SAO PAULO (Reuters) – After a presidential campaign that has seen political violence overshadow policy debate, many Brazilians fear attacks will continue after the likely election on Sunday of tough-talking far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro.
Bolsonaro’s supporters in recent weeks have threatened to harm Supreme Court justices and physically attacked journalists and opposition voters.
There has also been violence attributed to backers of Bolsonaro’s opponent, Fernando Haddad of the Workers Party (PT), but to a far lesser extent.
Brazil’s tense political climate has been compared by some to divisions in the United States, where several high-profile opponents of President Donald Trump received pipe bombs in the mail this week.
But the situation in Brazil, is far more perilous, analysts say, because it already suffers from extreme violence, often without consequence for perpetrators.
Nearly 64,000 murders were registered last year, but less than 10 percent of homicide cases result in charges, according to government data.
Bolsonaro, who maintains a double-digit lead in all polls, himself suffered a near-fatal stabbing during a campaign rally last month.
He is still recovering, but the episode only reinforced his aggressive rhetoric, combining verbal attacks on political foes with vows to violently combat crime and pursue graft cases against opponents.
“You PT crew, you’ll have the civil and military police with legal support to bring the law down on your backs,” he said in a video broadcast to supporters at demonstrations last Sunday. “These delinquent Reds will be banned from our homeland.”
He says he does not condone violence carried out by his supporters, but analysts say his daily rants on social media platforms are taking a toll.
“Bolsonaro, because of his rhetoric supporting violence and the aggressive manner he has campaigned, has opened the Pandora’s box on political violence in an already extremely violent country,” said Rafael Alcadipani, a public security expert at the Getulio Vargas Foundation university in Sao Paulo.
“If people thought Brazil had extremely high levels of street violence in normal times, imagine what it will be like under a president who aggressively pushes violence among police and against political opponents?”
Bolsonaro’s attacks on the media over aggressive reporting that he calls “fake news” have also sent a chill through newsrooms which have dealt with a surge in threats and physical violence.
Brazilian investigative journalism group Abraji said since January 64 reporters who cover the campaign have been physically attacked and another 82 targeted in online hate campaigns.
By comparison, 40 U.S.-based journalists covering all topics were physically attacked during that period, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker database run by over two dozen press freedom groups.
Bolsonaro supporters were blamed for most of the attacks in Brazil, Abraji said, while PT backers were responsible for a smaller fraction.
Folha de S.Paulo, Brazil’s biggest newspaper, has been flooded with threats, including ones targeting the six-year-old son of a reporter who uncovered alleged illegalities in the Bolsonaro campaign’s use of WhatsApp to spread misinformation.
Federal police are investigating a retired Army colonel who has made repeated threats against Supreme Court judges in widely shared videos, warning them not to rule against Bolsonaro. The man is now wearing an electronic ankle bracelet so authorities can monitor his whereabouts.
Supreme Court Justice Carmen Lucia said the attacks were a threat against democracy, saying this week that “aggressions that target any justice are attacks on the entire court as an institution.”
Bolsonaro, a 63-year-old former army captain, is an ardent supporter of Brazil’s 1964-85 military regime and cites one of the period’s most notorious torturers, Colonel Carlos Ustra, as a personal hero.
As president, he says he would encourage police to kill suspected criminals with abandon. He wants to loosen gun controls so civilians can defend themselves and at times he suggests violence can solve Brazil’s political problems too.
In one campaign rally, he grabbed a cameraman’s tripod, shouldered it like a rifle and yelled into a microphone that “we are going to gun down all these Workers Party supporters!”
His campaign says his rhetoric simply veers into politically incorrect jokes meant to irritate his leftist presidential rival Fernando Haddad.
Bolsonaro has won over tens of millions of Brazilian voters with his inflammatory, anti-establishment stance, citizens who are sick of being the targets of rampant street crime and endemic political corruption he vows to eradicate.
Matheus Ferreira, an 18-year-old snack stand vendor in Sao Paulo who hails from a violent slum, said the tense situation fills him with fear, but not much beyond what he faces daily.
“I will vote for Bolsonaro,” he said this week. “If he can make Brazil safer, he would have been worth the risk.”
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Reporting by Brad Brooks; Editing by Clive McKeef and Joseph Radford