Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva defeated the incumbent Jaír Bolsonaro in Sunday’s runoff elections in Brazil. Lula’s victory returns the leftist leader to power, as the country’s electorate rejected four years of Bolsonaro’s right-wing rule — a result that many of Brazil’s leaders, including those on the right, have acknowledged, except Bolsonaro himself.
Bolsonaro has yet to concede the election, hours after Lula won 50.9 percent of the vote to Bolsonaro’s 49.1 percent. But in that void, Brazil’s politicians — including some of Bolsonaro’s closest allies — have affirmed Lula’s electoral victory and promised to work with the new administration. World leaders have also congratulated Lula on his win.
The full-throated support for the legitimacy of Lula’s win has blunted the potential threat of Bolsonaro’s silence — and the threat of the possibility the incumbent might not accept the electoral results.
Bolsonaro has long sowed doubts about election integrity in Brazil and raised the specter of voter fraud throughout his presidency, including in the 2018 election he actually won.
In the lead-up to the 2022 elections, he amplified and intensified those claims, especially as Lula led in the polls and Bolsonaro faced political backlash for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the economy. Specifically, Bolsonaro lied about the security of the country’s electronic voting system (which, in use since 2002, was created to reduce fraud and corruption and to manage the logistics of a complex voting system). “I’ll hand over the presidential sash to whoever wins the election cleanly,” the far-right Bolsonaro said in July 2021. “Not with fraud.”
But Bolsonaro is looking more and more isolated. Although some of his supporters have protested, including truck drivers blocking roads, the political establishment has already signaled strongly that it is preparing for Lula’s inauguration on January 1.
Exactly how smooth a transition that may be is still in question. Bolsonaro has previously said he saw three outcomes for the elections: death, prison, or victory. That makes it hard to imagine him conceding graciously, and affirming the health of Brazil’s democracy as a right-wing leader hands power to a left-wing political opponent.
“I don’t think he’s interested in that kind of symbolism. I don’t think he’ll be interested in working with Lula during the transition period,” said Andre Pagliarini, an assistant professor of history at Hampden-Sydney College and fellow at the Washington Brazil Office. “That said, one thing I think is fatal to any attempt by Bolsonaro to muck things up is that virtually everybody else has recognized his defeat.”
Bolsonaro loses, but Bolsonarismo is here to stay
None of this rules out the possibility that Bolsonaro might attempt some last-gasp effort to remain in power in the two months between now and inauguration day. But right now, few look willing to enable him.
That is a reassuring sign for Brazil’s democratic institutions, which so far are withstanding the type of January 6-style insurrection that some feared might happen in the wake of a potential Bolsonaro defeat.
But in retrospect, that’s looking like it was always going to be a bit harder to pull off. For one, Brazil gets its election results fast — the world’s fourth-largest democracy, with a population of over 210 million, including some who vote from remote parts of the Amazon, tallies its results quickly (certainly faster than the world’s second-largest democracy). The country — and the world — knew Lula had won the election the day of. That, experts pointed out, has eliminated a lot of space for Bolsonaro to sow real doubts about the outcome. (There were reports of possible voter intimidation on the day of the election against Lula voters after police allegedly blocked roads in the northeast, Lula’s stronghold.)
And, again, the political establishment credited Lula with victory, even as some of his opponents made clear they would oppose him and his agenda when in office. The military and police, always a potential wild card, also don’t appear to be agitating to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power. According to the New York Times, Bolsonaro has spent the day meeting with ministers, who have presented him with a speech to deliver Monday, though it’s still unclear whether, or when, he’ll speak — or what he’ll say.
“At the institutional level, everyone is acting very responsibly, so Bolsonaro doesn’t have traction there,” said Paulo Barrozo, an associate law professor at Boston College.
Lula’s victory and that institutional bulwark, if it holds, are signs that Brazil’s democracy withstood Bolsonaro’s very real threat. There are sighs of relief and celebration from many of Lula’s supporters and Bolsonaro’s opponents.
But that victory is not a cure-all for the country’s sharp divisions. Bolsonaro lost the election, but many of his political allies won, and Lula will rule over a divided government. Lula won with a coalition that included his traditional base of support, but his coalition spanned from the far left to the center right, including many who voted against Bolsonaro, rather than for Lula. That may redefine the legacy of Lula, a leftist hero who went from prison back to the presidency and who, as experts said, may now govern more from the center, framing himself as a transitional leader.
“Starting January 1, 2023, I will govern for 215 million Brazilians and not only for those who voted for me,” Lula said in his victory speech. “There are not two Brazils. We are a single country, a single people, and a great nation.”
But the close results of the election — the tightest since Brazil’s transition to a democracy in 1984-1985 — make it clear that two Brazils likely do exist. Bolsonaro may have lost, but Bolsonarismo and the right-wing movement he created have become a more deeply rooted political phenomenon, said Pagliarini.
The election results, if anything, show the strength of the right wing in Brazil — which still had electoral success in 2022, and may see this election as a future to build on, one that transcends Bolsonaro himself. “If and when Bolsonaro leaves the stage, his presence will be felt for years to come, not just in elected office,” Pagliarini said.
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