SAO PAULO/JUIZ DE FORA, Brazil (Reuters) - Brazil’s presidential race was thrown into chaos on Friday with the far-right front-runner Jair Bolsonaro in serious but stable condition in an intensive care unit after being stabbed at a rally, his wound severe enough that his son said he was unlikely to be able to return to campaigning before the Oct. 7 vote.
Bolsonaro, a congressman, was knifed in the stomach while being carried atop supporters’ shoulders in a street rally on Thursday and was being treated at a Sao Paulo hospital. A Tweet posted on Bolsonaro’s verified account said he was “doing well and recuperating.”
However, Flavio Bolsonaro, Jair’s son, said in a video on his verified Facebook page Friday afternoon that his father was in a “delicate situation and has trouble speaking.”
“He is recuperating and he probably will not be able to head out into the streets in this campaign,” said Flavio Bolsonaro. “He cannot go to the streets, but we can.”
A spokesman for the Bolsonaro campaign did not immediately return a request for comment.
The attack further clouds Brazil’s most unpredictable election in three decades. Corruption investigations have jailed scores of powerful businessmen and politicians in recent years, and alienated infuriated voters.
Bolsonaro, 63, has for years angered many Brazilians with extreme statements, but is also seen by his many supporters as a politically incorrect gust of fresh air in a rotten system.
He has repeatedly said the country’s notoriously violent police should increase their killing of suspected drug gang members and armed criminals.
That plays well with wealthier voters, but is terrifying for the 50 percent of Brazilians who said in a 2017 Datafolha poll they feared being victims of police violence.
Surveys consistently give Bolsonaro around 22 percent in simulated first-round votes. However, those polls find he would badly lose to most rivals in the likely event of a runoff, which takes place if no candidate wins a majority in the first ballot.
Some Bolsonaro backers and analysts, especially in financial markets, forecast the attack could give Bolsonaro a huge boost. They argue it will draw in some of the 28 percent of voters who say they are undecided or will not vote for anyone.
“I just want to send a message to the thugs who tried to ruin the life of a family man, a guy who is the hope for millions of Brazilians: You just elected him president. He will win in the first round,” Flavio Bolsonaro, said earlier on Friday.
Carlos Melo, a political scientist with Insper, a Sao Paulo business school, said Bolsonaro may gain some votes. But he doubted there would be a big shift his way, especially given that 44 percent of those surveyed in the latest Ibope poll say they would never cast a ballot for Bolsonaro, the stiffest rejection for any candidate.
“I see no reason why voters who have previously said they reject him would now automatically support him,” Melo said.
The political scientist thinks that once the commotion of the attack passes, voters may soberly think about the roots of the political polarization and aggressive rhetoric that has engulfed Brazil.
“Jair Bolsonaro is a symbol of that process,” Melo said. “Voters may be awakened to the thought that politicians who propose loosening gun laws, for example, end up giving unbridled power to crazy people, like the man who carried out the attack yesterday.”
Bolsonaro was stabbed while being carried on someone’s
shoulders in a crowd of cheering supporters in the city of Juiz de Fora.
TV pictures showed him screaming in pain, then falling
backward into the arms of those around him.
Police video taken at a precinct showed suspect Adelio Bispo de Oliveira telling police he had been ordered by God to carry out the attack.
Speaking earlier in an online video from hospital in Juiz de Fora, Bolsonaro said the pain of the attack at first was like being hit by a soccer ball.
“It was intolerable and it seemed like maybe something worse was happening,” he said, talking in a weak, raspy voice with a tube in his nose and monitors beeping nearby. “I was preparing for this sort of thing. You run risks.”
Bolsonaro was stabilized and in the intensive care unit at the Einstein hospital in Sao Paulo on Friday.
Dr. Luiz Henrique Borsato, who operated on the candidate, said the internal wounds were “grave” and “put the patient’s life at risk” but that he was stable. Doctors were worried about an infection since Bolsonaro’s intestines were perforated.
Bolsonaro likely needs to spend at least a week in the hospital. Being unable to campaign any more would seriously damage his run.
Bolsonaro’s tiny coalition has almost no campaign time on government-regulated candidate commercial blocs on television and radio. He must rely on social media and, until now, raucous rallies around the country to drum up support.
Running as the law-and-order candidate, Bolsonaro has positioned himself as the anti-politician, though he has spent nearly three decades in Congress.
He has long espoused taking a radical stance on public security in Brazil, which has more homicides than any other country, according to U.N. statistics, and has openly praised Brazil’s military dictatorship, which he has said should have killed more people.
Bolsonaro has stirred controversy with comments denigrating women, gay, black and indigenous people.
During 2016 impeachment proceedings against former leftist President Dilma Rousseff, who was jailed and tortured during Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1970s, Bolsonaro dedicated his vote to the colonel in charge of the prison where she was jailed for three years and tortured.
In 2003, Bolsonaro pushed a congresswoman and told her: “I would never rape you because you do not deserve it.” He repeated the comment in 2014 in the chamber and as a result is facing trial for inciting rape.
Bolsonaro has called the charges politically motivated.
His stabbing is the latest instance of political violence, which is particularly rampant at the local level. Earlier this year, Marielle Franco, a Rio city councilwoman who was an outspoken critic of police violence against slum residents, was assassinated.
Reporting by Brad Brooks in Sao Paulo and Gabriel Stargardter in Juiz de Fora; Writing by Brad Brooks; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Alistair Bell