Lula says Bolsonaro ‘possessed by devil’ as he launches Brazil election campaign

<span>Photograph: André Penner/AP</span>
Photograph: André Penner/AP

Brazil’s former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has formally launched his campaign to reclaim the presidency with a ferocious broadside against his rival, Jair Bolsonaro, who he claimed was “possessed by the devil”.

Lula’s rebuke came on the first official day of campaigning before Brazil’s October election when 156.5 million citizens will choose the next leader of a bitterly divided nation.

Speaking in São Paulo’s manufacturing heartlands where he began his spectacular political rise in the late 1960s, Lula urged voters to punish the incumbent Bolsonaro for his denialist, lie-filled response to a Covid outbreak that has killed more than 680,000 Brazilians.

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“If there’s anyone who is possessed by the devil it’s this Bolsonaro,” the former union leader, who was president from 2003 to 2010, bellowed in his trademark husky voice.

Lula’s remarks appeared partly an attempt to counter efforts by Bolsonaro’s campaign to demonize the veteran leftist and convince millions of evangelical voters his return to power would threaten their faith.

Bolsonaro, a far-right radical who calls the election a battle between God-fearing “good” and leftist “evil”, kicked off his re-election campaign warning voters against supporting “those who persecute and call for the closure of churches”.

Lula rejected those insinuations as he addressed supporters outside car factory in São Bernardo do Campo. “He’s trying to manipulate the good faith of evangelical men and women,” said the 76-year-old politician, who has taken to wearing a bullet-proof vest for fear of being attacked by a rightwing extremist.

A poll released on Monday suggested Lula continued to enjoy a comfortable 12-point lead over Bolsonaro, who won a landslide victory in 2018 but enraged many voters with his calamitous handling of coronavirus, which he called “a bit of a cold”. Some polls suggest Lula could even claim a first-round victory by winning more than 50% of votes.

However, observers suspect Bolsonaro will gain some ground thanks to politically charged welfare payments being offered to more than 20 million families.

“I think the numbers will probably tighten as we get closer to the vote … which still puts Lula in front, but not by a huge margin,” said Thomas Shannon, the US ambassador to Brazil under Barack Obama.