Absent frontrunner dominates Brazil‘s high-stakes presidential debate

Absent frontrunner dominates Brazil‘s high-stakes presidential debate © Daniel Ramalho, AFP |Brazilian presidential candidates (L to R) Henrique Meirelles, Alvaro Dias, Ciro Gomes, Guilherme Boulos, Geraldo Alckmin, Marina Silva and Fernando Haddad.

The main topic — and target — of Brazil‘s final and most-watched presidential debate was the absent front-runner, far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro.

‘s controversial far-right candidate skipped the TV Globo debate Thursday night, citing doctor‘s orders after being stabbed during a campaign event on September 6 and only leaving the hospital on Saturday. Instead, he gave an interview to TV Record at the same time.

Second place candidate , who was hand-picked by jailed former President , attacked Bolsonaro‘s record as a lawmaker.

Third place Ciro Gomes said that electing the far-right hopeful would be like dancing near an abyss.

Leftist Guilherme Boulos said he feared a new military dictatorship would begin with a Bolsonaro presidency.

Clear frontrunner, but short of votes needed to avoid run-off

Despite his absence at the debate, Bolsonaro is the frontrunner in Sunday‘s critical elections.

The latest opinion poll released Thursday found Bolsonaro had 35 percent support, a 3 percentage point jump since Tuesday. Haddad of the leftist Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores or PT), stood at 22 percent. The pair remain deadlocked in a possible runoff vote, according to the Datafolha poll.

The poll showed Bolsonaro has 39 percent of the valid votes, 11 points short of a majority needed for a first-round victory. Failing that, the two top vote-getters will face off on Oct. 28.

After ruling for 13 of the last 15 years, the PT is blamed by many for a crippling recession, rising violence and voracious corruption.

Rising female support

Bolsonaro‘s support among women has risen some 6 percentage points in the last week alone, the polls suggest.

That is all the more surprising given it comes just days after his candidacy provoked the largest female-led street demonstrations Brazil has seen in decades.

Far from slowing Bolsonaro, a federal congressman who was hospitalised for much of September after being stabbed in an assassination attempt, the protests appear to have helped him, particularly among some women who viewed the young, progressive protesters as PT supporters.

Nobody has won the presidency in Brazil in the first round since 1998.

But sudden last-minute waves of anti-PT sentiment have impacted recent local elections, such as Joao Doria‘s landslide first-round victory over Haddad to become mayor of Sao Paulo in 2016.

Bolsonaro‘s chances of winning on Sunday would be boosted if there is high abstention, and if many voters cast blank or spoiled ballots, said Leonardo Barreto, head of Brasilia-based political consultancy Factual.

“If the trends detected by Ibope and Datafolha this week continue with further growth for Bolsonaro, we could have a final wave of support for him,” said Barreto.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)