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Brazil: Killing of Lula’s Party Treasurer Raises Fears of Violent Run-Up to Election

Marcelo de Arruda was shot at his birthday party by a supporter of President Bolsonaro

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is ahead in polling in the presidential election and many fear more unrest as political polarisation worsens in Brazil.,Photograph: Andressa Anholete/Getty Images

Brazilian political leaders called for calm this week after the killing of a Workers’ party member prompted fears that political violence in the polarised nation will erupt in the run-up to October’s presidential election.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the leftwing former president and Workers’ party leader who is currently leading the polls for the ballot on 2 October, sent his condolences to the family of the dead man, who belonged to his party, and called for “dialogue, tolerance and peace”.

Jair Bolsonaro, the incumbent far-right president who may be ejected from office in the election, said he did not want the backing of violent supporters but posted a series of tweets attacking the left for what he called its “undeniable history of violent episodes”.

Bolsonaro has a history of truculence and his supporters are behind a string of recent attacks that culminated last weekend in the murder of the Workers’ party treasurer in the western city of Foz de Iguaçu.

Marcelo de Arruda was killed at his own 50th birthday party on Sunday morning when a Bolsonaro supporter invaded the event and shot him three times. Arruda, a municipal guard who had organised a Lula-themed party, returned fire before his death, leaving his assailant in a serious condition in hospital.

The attack came just two days after another Bolsonaro supporter threw a crude home-made device containing faeces into the crowd at a Lula campaign rally in Rio de Janeiro. In another incident in Minas Gerais state three weeks previously, a drone dropped what was reported to be raw sewage on a pro-Lula gathering.

The attacks are in keeping with a polarisation in Brazilian politics that gathered speed in 2016 with the impeachment of Lula’s hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, and the jailing of Lula two years later for crimes of corruption – convictions that were quashed in 2019 after the prosecutors were found to have colluded with the judge.

What has changed since then, according to experts, is the growing sense, especially from the right, that political differences cannot be resolved through debate.

“This far-right group, a lot of whom, including the president, have fascist ideas, doesn’t want to recognise institutions and the established rules of the game,” said Darci Frigo, president of Brazil’s National Human Rights Council. “Bolsonaro has made a decision to eliminate the left and he has allowed his supporters to use violence to do that, to divide and hate.

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“What happened in Foz de Iguaçu is not an isolated case, it was encouraged by the president’s rhetoric.”

Bolsonaro trails Lula by double figures in most polls and the prospect of defeat is behind much of his inflammatory language, experts said.

His belligerence comes even though Bolsonaro himself is the highest profile victim of political violence in recent years. The populist leader was stabbed a month before the 2018 election and spent weeks in hospital before recovering in time to win the presidency.

Even before that, Bolsonaro had espoused extremist views against gays, women and Afro-Brazilians, and most often against the left. In 2018 he mimed shooting a machine gun and told a crowd in the state of Acre he wanted to “strafe” leftists and “run them out” of the state.

His rhetoric has not softened in office and his disappointing poll numbers are leading him to embrace ever more extreme positions designed to energise his hard-core base and frighten opposition campaigners off the streets, said Felipe Borba, the coordinator of a political violence thinktank at Rio’s Unirio university.

“The use of violence against rivals is stimulated as part of an electoral strategy … especially by President Jair Bolsonaro against the supporters of ex-President Lula,” Borba said. “He is also doing it to shift focus away from the country’s real problems.”

Borba said the increase in violence comes at the start of what are expected to be a tense few months of campaigning, not just for president but also for Congress and 27 state governors.

A study carried out by his office showed the number of politically motivated attacks so far in 2022 is higher than in the same period two years ago, ahead of municipal elections. The data is particularly serious given there are more candidates and races in municipal elections than national ones.

Even more worrying is the president’s possible endgame.

Bolsonaro has repeatedly cast doubt on the reliability of the electronic ballot boxes used in Brazil, even though there is little or no evidence they are vulnerable, and he has openly warned he might refuse to leave office if the result does not go his way.

“If Bolsonaro loses the election and you put that together with his intolerance and the perception that he was cheated, we could have violence on a grand scale after the elections, something close to what we saw in the United States with the invasion of the Capitol,” said Borba.

Andrew Downie has been a foreign correspondent in Brazil for 20 years and is author of the book Doctor Socrates: Footballer, Philosopher, Legend