Brazil's Bolsonaro, Lula Face Off in Last Debate Before Vote

SAO PAULO (AP) -- Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva faced off in a final debate before their runoff election Sunday, focusing mainly on economic hardships.

It is an issue that could sway some of the few undecided voters in the tight race between the far-right incumbent and the leftist challenger who clashed Friday night in a broadcast on the nation's biggest TV network.

Da Silva, who leads in opinion polls as he seeks to return to the job he held from 2003 to 2010, once more pledged to boost spending on the poor, though he did not outline a clear plan on how he would achieve that.

He also highlighted that Bolsonaro's government hasn't yet provided an increase to the minimum wage above inflation.

"This man governed for four years and there was not 1% of a real increase," da Silva said at the TV Globo debate in Rio de Janeiro, which lasted 2½ hours. He said the minimum wage is now worth less than when Bolsonaro was inaugurated.

Bolsonaro quickly promised to lift the minimum wage from $229 a month to $265 next year, though that wasn't included in his 2023 budget proposal sent to Congress. He said the economic downturn that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic prevented a minimum wage boost, but pointed to firming economic activity.

"We did better than you would have done," the president said to da Silva. "We are ready to take off. We have one of the world's best economies now."

Mario Sérgio Lima, a senior Brazil analyst for Medley Global Advisors, said the final debate probably would not sway many voters to cast their votes for either candidate.

"Bolsonaro needed to score a big win ... He didn't do very well among focus groups of undecided voters nor in online mentions," Lima said, referring to surveys published online in real-time by pollsters. "Now, it is up to the edited videos that both campaigns will create to energize their supporters."

Bolsonaro said at one point that "the whole system is against me." At times he appeared rattled and da Silva, known universally by Brazilians as Lula, several times drew attention to the president's behavior, saying it was unbecoming of his position.

The two had only one prior face-to-face debate, earlier this month, with a similar format that allots candidates a bank of time to use as they see fit, whether addressing voters or asking questions of their opponent.

This debate marked a change from their previous encounter, when da Silva focused on the president's widely criticized handling of the pandemic that killed more than 680,000 Brazilians and Bolsonaro homed in on corruption investigations that tarnished his opponent and the Workers' Party. The two candidates raised these issues again Friday, but dwelled less on them.

Da Silva repeatedly sought to characterize Bolsonaro's administration as isolated in the world, noting his dearth of state visits and allies abroad. Bolsonaro highlighted his trip to Russia that secured a supply of fertilizer ahead of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, helping Brazilian agribusiness, and he said the Middle East receives him "with open arms."

In his final comments, Bolsonaro thanked God for saving his life after he was stabbed during the 2018 presidential campaign, and invoked his faith in an appeal to religious voters. Earlier in the debate, he threw his hands in the air and raised his arms, calling out his motto: "God! Country! Family!"

The tensest moment of the debate was when Bolsonaro called da Silva to stand next to him as he answered a question. "Stay here, man," the president said.

The former president shot back, "I don't want to be anywhere near you," then turned his back.