July 22, 2018 / 7:30 PM / 2 months ago

Brazil rightwing candidate slams centrists, softens tone in campaign launch

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Brazil’s far-right presidential hopeful, Jair Bolsonaro, officially kicked off his campaign on Sunday, excoriating the political center but softening his incendiary stance on gays and blacks three months before wide-open October elections.

Federal deputy Jair Bolsonaro delivers a speech during the national convention of the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) where he is to be formalised as a candidate for the Presidency of the Republic, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil July 22, 2018. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

The 63-year-old former army captain, who leads in polls that exclude jailed former leftist President Luis Inacio Lula de Silva, made his announcement to an elated crowd after centrist parties threw their support behind centrist rival Geraldo Alckmin.

“Once again, thank you Geraldo Alkmin for uniting the scum of Brazilian politics,” Bolsonaro said, referencing the four-time governor of Sao Paulo, candidate for the Brazilian Social Democracy Party, who trails Bolsonaro by 10 points or more.

Some 3,000 rowdy supporters, including one impersonator of U.S. President Donald Trump, gathered in the crime-ridden city Rio de Janeiro to welcome his candidacy, chanting Bolsonaro slogans and making pistol gestures with their hands.

Federal deputy Jair Bolsonaro delivers a speech during the national convention of the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) where he is to be formalised as a candidate for the Presidency of the Republic, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil July 22, 2018. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Bolsonaro’s anti-corruption message and vows to loosen gun controls to fight crime resonate deeply in the city, where a crime wave has prompted the federal government to intervene in the state’s security. A massive graft scandal at Petrobras that has saddled the state-controlled oil giant with billions in debt has also weighed on the city.

Leaders of the centrist parties backing Alckmin are under investigation for payments in the sprawling Petrobras bribes and kickbacks scandal.

“He’s our hope. The Brazilian people are discouraged by all the corruption,” said Gilcemar Jasset, a 35-year-old Rio de Janeiro bus driver who arrived at the event dressed as Bolsonaro complete with a presidential sash.

Despite his popularity, Bolsonaro only has the backing of a small fringe party, which means he’s only allowed 10 seconds of free television time, a serious handicap in a nation where TV ads have a big impact. But he brushed off concerns, pointing to his popularity.

“We don’t have a big party. We don’t have election funding. We don’t have television time. But we have what the others don’t have, which is you, the Brazilian people,” Bolsonaro said.

Federal deputy Jair Bolsonaro holds his hands up with his son Flavio Bolsonaro (L) and his wife Michelle Bolsonaro during the national convention of the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) where he is to be formalised as a candidate for the Presidency of the Republic, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil July 22, 2018. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

The seven-term congressman has been vague about specific policy plans involving the economy, which he professed to know little about in an interview with Brazil’s O Globo newspaper on Saturday.

On Sunday, Bolsonaro said he supported the privatization of some parts of Petrobras without going into detail, and declined to weigh in on recently announced plans by Boeing to buy a majority stake in Brazilian planemaker Embraer’s commercial arm.

He also said he would support a reduction in the number of government ministries.

Janaína Paschoal, a lawyer who gained national attending for seeking the impeachment of former leftist President Dilma Rousseff was expected to be announced as Bolsonaro’s running mate. Paschoal, however, told the crowd she was still considering the offer ahead of an Aug. 15 deadline.

Bolsonaro has made headlines with provocative comments against minorities, saying he could not love a gay son and telling a congresswoman she did not deserve to be raped.

But he shifted to a more inclusive tone on Sunday.

“We are going to unite this people. We will unite whites and blacks, homosexuals and heterosexuals ... We will unite bosses and employees, and we won’t plant the seed of discord between them,” he said.

Writing by Alexandra Alper; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien and Sandra Maler

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