and political scientist and writer Luis Felipe D’Avila from Novo party.
This will be Lula’s sixth run for the presidency with the Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT). He served in the role from 2003 to 2011 and left office with an approval rating of 90% after millions of Brazilians were lifted out of poverty during his time in power.
However, his good fortune did not last long. After surviving throat cancer in 2011, da Silva was convicted of corruption and money laundering six years later, charges stemming from a wide-ranging investigation into the state-run oil company Petrobras.
The first round of Brazil’s presidential vote is scheduled for October 2 and officials have warned the highly contested election could spark unrest.
The country’s Superior Electoral Court Minister Edson Fachin said in June that there was a risk of unrest “more severe” than the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol.
Bolsonaro, who is behind Lula in opinion polls, has repeatedly cast doubt on the country’s electoral process and criticized in particular the use of electronic ballots – a system that has been in place in 2000. He has also called for the military to perform a parallel “public” count of the votes.
Fachin said that election authorities would not accept interference from the federal government or the Armed Forces, and added that the Organization of the American States (OAS) has agreed to be an observer in the Brazilian elections.
CNN’s Camilo Rocha and Marcia Reverdosa reported from Sao Paulo and Ivana Kottasova wrote from London.