Presidential election campaign officially begins with ex-leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva leading all polls against incumbent Jair Bolsonaro amid growing concern of political violence and threats to democracy.

Towels featuring President Jair Bolsonaro, left, and ex-president Luiz Inacio 'Lula' da Silva hang for sale next to a chalkboard showing the vendor's daily sales count for each towel in Rio de Janeiro.
Towels featuring President Jair Bolsonaro, left, and ex-president Luiz Inacio 'Lula' da Silva hang for sale next to a chalkboard showing the vendor's daily sales count for each towel in Rio de Janeiro. (Silvia Izquierdo / AP)

President Jair Bolsonaro and his front-running challenger Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva have formally launched their campaigns for Brazil's most polarised elections in decades in October.

The race pits a right-swinging nationalist populist with an agenda backed by Christian conservatives against a leftist former union leader and two-term president of the country (2003-2010) who was jailed for corruption until his convictions were annulled.

"Our country doesn't want corruption anymore, it wants order and prosperity," Bolsonaro, a former army captain, told a crowd early Tuesday afternoon in Juiz de Fora, where he was stabbed during the 2018 campaign that carried him to power on a wave of anti-Lula sentiment.

His supporters interrupted his speech chanting "Lula thief."

Lula, who at 76 is nine years older than his rival, kicked off his campaign with a stop at the gates of the Volkswagen car factory in industrial Sao Bernardo dos Campos outside Sao Paulo. It was at that factory where he became a labour leader in the 1970s, advocating for better pay despite suppression under the military dictatorship.

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'Hunger returned to Brazil'

In a video posted on social media early on Tuesday, Lula said hunger had returned to Brazil under Bolsonaro and inflation was hitting families who cannot survive on minimum wages.

"We are going to have a lot of work to rebuild this country," he said as he launched his bid to return to office. 

"I want to be president to change people's lives again, because the way it is, no one can take it anymore," he posted.

Lula has a double-digit lead in most opinion polls for the October 2 vote, and his advantage over Bolsonaro increased in simulations of an expected second-round run-off on October 30.

A Monday survey by researcher IPEC, formerly known as IBOPE, showed Lula with 44 percent of voter support against 32 percent for Bolsonaro in the first round where they were far ahead of 10 other candidates. 

In a run-off, Lula would get elected by 51 percent of the votes versus 35 percent for Bolsonaro, a 16-point gap.

The poll said 57 percent of Brazilians disapprove of the way Bolsonaro governs the country, and 37 percent approve.

Bolsonaro spends on welfare to narrow lead

Still, Bolsonaro has narrowed down Lula's lead in recent weeks by increasing spending on welfare for poor Brazilians and pressing state-controlled oil company Petrobras to lower the price of fuel, a big factor in pushing up inflation.

On Tuesday night, Lula and Bolsonaro will be in the same room –– the first time on record in years –– at the inauguration of Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes to head Brazil's electoral authority, the Superior Electoral Court.

Moraes, a critic of the president, has led investigations into fake news being spread as a political tool by Bolsonaro's inner circle.

He is expected to strongly defend Brazil's electronic voting system which Bolsonaro claims is vulnerable to fraud.

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Source: Reuters