Analysis: Brazil's Bolsonaro caught off guard by campaign's ugly closing chapter

BRASILIA, Oct 18 (Reuters) - Brazil's unexpectedly close presidential race has taken an ugly turn in the final weeks ahead of an Oct. 30 runoff vote, even by the bruising standards of the past year, with insinuations of cannibalism, pedophilia and devil worship.

The tone shifted so quickly that the campaign of President Jair Bolsonaro, who won office four years ago with an aggressive digital assault on rivals, was put on the defensive, losing precious time for his strategy to come from behind and win reelection.

Two senior aides to Bolsonaro said his campaign was taken aback by the effectiveness of attacks from leftist challenger Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and allies, who seized on both old videos and recent slip-ups to leave the right-wing incumbent scrambling.

"It did us a lot of damage," one of the campaign aides said on condition of anonymity.

In one line of attack, Lula allies dug up a 2016 interview in which Bolsonaro said he was willing to eat human flesh in an unspecified indigenous ritual. In another, they circulated old images of Bolsonaro speaking at Masonic lodges, considered pagan temples by some of his evangelical Christian allies.

In the most explosive attack yet, Lula's campaign made an attack ad from Bolsonaro's anecdote on a Friday podcast about visiting the home of adolescent Venezuelan migrant girls who he suggested were preparing to prostitute themselves.

The president won court injunctions that took that attack ad off the air and kept the subject out of a debate with Lula last Sunday. Bolsonaro has denied any association with cannibalism or pagan rituals and branded the insinuations of pedophilia as slanderous lies. But the subjects have dominated campaign coverage and online conversations for days.

One tracking poll found Lula's advantage, which narrowed to just three percentage points before the weekend, was back up to 52% to 45% over Bolsonaro by Tuesday, according to a political consultancy that requested anonymity to discuss private surveys.

Public polls, released every week or two, continue to show a roughly stable race, with Lula holding an advantage of around 5 percentage points as he did in the first-round vote on Oct. 2.

But every week that passes without Bolsonaro gaining ground is a battle won by Lula, who was Brazil's president from 2003 to 2010.

Brazil's former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro participate in a candidates' debate ahead of a runoff election, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, October 16, 2022. REUTERS/Mariana Greif/File Photo

"Bolsonaro has become a victim of his own weaponized communications strategy that muddies public debate with sarcasm, mockery and humiliation aimed at dividing Brazilian society," said Fabio Malini, a professor of new media at the Federal University of Espirito Santo.

'BRAZILIAN SOAP OPERA'

Bolsonaro is not shy about returning fire.

"The focus now is to attack Lula and trigger fears of him returning to power," said a second Bolsonaro campaign source.

Bolsonaro's campaign aides say their polling indicated 8% to 10% of Lula supporters could still be swayed with arguments that a leftist presidency could trigger crime waves, economic ruin and setbacks for social conservatives.

The incumbent's broadcast ads already suggest that Lula will legalize abortion and close down churches, which the former president has repeatedly denied.

A more outlandish line of attack from Bolsonaro allies forced Lula's campaign to make a direct denial on social media: "Lula has no pact nor has he ever conversed with the devil."

But unlike the 2018 presidential campaign, when Lula's Workers Party was largely isolated and unprepared for a digital dirty war in the closing weeks of the race, the former president has an array of allies joining him in the online trenches.

Internet personality Felipe Neto, with 15 million followers on Twitter and nearly 17 million on Instagram, once pushed for the impeachment of Lula's Workers Party successor, but now defends Lula daily online while amplifying attacks on Bolsonaro.

Congressman Andre Janones, whose centrist party had shown support for Bolsonaro's agenda in Congress, called off his own presidential run to support Lula, bringing a bulldog tenacity to online debates.

"Janones is a spin doctor of the digital world," said Malini, the new media specialist. "The fierce attacks and counter-attacks based on rumor, half-truths and innuendo have made this election a Brazilian soap opera."

Reporting by Anthony Boadle and Ricardo Brito; Editing by Brad Haynes and Paul Simao

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