Lula and Bolsonaro, face to face

Despite being the two most important names in Brazil’s 2022 presidential elections, President Jair Bolsonaro and frontrunner Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva have rarely been seen in the same room. That changed on Sunday, when the two competitors faced off against each other for the first time during the first of the campaign’s televised debates. 

Unsurprisingly, there were no handshakes or compliments. Indeed, there weren’t too many direct interactions either. Despite being a clear two-horse race, six candidates were invited to the debate, and its format meant that every participant enjoyed equal screen time. Mr. Bolsonaro used his first question to grill Lula on corruption, but beyond that the frontrunners were largely restricted to attacking one another through the other candidates in attendance.

Lula, leading in the polls by some distance, was largely contained throughout, trying to avoid ruffling feathers and protecting himself from any severe criticism.

Jair Bolsonaro, meanwhile, sought to remain calm and speak about the positives of his own administration, but the mask slipped on several occasions. During a segment of questions from prominent members of the media, Mr. Bolsonaro offended journalist Vera Magalhães, saying she “must go to bed thinking about him,” before (almost in the same breath) criticizing candidate Senator Simone Tebet.

Perhaps noticing the optics of his own outburst, he quickly denied that he was “attacking women,” but the damage had been done. A large part of the remaining debate was focused on women’s issues, which played very badly for the incumbent president.

In the aftermath of the debate, focus groups and social media anointed Ms. Tebet and center-left candidate Ciro Gomes as the “winners” — but in many ways it was an exercise of futility.

For a few hours, viewers could have been forgiven for thinking the election was still wide open, with six candidates on equal footing. Whereas, in reality, it is nothing of the sort. Lula and Mr. Bolsonaro are still streets ahead of the challengers and are likely to remain that way. Latest polls show that, combined, the two debate “winners” amass just 10 percent of voting intentions.

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