Prison and hospital: primary battle grounds in Brazil's election race

Gabriela VAZ
A hospital and prison are the unlikely settings in which Brazil's presidential campaign has been most fiercely contested

A jail cell and hospital bed have turned into the most unlikely, and important, campaign barracks during Brazil's surreal and unpredictable presidential race.

Jailed leftist former leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and hospitalized right-wing runner Jair Bolsonaro, who was stabbed by a left-wing activist on Thursday, have emerged as the two principal actors in the election soap opera that has proved as absurd as it has been enthralling.

They may have the most supporters, but neither is expected to end up as successor to outgoing President Michel Temer, who declined to even stand in the election amidst record unpopularity levels.

Lula has been banned from standing in the October 7 first round due to his corruption conviction while Bolsonaro, the subsequent front-runner, is widely expected to be beaten in the second round run-off no matter whom he faces.

Popular Workers' Party leader Lula had been streaks ahead in the polls with twice as much support as his bridesmaid Bolsonaro.

But since he was struck off the ballot paper over Brazil's clean-slate law and his punishment for accepting a seaside apartment as a bribe, Bolsonaro has forged clear on 22 percent, 10 points ahead of environmentalist Marina Silva and center-left candidate Ciro Gomes.

Despite their travails, both are enjoying soaring popularity, not least because many see them as victims, something that engenders sympathy, empathy and sometimes more votes.

Lula claims to be the target of a political persecution aimed at preventing him from running for, and winning, a third term as president following his successful back-to-back spells from 2003-10.

- 'Victims of different things' -

For David Fleischer, professor emeritus at the Political Science University in Brasilia, they are "victims of very different things."

"Lula can consider himself a victim of the courts, but within the framework of the law," he said.

"Bolsonaro was the victim of an attack. They're victims, yes, but in Lula's case that depends on your perception."

Another difference is how they can exploit their victimhood.

"Bolsonaro can record videos and interviews from hospital, something Lula is banned from doing," said Fleischer.

While Bolsonaro, 63, could have lost his life -- he underwent surgery for multiple wounds to his mid-section -- the subsequent media exposure is more than making up for his biggest campaign difficulty.

In Brazil, presidential candidates are afforded television exposure in direct relation to their party's chamber of deputies presence.

Bolsonaro's Social Liberal Party (PSL) has only nine deputies, which translates to just eight seconds in television campaign advertising, compared to the more than five minutes Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) center-right candidate Geraldo Alckmin enjoys.

- 'Heart and mind' -

But former army captain Bolsonaro has wasted no time in exploiting the exposure, already recording a video message form his hospital bed and lamenting the fact he would be unable to join Friday's military parade celebrating Brazil's Independence Day.

"We will be there in heart and mind, as always holding Brazil above everyone and God above everything," he said.

Lula, 72, has still not given up hope of standing and his Workers' Party is yet to name a replacement, although it has until September 12 to do so.

The charismatic former union leader has launched a series of appeals first against his conviction and lately, from his cell in the southern city of Curitiba, against the electoral court's ruling.

Two supreme court appeals failed but he's also trying his luck at the United Nations.

Eventually, the Workers' Party is going to have to get behind a replacement, widely expected to be Lula's running mate Fernando Haddad, who trails in polls with a paltry six percent and is a virtual unknown outside Sao Paulo.

The attack on Bolsonaro by a member of the left-leaning PSOL party -- identified as Adelio Bispo de Oliveira, a supporter of Venezuela's leftist President Nicolas Maduro -- won't have helped the image of Brazilian socialists, either.

Although Bispo de Oliveira's insistence he was on "a mission from God" suggests that mental health issues rather than political bent motivated him.