RIO DE JANEIRO — The two presidential candidates who will square off in Brazil's runoff this month are calling for an end to politically motivated violence— an issue emerging as a central theme of the elections.
Numerous cases of violence were reported in the week before the first round of voting on Sunday and have been ongoing since then. The second round of voting is scheduled Oct. 28.
The race has exposed deep divisions in Latin America's largest nation, with the two candidates representing opposing visions for the future and many Brazilians worried by violent incidents in the name of politics.
"What is going on is extremely worrisome," said Sergio Praca, a political science professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a think tank and university in Rio de Janeiro. "We need to figure out how to get out of this situation."
On the right is front-runner Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain who speaks approvingly of the country's 1964-1985 dictatorship and has promised a violent crackdown on drug gangs and other criminals. On the left is Fernando Haddad, a former Sao Paulo mayor who promises to return the country to the leftist policies of his Workers' Party, which governed between 2003 and 2016.
While most of the incidents of violence have been blamed on Bolsonaro supporters, the candidate himself was stabbed while campaigning on Sept. 6, allegedly by a man who told police God had told him to attack. Bolsonaro was discharged from the hospital on Sept. 29.
In a tweet late Wednesday, Bolsonaro said he didn't want the vote "of anybody who practices violence against those who didn't vote for me."
In a meeting with members of Congress in Rio on Thursday, Bolsonaro again condemned the violence — with some threats of his own.
"Even if they are my supporters, I will make them pay if they don't obey the law," he said.
His statements came after days of criticism from Workers' Party supporters who said Bolsonaro was turning a blind eye to attacks by his followers.
Runner-up Haddad also called for an end to the brutality, saying parties need to confront the issue together. He has suggested signing a "no violence" pact with Bolsonaro.
"This escalation of violence has to stop," Haddad tweeted Wednesday night.
Bolsonaro won Sunday's first round, getting 46 percent compared to 29 for Haddad. In a poll released Wednesday, he maintained a wide lead with 58 percent compared to 42 for Haddad. The Datafolha poll interviewed 3,235 people on Wednesday and had a 2 percentage point margin of error.
Brazil has long struggled to curb violence, a part of daily life in many areas. The country has the dubious distinction of being the world leader in total number of homicides each year; last year, a record 63,880 were slain.
Still, Natalia Viana, one of the directors of Publica, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization that produced a report this week on incidents of political violence, said such attacks are a new phenomenon for Brazil.
Publica found 50 incidents of attacks by Bolsonaro supporters compared to six against them since the beginning of October through Wednesday. The attacks happened all over the country and included beatings, stabbings, death threats and even homicide, according to the group. Viana said there are likely many more than those they were able to document.
While Bolsonaro has condemned attacks by his supporters, he has in the past praised torture and certain kinds of violence, and he has also accused the media of blowing the recent incidents out of proportion. Viana said if Bolsonaro doesn't take a stronger stand, "it's going to grow."
"It's different than in the U.S. because Brazilian society is much more violent ... it's much more unequal, and this is just going to be another type of violence that's going to spread," she said.
One of the most extreme cases was in the northeastern city of Salvador, where a capoeira teacher and supporter of the left-leaning Workers' Party was stabbed to death during a discussion with a supporter of Bolsonaro. Police say the attacker was arrested and confessed the killing was politically motivated.
Also in Salvador, a university professor was arrested for allegedly running over a man who was selling Bolsonaro t-shirts.
Many other cases are less extreme but still involve accosting, yelling and physical altercations.
Bruno Maia, a 37-year-old gay man who unsuccessfully ran for a seat in Sao Paulo's legislature, said he was campaigning before the election one day on Avenida Paulista in Sao Paulo when five muscular guys surrounded him and one slapped him hard on face.
Maia, a candidate for the leftist Socialism and Liberty Party, said he wasn't sure who was behind the attack, but he has no doubt it was because of a dislike of the left and homosexuality.
"There is a bad atmosphere in this country," said Maia.
Associated Press reporter Beatrice Christofaro in Rio de Janeiro and video journalist Victor Caivano and reporter Sarah DiLorenzo in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.