Brazil's upcoming presidential election remains as unpredictable as ever.
In another explosive weekend in the race for the Planalto Palace, we learned that – despite being jailed on corruption charges and with the possibility of being barred from running hanging over his head – former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva remains the front-runner, and that his closest rival at present has been charged with racism by the country’s top prosecutor.
Late Friday, Attorney General Raquel Dodge charged conservative deputy Jair Bolsonaro for statements comparing members of rural settlements founded by the descendants of slaves to animals, saying he spoken against Afro-Brazilians, indigenous peoples, refugees, women and members of the LGBT community. Members of the settlements are called “quilombolas” in Brazil.
Dodge said Bolsonaro promotes hate speech by attacking blacks, women, foreigners, native Brazilians and homosexuals, dealing a major blow to a politician polling second ahead of October’s presidential elections.
“This unacceptable statement on quilombolas is aligned with the regime of slavery in which blacks were treated as merchandise and with the idea of inequality between human beings,” Dodge said. “After that, the accused said quilombolas don’t do anything and are unfit even to breed, deprecating them emphatically and absolutely for who they are.”
At the time of the remarks, the conservative lawmaker denied he was a racist, but acknowledged being a homophobe.
Brazilian politicians have a special jurisdiction in the country’s top court, which will later decide whether Bolsonaro will have to stand trial. If convicted, Bolsonaro could be jailed for up to three years. Dodge also wants him to pay about US$120,000 in collective damages. He could also be barred from the vote.
However, the slow pace of Brazil's judicial system was likely to weigh in the 63-year-old's favour, according to the JOTA news website, which specializes in legal matters.
Bolsonaro, a veteran right-wing congressman who has praised the use of torture as well as Brazil's two-decade-long military dictatorship, has denounced lawsuit as an "unfounded attack."
Bolsonaro has run a campaign heavily focused on his tough-guy approach to law and order, and has worked hard to capitalise on the widespread dislike of Lula.
At an event in Rio's Hebraica Club in April 2017, Bolsonaro "used expressions of a discriminatory nature, inciting hatred," the complaint said, citing remarks about women, homosexuals and the descendants of Afro-Brazilian slaves, known as quilombolas, whom he spoke about "as if they were animals."
In response, Bolsonaro's spokesman decried the "unfounded attacks" aimed at generating "sensationalist news" by smearing "the greatest political phenomenon Brazil has seen in recent years."
Bolsonaro will have "no difficulty in showing in court that he is not racist," the spokesman said.
In 2017, Bolsonaro was ordered to pay damages to leftwing deputy Maria do Rosario for saying he wouldn't rape her because she was "ugly" and "not worth it."
Although his remarks caused uproar in Brazil, the ruling did not affect his plans to run for the presidency because it was a civil offence and not a criminal one.
Lula remains in front
Even imprisonment, however, hasn't knocked Lula da Silva out of the lead in Brazil's presidential race. A poll released yesterday by the Datafolha institute shows the centre-leftist with a 2-1 advantage over his nearest rival under one election scenario.
It's the first survey of Brazilians since Lula's April 7 jailing on corruption and money-laundering charges. He is appealing the conviction, but it could lead electoral courts to rule him ineligible for the ballot.
At least 30 percent of those polled say they back Lula to return to the office he held from 2003 to 2010. And if he cannot run, two-thirds of his potential supporters said they would vote for whoever he endorses.
In a race among 16 potential candidates, the poll showed Lula topped Bolsonaro 30-15 percent, with Marina Silva running third. In another possible combination of candidates, Lula topped Bolsonaro 31-17 percent.
The former Workers' Party (PT) leader's ratings dipped slightly from a January Datafolha poll when he was backed by 34 to 37 percent. But it's not clear if that was due to his legal problems to or a different combination of rivals. Several contenders listed in that poll have dropped out or been added, making a direct comparison impossible.
The PT has pledged to register Lula on the August15 deadline, but current electoral law bars his candidacy.
In scenarios without the left-leaning leader, Bolsonaro and former Environment minister Silva are roughly even, with about 17 to 15 points.
The biggest mover in the new poll is former justice Joaquim Barbosa, the first black member of the country's top court. The poll showed him with a least eight percent backing.
President Michel Temer, who says he is considering a run, never topped two percent support in any scenario. His former Finance minister Henrique Meirelles, seen as a favourite of businessmen, was backed by one percent.
Carlos Melo, a political science professor at Insper University in São Paulo, said the new poll shows Lula remains powerful, and even if he is barred from running, he could be a kingmaker from jail.
The poll also found that 54 percent of Brazilians consider Lula's arrest to be fair, while 40 percent disagree. Six percent did not respond.
The former president was sentenced to 12 years and one month in prison, allegedly for accepting the promise of a beachfront apartment a kickback from construction company OAS.
A former CEO of the company testified under a plea bargain that the apartment was reserved for the former president, but da Silva says he never owned it or lived there and made one only visit to consider a business opportunity that didn't materialise.
Lula still faces seven other graft trials.
Datafolha interviewed 4.194 people between Wednesday and Friday. The margin of error is two percentage points.