The moment when Jair Bolsonaro was stabbed

On September 6, 2018, far-right Congressman Jair Bolsonaro’s campaign had prepared a rally with supporters around the central square of Juiz de Fora, a city of 550,00 inhabitants, two hours from Rio de Janeiro. Campaign managers were somewhat concerned about the event, as Juiz de Fora had traditionally been a stronghold for the center-left Workers’ Party. But, upon arriving in the square, Mr. Bolsonaro was met by—according to his staff’s own calculations—roughly 30,000 supporters, all chanting his name. The candidate, who was leading opinion polls with 22 percent of voting intentions, decided to let himself be carried on the shoulders of his partisans. 

All of a sudden, Mr. Bolsonaro’s face went from a festive smile to a semblance of pain.

People around him began shouting in panic, and a fracas broke out. Something was clearly wrong, but nobody knew exactly what had happened. &#8220;Bolsonaro was punched!&#8221; some said. Others claimed it was a gunshot wound. In reality, they had just witnessed a stabbing—an attack that nearly cost Mr. Bolsonaro his life, and <a href="https://brazilian.report/opinion/2018/09/07/political-radicalism-brazil/">further plunged Brazil into political radicalism</a>.</p> <p>For many, the stabbing changed the course of Brazilian politics. It certainly has had many consequences. For one, it continues to take a toll on Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s health. On September 8, he will undergo his fourth surgery following the attack—this time to remove a hernia caused by previous procedures. But its political consequences are also still being felt. &#8220;It further deteriorated an already toxic environment. Let&#8217;s not forget that before the stabbing, Rio city councilor Marielle Franco had been assassinated, and shots were fired at a campsite where former President Lula was campaigning,&#8221; says political scientist Claudio Couto.</p> <p>On the right, there was no shortage of people blaming the stabbing on a left-wing conspiracy to prevent Mr. Bolsonaro from reaching the presidency. The fact that the attacker, a 41-year-old man named Adélio Bispo de Oliveira, was once affiliated with the left-wing Socialism and Liberty Party only adds fuel to this theory—which has been pushed by the president himself.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img src="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/jair-bolsonaro-hospital-2018-0594.jpg.jpg" alt="How Jair Bolsonaro's stabbing changed Brazil, one year removed" class="wp-image-23497" srcset="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/jair-bolsonaro-hospital-2018-0594.jpg.jpg 650w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/jair-bolsonaro-hospital-2018-0594.jpg-240x300.jpg 240w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/jair-bolsonaro-hospital-2018-0594.jpg-610x763.jpg 610w" sizes="(max-width: 650px) 100vw, 650px" /><figcaption>Jair Bolsonaro posts on Twitter a photo of his recovery.</figcaption></figure> <p>The Federal Police are still investigating the case and, so far, have found no evidence that Mr. Oliveira acted on behalf of someone else. The attacker claims he was following a direct order from God, and said that killing Mr. Bolsonaro—as well as former President Michel Temer—is his life&#8217;s mission. He has since been considered mentally ill and sentenced to psychiatric treatment for an undetermined time.</p> <p>From the left, an important group of people still claims that Jair Bolsonaro was not stabbed at all. According to this line of thought, the attack was all staged in a mediatic coup by the Bolsonaro campaign to push him ahead of the other candidates. Congressman Paulo Pimenta, the Workers&#8217; Party whip in the House of Representatives, <a href="https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/poder/2019/09/boatos-especulacoes-e-fake-news-alimentam-teorias-sobre-facada-em-bolsonaro.shtml">says</a> he is still &#8220;not convinced&#8221; that the stabbing actually took place. He goes as far as saying that the fact that Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s supporters didn&#8217;t lynch Mr. Oliveira is evidence that the whole thing was a charade.</p> <p>This polarization shows no sign of giving in. And the president himself won&#8217;t let it. He has not hesitated in evoking the attack as proof that his survival—and subsequent electoral win—was the &#8220;work of the Almighty.&#8221;</p> <h2>How the stabbing changed the 2018 election</h2> <p>Since September 6, 2018, many political observers have asked one question: what would have happened if the attack had never taken place? For many on the left, the stabbing was <em>the </em>determining factor of the 2018 election.&nbsp;</p> <p>It certainly enhanced the profile of Mr. Bolsonaro, who dominated the news cycle for weeks. He also benefited from being sidelined from the campaign trail. He continued interacting with supporters via social media (his home turf) and was spared from the attacks of his adversaries, and was never pressed on his proposals.&nbsp;</p> <p>Before the stabbing, Mr. Bolsonaro was the go-to target of nearly all other presidential candidates—and he had proven not to thrive under pressure. At that point, he had been to two TV debates, faring poorly in both. But the attack changed the dynamics of the campaign. It generated empathy for a candidate known for his fear-mongering and hate speech. It also forced his opponents to back down, as it would be in bad taste to go after someone clinging on to his life.</p> <p>However, let&#8217;s not forget that Mr. Bolsonaro already led all polls—which did not include jailed Workers&#8217; Party candidate Lula—by a comfortable margin. &#8220;It is impossible to say how much the stabbing determined to the electoral outcome,&#8221; says Mr. Couto. &#8220;The left was banking on a candidate in jail and had enormous rejection from a large portion of society.&#8221; He became a gravitational force for anti-leftist voters, earning 57.7 million votes in the runoff stage, even after campaigning from his hospital bed.

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BY Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist with experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. His work has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets.