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Brazilian politics hit by wave of violence ahead of Sunday vote

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazilians return to the polls in 57 cities on Sunday for the runoffs of municipal elections that have seen surging violence involving assassinations and physical attacks on candidates.

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In two months of campaigning leading up to the first round of voting on Nov. 15, there were 200 murders, attempted murders or otherwise injured candidates, according to Brazilian electoral authority TSE.

That compares to 63 cases of political violence in the first eight months of this election year, and just 46 such cases in the previous municipal elections in 2016, the report by the TSE’s security and intelligence unit found.

Violence has always been present in Brazilian politics, especially in the “wild west” of poorer northern and northeastern states where powerful landowners occasionally have called on hired guns to settle political disputes.

The violence even reached the national Congress in Brasilia. In 1963, Senator Arnon de Mello from the state of Alagoas pulled out a gun in the chamber to settle a quarrel with an adversary, missing his shot and killing another senator.

In 1993, the Paraiba Governor Ronaldo Cunha Lima shot dead his predecessor for alleging his son was corrupt.

In recent years, experts say violence has become more widespread in a polarized Brazil where more guns are available and new criminal organizations are consolidating power in cities such as Rio de Janeiro. The risks are greater in local politics where crimes often go unpunished, said Felipe Borba, who tracks electoral violence at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

“In smaller districts there is direct confrontation between local rivals. The winner takes all and losing office means you have nothing,” he said in an interview.

He pointed to two murders in one day. On Sept. 24, three days before campaigning began, a town council candidate in the state of Minas Gerais, Cassio Remis of the centrist Brazilian Social Democratic Party, was assassinated with five shots in a public killing caught on security cameras. The same day in Pernambuco state, another candidate Valter do Conselho from the center-right Democrats (DEM) party also was shot dead.

The violence is hurting all parties, including the right and left.

Four days before the Nov. 15 vote, in the Rio suburb of Nova Iguaçu, local DEM candidate Domingo Cabral, was shot dead by hooded men in a bar. The day before, Mauro da Rocha, of the Christian Workers Party, was murdered in the same town.

The violence continued even after the polls closed. Edmar Santana of the right-wing Patriota party, who had just been elected substitute councilman in Sumaré, a city in Sao Paulo state, died riddled with bullets fired by a man passing on a motor bike.

“In Rio, there is a pattern. Political violence mainly involves organized crime, drug trafficking or paramilitary militia groups,” Borba said.

Many political killings remain unresolved, particularly in the interior of the country where near impunity reigns, he said.

Even high-profile cases do not get fully resolved, such as the 2018 assassination of Rio de Janeiro councilwoman Marielle Franco, a rising politician of the left-wing PSOL party, and her driver.

Despite domestic and international pressure, police to this day have only caught the gunman, former military policeman Ronnie Lessa, but not the mastermind behind Brazil’s most high-profile recent political killing.

Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu, Writing by Anthony Boadle; editing by Diane Craft