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Bolsonaro on the defensive in Brazil after ‘depraved’ statement about Venezuelan prostitutes

Story is latest twist in presidential race where every poll shows him trailing his left-wing rival Lula

For a presidential campaign struggling to raise cash, scrambling to buy online ads to deny your candidate is a paedophile just two weeks before voting can hardly be considered ideal.

But that is what Brazil’s far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro was forced to do this weekend after he gave an interview in which he talked of a “sexual vibe” that developed when he encountered “three or four very pretty 14- or 15 year-old” Venezuelan prostitutes in Rio de Janeiro last year. He had been attempting to warn about the risks for societies that embrace socialism but his remarks were seized on by opposition leaders, with one calling them “depraved”.

Having forged a career out of outrageous statements, the story about his encounter with under-aged prostitutes is just the latest example of Bolsonaro’s own words leaving him on the defensive in a contest in which every poll shows him trailing his left-wing rival, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The two men face each other in a run-off on October 30th after Lula just failed to secure outright victory in a first round of voting earlier this month.

Bolsonaro did receive a timely boost before Sunday night’s prime time television debate against Lula when the head of the country’s electoral court prohibited Lula’s campaign from using a video clip from the president’s interview about the Venezuelan girls. Lula showed up to the debate wearing a broach in support of the country’s campaign against sexual violence towards children and adolescents.

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The electoral ruling followed an earlier one that ordered Lula’s campaign to stop using a clip from a 2016 interview in which Bolsonaro said he would eat human flesh, “no problem”, when relating a trip to an indigenous community which he claimed was preparing to eat a deceased member. The tribe in question has denounced the president’s allegation of cannibalism as completely false.

Though banned by the electoral court from the campaign the clips have gone viral on Brazil social media, aiding Lula’s efforts to undermine his opponent’s attempts to present himself as a defender of traditional values, which has been particularly effective with evangelical voters. Many of these had earlier criticised the president after yet another video resurrected by Lula’s Workers Party circulated of Bolsonaro speaking in 2017 at a Masonic lodge. Many Brazilian evangelicals associate the Masons with Satanism.

The Lula campaign’s use of clips of his rival’s more polemical statements are an attempt to fight back against a glut of fake news that has attempted to associate him with Satanism among other false claims as the Bolsonaro campaign attempts to repeat the disinformation strategy that helped catapult the former army captain into the presidency in 2018. So far Brazil’s electoral court has ruled over 40 times in Lula’s favour, ordering the removal of fake news spread by the Bolsonaro campaign or its supporters, compared to just six decisions in the president’s favour.

Despite the increasingly personal attacks, Sunday night’s debate was relatively subdued, with most observers saying there was no clear winner. Lula’s best moments came when attacking the president’s mishandling of the Covid pandemic and his administration’s botched vaccine roll-out. Later in the night Bolsonaro succeeded in irritating Lula by focusing on the corruption scandal in state oil giant Petrobras during his Workers Party’s 13 years in power. Lula also fluffed his response to an attack over his friendship with left-wing dictatorships in Venezuela and Nicaragua.

But the night’s tensest moment came when Lula vowed to void a series of presidential decrees issued by Bolsonaro that seal many details related to his time in office for 100 years. Among the decrees is one concerning the president’s vaccine history, fuelling speculation he took a Covid vaccine even as he was one of the world’s most prominent anti-vaccination figures at the height of the pandemic. Asked by Lula what he was hiding with the decrees, Bolsonaro remained silent and grinned at his opponent before approaching him and placing a hand on his shoulder, which Lula quickly shrugged off.

Though most observers declared it a draw, it was the president who went into the debate needing to make up ground. On Friday the widely watched Datafolha polling agency gave Lula 53 per cent of valid votes against 47 per cent for the president. After pollsters underestimated Bolsonaro’s vote in the first round, his supporters in congress have sought to push a bill that would see polling company executives face up to 10 years in prison for failing to accurately predict election outcomes.