Knife attack set to boost Bolsonaro's Brazil presidential bid

Johannes MYBURGH
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Brazilian right-wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro gestures after being stabbed in the stomach during a campaign rally in southern Brazil

Right-wing Brazilian election front-runner Jair Bolsonaro looks set to make a dramatic rise from the emergency room to the presidency, family and analysts predicted on Friday, a day after he was stabbed while campaigning.

Brazil's presidential race took the latest in a series of twists on Thursday when a left-wing activist, claiming to be on "a mission from God," knifed Bolsonaro as he campaigned in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais.

The former army captain immediately underwent surgery for multiple wounds to his mid-section and is convalescing for at least a week in a Sao Paulo hospital -- but his temporary incapacity is expected to boost rather than harm his chances.

"A message to these bandits: they've just elected the new president, and that will be right from the first round," said Bolsonaro's son and fellow politician Flavio.

Last week Bolsonaro was catapulted to leading candidate in the October 7 first round, when jailed former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was barred from standing by the country's electoral court.

"All of a sudden he's been transformed into almost as big a victim as Lula," said Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at Rio de Janeiro's UFRJ university.

- 'Direct impact' -

Lula, 72, is serving a 12-year sentence after he was convicted of accepting a seaside apartment as a bribe.

"The attack against Bolsonaro, already boosted by Lula's disqualification, will have a direct impact on voter intention," said political analyst Jimena Blanco.

She says it would "diminish" Bolsonaro's "high rejection level" -- 44 percent of the people in a new poll said they would never vote for him -- and earn him more support.

Previously trailing a distant second with less than half Lula's projected vote share, Bolsonaro this week found himself 10 points clear of his nearest rivals, environmentalist Marina Silva and center-left candidate Ciro Gomes.

He already commands an impressive social media following of 8.5 million people while #ForcaBolsonaro -- Come on Bolsonaro -- was one of the top trending hashtags on Twitter on Friday.

Despite being a long-serving member of Congress, Bolsonaro has successfully presented himself as an outsider, untouched by the corruption scandals engulfing so much of the political elite.

Pointedly, one of his campaign pledges has been to legalize the carrying of weapons in order to combat rising violent crime -- in a country where police are already often engaged in low-level wars against gangs. About 64,000 people die in homicides every year.

- 'Divine mission' -

Images shared on social media and Brazilian television on Thursday showed Bolsonaro being carried on the shoulders of a throng of supporters, before a man lunges at his stomach.

A witness told police the attacker held a knife wrapped up in a shirt and attacked Bolsonaro as the group hoisting him walked by.

The attacker was arrested immediately and identified as Adelio Bispo de Oliveira, 40 -- said to have been a member of the left-leaning PSOL party.

After his arrest, Bispo de Oliveira said he was "carrying out a divine mission, a mission from God," said Luis Boundens, head of a union of federal police officers.

Authorities are investigating the suspect's mental health, he added.

Bolsonaro has been criticized for outbursts deemed racist, misogynist and homophobic.

Bispo de Oliveira acted "for religious reasons, for political reasons, and also because of the prejudice Bolsonaro has always shown when he talks about race, religion and even women," said the suspect's lawyer, Pedro Augusto Lima Possa.

On his Facebook page, the alleged assailant recently posted messages criticizing Bolsonaro and supporting the socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.

President Michel Temer quickly condemned the attack and instructed his Minister of Security Raul Jungmann to reinforce security for candidates and conduct "a rigorous investigation," a spokesman for the presidency told AFP.

"It is intolerable to see that in a democratic state it is not possible to have a normal campaign," said Temer.