Back to the Future: Lula Squeaks Out a Win over Bolsonaro in Brazil


Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has broken his silence over the re-election bid he lost but his ambiguous remarks and failure to concede to leftist rival Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva have done little to alleviate threats of violence in the two months before he is to hand over power.

The narrowly defeated authoritarian, dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics” thanked those Brazilians who voted for him and blamed their protests blocking highways across the country on their “indignation and a sense of injustice.”

Bolsonaro made no mention of Lula, nor did he concede or say he accepted the election result.

“Our dreams are more alive than ever,” he told journalists in Brasilia in an odd characterization of an election he lost.

The final vote was closer than pollsters had predicted – Lula’s 50.9% to Bolsonaro’s 49.1% —  intensifying concern that the incumbent would cry foul. Political loyalists and Bolsonaro himself had sown doubts about the reliability of the election process during the contentious campaign. The man who claimed on the stump that “only God” could remove him from office has powerful allies in the Brazilian military and ranks of armed supporters.

During the 44 hours between the election called for Lula Sunday evening and Bolsonaro’s brief appearance at the press conference Tuesday afternoon, speculation swirled in Brazil and elsewhere that the defeated president might call on the army to back a coup d’état or instigate the kind of violent rioting unleashed on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Photos from the press conference show Bolsonaro looking more deflated than defiant. His carefully scripted remarks left many to wonder, though if he was grudgingly complying with national security officials’ advice to get his supporters to cease their disruptive protests or buying time to weigh other options than conceding to arch-enemy Lula.

He called the demonstrators thwarting travel and vital commerce a “popular movement” and said he welcomed peaceful protests as long as they didn’t destroy property or impede the free flow of traffic and goods. Bolsonaro supporters’ blockades around Sao Paulo International Airport forced airlines to cancel dozens of flights on Monday and Tuesday. The head of the Federal Highway Police, Marco Antonio Territo de Barros, told reporters in Brasilia that the road blockages affected 46,500 miles of highway. More than 300 of the protests had been dispersed, he said, but nearly that same number continued to disrupt travel and food delivery.

Some media analysts noted positive signals that Bolsonaro would follow the law and hand over power to Lula when the next term begins on Jan. 1.

“As president and as a citizen I will continue to follow all the commandments of our constitution,” Bolsonaro said before departing the press conference after a few cryptic comments.

Ciro Nogueira, presidential chief of staff, spoke to reporters after Bolsonaro left to say he’d been authorized by the president to initiate the transition process with Lula’s team.

Bolsonaro’s hint at a willingness to leave office peacefully may be driven by defections from his national and foreign allies who have recognized Lula’s victory. Nogueira, Vice President Hamilton Mourao, speaker of the lower house of Congress Arthur Lira and the head of the powerful CNA agricultural lobby are among the Brazilian leaders recognizing Lula’s victory and working with his representatives to prepare the handover in two months. Even the lame-duck president’s authoritarian comrades in China and Russia have offered congratulations to Lula.

For Lula, the most contentious election in decades crowned a remarkable political comeback. The 77-year-old former trade unionist’s 2003-2010 tenure as head of state oversaw one of Brazil’s most hopeful and prosperous periods since the end of military dictatorship in 1985. A booming economy lifted 30 million Brazilians out of poverty and his government’s battle against illegal mining and farming cut the rate of deforestation in the Amazon.  He was swept up in a corruption scandal after leaving office and served 19 months in prison before his conviction was revoked last year and he was again eligible to run for election.

Lula promised on the campaign trail to restore the environmental protections of his former administration that Bolsonaro retracted, leading to devastating accelerated deforestation and attacks against indigenous populations whose livelihoods depend on healthy rivers and rain forests.

Bolsonaro’s other destructive legacy has been his catastrophic COVID-19 response that left nearly 700,000 Brazilians dead, a per capita rate second only to the United States in the Western Hemisphere.

Carol J Williams
Carol J Williams
Carol J. Williams is a retired foreign correspondent with 30 years' reporting abroad for the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press. She has reported from more than 80 countries, with a focus on USSR/Russia and Eastern Europe.


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