Women take the spotlight at first Brazil presidential debate

Aug 28, 2022, 8:07 PM | Updated: Aug 29, 2022, 8:57 am
Felipe D'Avila of the Novo Party, left, Former President and candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of...

Felipe D'Avila of the Novo Party, left, Former President and candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Workers' Party, second left, Simone Tebet of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, third from left, Brazil's President and candidate Jair Bolsonaro of the Liberal Party, third from right, Soraya Thronicke of the Brasil Union Party, second right, and Ciro Gomes of the Democratic Labour Party, attend a presidential debate in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Sunday, Aug. 28, 2022. Brazil will hold general elections on Oct. 2.(AP Photo/Andre Penner)

(AP Photo/Andre Penner)

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazilian presidential candidates have squared off in their first debate — with the jousting overshadowed by questions about President Jair Bolsonaro’s treatment of women, who may be crucial to his chances.

Sunday night’s debate became something of a pile-on after Bolsonaro snapped at a journalist, Vera Magalhães, who asked whether uptake of COVID-19 vaccines has been affected by disinformation spread by people including the president. He has falsely claimed the shot caused people to develop AIDS faster and has warned about potentially life-altering side effects.

“Vera, I couldn’t expect anything else from you. You sleep thinking about me, have some kind of passion for me,´´ Bolsonaro said, then accused her of taking sides and lying. “You’re an embarrassment to Brazilian journalism!´´

Candidate Soraya Thronicke, who won a Senate seat in 2018 with Bolsonaro’s support, said she was “extremely upset” by his comments to Magalhães, calling them an example of a man being “a pussycat with other men, and coming at us (women) as a big tiger.”

Other candidates, including former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Ciro Gomes, expressed solidarity with the journalist as the issue distracted from the confrontation between the clear frontrunners, da Silva and Bolsonaro. Polls indicate they will likely top the Oct. 2 first round and compete in a runoff.

Sen. Simone Tebet — whom Bolsonaro also called “an embarrassment in the Senate” — said he disrespects women with his attacks, then asked him directly: “Why so much anger at women?”

Bolsonaro’s aggressiveness tends to resonate with his die-hard supporters, but alienates undecided voters, according to Mário Sérgio Lima, senior political analyst at Medley Global Advisors in Sao Paulo.

“He lost his composure with a female journalist, highlighting his Achilles’ heel, which is his high rejection among women,” Lima said. “This is very hard to change in a campaign when he can’t hide his disdain towards women in general, and they are over half of the voters.”

According to a recent survey by pollster Datafolha, 47% of female respondents intend to vote for da Silva, and 29% for Bolsonaro. The poll of 5,744 people found that 29% of women could still change their vote. It had a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points.

Bolsonaro said his adversaries were launching a “cheap attack,” and defended his government’s record on helping women.

“Enough with the victimization; we’re all the same,” he said. “I sanctioned more than 60 laws to defend women. And I’m certain that a large number of Brazilian women love me because I defend family and oppose the liberation of drugs.”

The latter two stances are part of the conservative pitch that helped Bolsonaro win in 2018, along with appeals to God, country and fierce resistance to the threat of socialism.

Da Silva had been that race’s frontrunner until his convictions for money laundering and corruption removed him from the race and cleared Bolsonaro’s path to victory. The Supreme Court later annulled his convictions, ruling that the judge — who later became Bolsonaro’s justice minister — had been biased.

The Associated Press last month asked the government to detail the several dozen measures Bolsonaro says his administration has adopted to benefit women, but didn’t receive a response.

Independent political analyst Thomas Traumann wrote in a report Monday that Bolsonaro’s “attacks on the senator and the journalist will cost him.” Bolsonaro had tried to use his wife Michelle to improve his appeal to female voters, “However, the debate threw it all out the window.”

Traumann added that Tebet was the debate’s “headliner”, saying she “systematically attacked Bolsonaro on every front and also provided consistent answers.”

Bolsonaro focused his attention on da Silva, who is known universally as Lula and leads all major polls to return to the job he held from 2003 to 2010. He repeatedly referred to the leftist former president as “ex-inmate” and questioned da Silva about the impact of vast corruption on state-run oil company Petrobras.

“Your government was the most corrupt in the history of Brazil,” Bolsonaro said during the early, fiery exchange.

The former president responded with a list of anti-corruption measures that his government introduced, including creation of a database for transparency on public spending and laws against corruption, organized crime and money laundering. And he highlighted vast improvements in education and enforcement against deforestation during his tenure.

Da Silva also repeated that his now-annulled convictions had been politically motivated to benefit Bolsonaro.

“Bolsonaro knows the reasons why I was jailed: … so he could be elected president of the republic,” he said. “I’m much cleaner than him or any relative of his.”

After the debate, Bolsonaro left the stage while others stayed to chat and shake hands.

___ AP reporter Mauricio Savarese contributed from Sao Paulo

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Women take the spotlight at first Brazil presidential debate