Right-wing front-runner skips debate as Brazil presidential election nears

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BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazil’s presidential campaign entered its last 48 hours on Friday, with far-right front-runner Jair Bolsonaro’s lead growing before Sunday’s vote, as he skipped the final debate in favor of an exclusive interview with a friendly television network.

A man watches an interview on television with presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro at a bar in Sao Paulo, Brazil, October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

Bolsonaro, who is recovering from a near-fatal knife attack while he was on the campaign trail, said he was under doctors’ orders to stay away from the debate. But he gave the interview that aired on a rival network on Thursday night, just hours after a new poll showed his support growing.

Tapping into disillusionment with a weak economy, political graft and rising violence, Bolsonaro’s decision to skip the debate on TV Globo, Brazil’s largest network, was emblematic of his unconventional presidential bid. He has spurned traditional campaigning in favor of grassroots organizing via social media and selective interviews.

His discussion with TV Record, owned by a supporter, evangelical Christian bishop and media mogul Edir Macedo, had echoes of the flattering interviews that Fox News has regularly offered U.S. President Donald Trump, whom Bolsonaro admires.

Bolsonaro’s decision to miss the debate sparked criticism from his opponents, who accused him of dodging tough questions and being unprepared to lead the nation.

“This is wrong. Bolsonaro is avoiding his duty to the population. Anyone who hides from debate and does not show up lacks the qualities needed to govern a country,” said former Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles, who is running for the ruling MDB party.

Presidential candidates (L-R) Ciro Gomes, Guilherme Boulos, Geraldo Alckmin, Marina Silva and Fernando Haddad pose ahead of a televised debate in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Final opinion polls ahead of Sunday’s vote are likely to reflect the most polarized election in a generation, forcing a run-off between Bolsonaro and leftist Workers Party candidate Fernando Haddad.

A Thursday survey from pollster Datafolha found Bolsonaro had 35 percent support, a jump of 3 percentage points since Tuesday. Haddad, his nearest rival, stood at 22 percent. The pair would be close in a runoff, Datafolha said.

In the TV interview, Bolsonaro slammed Haddad for being a “puppet” of jailed former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Haddad, a former mayor of Sao Paulo, was confirmed at the top of the Workers Party ticket three weeks ago, replacing Lula, who was barred from running due to a corruption conviction. He has called Lula a key adviser, but denies any plans to pardon the former president or give him a role in government.

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Bolsonaro has faced federal charges of hate speech after racist, homophobic and misogynist rants, but in a live speech on Facebook earlier Thursday he rejected the accusations.

In recent weeks, as Bolsonaro’s poll numbers have risen, his rivals have found it hard to draw attention from the convalescing former army captain. His vows to loosen gun laws and declare war on drug gangs have thrilled his supporters and terrified his critics.

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An admirer of Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship, Bolsonaro has won massive support from the fast-growing evangelical community by vowing to block the legalization of abortion, gay marriage and drugs.

Brazilian markets have rallied on the prospect of Bolsonaro stopping a return to power by the Workers Party. Investors blame the party for plunging Brazil into its worst recession in 2015-2016.

Brazil’s real currency was up more than 0.5 percent against the dollar on Friday, while the Bovespa stock index rose 0.3 percent.

Bolsonaro’s economic positions remained unclear. Last week he asked his economic adviser, Paulo Guedes, and his running mate, retired General Hamilton Mourão, to hold off on making public statements after contradictions emerged over economic policy.

In an interview published on Friday by newspaper Estado de Sao Paulo, one of the candidate’s top economic advisers said Bolsonaro would push ahead with privatizing state power firm Centrais Eletricas Brasileiras SA, or Eletrobras.

However, he pledged to keep state oil giant Petroleo Brasileiro SA, known as Petrobras, and lender Banco do Brasil SA in government hands.

“Everything that is strategic will be maintained, such as oil and gas fields,” former army General Oswaldo de Jesus Ferreira told the newspaper. Ferreira is one of many military men with key roles on Bolsonaro’s team.

The comments by Ferreira, who said he was in the same military graduating class as his “brother” Mourão, tempered promises of Wall Street-favorite Guedes, who told Reuters in May that Brazil should privatize everything from Petrobras to state banks in order to cut debt and fund local governments.

Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Additional reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Brad Haynes, Clarence Fernandez and Jeffrey Benkoe

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