Spring blooms in Brazil as Lula defeats Bolsonaro
In a momentous election for Brazilian voters, former leftist president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva ousted the far-right incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro, cementing a historic comeback for one of Brazil’s most popular leaders after his arrest in 2018.
Da Silva, affectionately known as Lula, campaigned on defending democracy and pushing back against '*Bolsonarismo*' (Bolsonarism), positioning the election as a referendum on Bolsonaro’s far-right movement. His victory marks the end to a volatile four years under Bolsonaro’s controversial administration, which saw massive deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, a pandemic with the second-highest number of deaths after the U.S., and a serious challenge to Brazil’s institutions.
Voters sealed Lula’s victory last Sunday, returning to the polls for a second round of voting after neither candidate secured the necessary 50 percent of the first-round vote on Oct. 2. Exceeding expectations, Bolsonaro secured 43.2 percent versus Lula’s 48.4 percent in the first round, triggering a runoff election on October 30. And on Sunday night Lula was declared victor at 50.9 percent and Bolsonaro trailing closely behind at 49.1.
The tightest election since Brazil regained its democracy in 1988, Bolsonaro’s defeat also represents the first time a sitting President has lost re-election.
Despite fomenting suspicion about the election for months, many of Bolsonaro’s political allies were quick to certify the results, while Bolsonaro himself remained quiet. International leaders also quickly spoke up, congratulating Lula and hailing the moment as a return to democracy in Brazil.
President Biden issued a statement congratulating Lula on his victory “following fair, free, and credible elections,” stating he looked forward to cooperating. Other countries -- including France, Spain, and Canada -- offered similar congratulations to Lula, affirming thr election’s legitimacy.
Latin American leaders likewise quickly flocked to Lula. Argentina’s President, Alberto Fernandez, called it a “new era in Latin American history. A time of hope and future that starts right now.”
Brazil’s shift to the left also fits a broader pattern: the resurgence of left-wing governments in the region. With Lula’s election, six of the seven largest countries in the region are now left-leaning, signifying a new “pink tide” sweeping over Latin America. The resurgence is significant in a region where leftist governments are historically victim to regime change and foreign interventions, particularly by the United States.
Lula officially enters office on Jan. 1.
On Tuesday, Bolsonaro broke his nearly two-day silence since the election declaring, “As president and as a citizen I will continue to follow all the commandments of our constitution.” While not explicitly conceding, Bolsonaro reportedly told judges at the Supreme Court afterwards: “It’s over.”
Bolsonaro’s brief silence earlier this week stoked anxiety that he would attempt to overturn the results after years questioning Brazil’s election integrity. Bolsonaro, an ex-military officer, is an ardent supporter of and apologist for Brazil’s former military dictatorship — which emerged after the U.S.-backed anti-communist coup in 1964 — and has defended the dictatorship's killings and use of torture. His affinity for the military dictatorship is clearly shown: He stocked his cabinet with military personnel, once brought tanks to Congress’ steps, and has said, “It’s the armed forces that decide whether people live in a democracy or a dictatorship.”
Bolsonaro has a consistent track record of anti-democratic and anti-communist principles and spewing violent rhetoric. His violent anti-democratic stance has been a hallmark of his far-right political career for years, with him quoted in 1999 as saying, “Voting won't change anything in this country. Nothing! Things will only change, unfortunately, after starting a civil war here, and doing the work the dictatorship didn’t do. Killing some thirty thousand people, and starting with [social democratic President Fernando Henrique Cardoso]. If some innocents die, that’s just fine.”
Throughout his presidency, he persistently attacked Brazil’s democratic institutions. In the past, Bolsonaro has spread disinformation about Brazil’s electronic voting machines, considered some of the world’s safest, claimed the last election was fraudulent, and attempted to alter electoral procedures according to these unfounded fraud claims. He attacked and intimidated the judiciary, threatening Supreme Court judges, who were investigating him on misconduct and corruption charges as well as his disinformation operations, that he would act “not within the bounds of the Constitution.” Attacks against the media, academia, healthcare workers, political dissidents, the country’s democratic institutions, and the vilification of the Brazilian left — all defined his presidency.
Political violence also characterized Bolsonaro’s campaign. Prior to the election, Bolsonaro suggested he might not accept the election results, claiming he could only lose due to fraud.
His supporters expressed willingness to take to the streets at his command, and some have even acted on their violence. In September, a Bolsonaro supporter hacked a man who expressed support for Lula to death with a machete. The incident is one in a string of such political attacks. In another incident on Oct. 29, the day before the election, conservative congresswoman Carla Zambelli chased down a man in São Paulo while brandishing a gun. It is illegal to carry a gun in the days leading up to an election, but Zambelli said she did not recognize the Court’s legitimacy on this ruling.
Reports on election day alleged the erection of illegal roadblocks, concentrated in leftist strongholds in the northeast, by the Federal Highway Police. Silvinei Vasques, chief of the highway police, posted on Instagram the day before urging people to vote for Bolsonaro before deleting it. Although the Supreme Court intervened and voters were only delayed, the incidents stoked fear of voter suppression and intimidation.
Many of Bolsonaro’s supporters believe strongly in his words and unfounded claims, voicing their own cries of fraud both before and after the election. Since the results were announced, many have either been unwilling to accept the outcome or have turned to the military as their last hope, in eerie reminiscence of the military dictatorship.
After the election, truckers, who benefited from cheaper diesel under Bolsonaro, barricaded major roads in protest. Seeking to break up the blockade, the Supreme Court threatened Chief Vasques with arrest should he fail to comply. A video circulated on Twitter Wednesday showing a crowd of Bolsonaro supporters at one such blockade. Draped in the national flag or dressed in the iconic national team jersey as the national anthem played, the crowd performed what appears to be the Nazi salute while displaying signs which read: “Military is our only savior!” or “Intervention, Now!” The demonstration is now under investigation for "Nazi incitement," a crime under Brazilian law. Bolsonaro has spoken out against the demonstrations, imploring his supporters to cease holding the country. He has simultaneously empathized with the demonstrators and encouraged them to continue protesting peacefully.
So far, Bolsonaro has toed a careful line between the expectations for Brazil’s democracy and the expectations of his supporters. By refusing to publicly concede and voicing sympathy for his supporters’ feelings of being wronged, Bolsonaro may be construed as pouring fuel on the fire.
Bolsonaro has appeared to back down, but it remains to be seen how the coming months will unfold as the transition of power gets underway in this deeply divided country.
Revival Amidst Turmoil
Lula, the steelworker-turned-union leader born and raised in poverty, served two terms as president in the 2000s, during which time he cemented himself as an international figure and possibly Brazil’s most lauded politician. After elevating both Brazil’s people and its international presence, Lula left office in 2010 with an almost 90 percent approval rating.
But in 2018, Lula was convicted on corruption charges after becoming embroiled in a sweeping investigation about corruption in the government known as Operation Car Wash — or Lava Jato, in Portuguese.
Lava Jato centered on Brazil’s state-run oil company, Petrobras, where bribes were funneled to politicians through contracts with the company. The investigation reached far: It implicated 16 companies, involved nearly every major party — accusing at least 50 congresspeople and placing four former presidents under investigation — and dealt with roughly five billion dollars in bribes.
Lava Jato rocked Brazil, making the judge who presided over the investigation and federal prosecutors national heroes while vilifying Lula’s Workers’ Party, leading to President Dilma Rouseff’s impeachment and denying Lula’s presidential bid.
But Lava Jato would create its own scandal when evidence revealed the investigation had become complicated by politically motivated bias and misconduct. Reporting revealed open animosity against political opponents with investigators directing attention towards people considered hostile and away from political and business allies. Leaked conversations also suggested Rouseff’s impeachment was partly an attempted intervention into Lava Jato by opposition leaders who would later be implicated.
Prosecutors were found colluding with Judge Moro as well as collaborating, possibly illegally, with U.S. prosecutors. Moro also fast-tracked Lula’s sentencing to block his candidacy, effectively helping Bolsonaro win the 2018 election. Moro later joined Bolsonaro’s cabinet as his justice minister.
Evidence also suggested Lula’s conviction, centering on a beachfront property allegedly gifted to him, was built on poor evidence.
In 2019 the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled that Lula’s incarceration as he sought appeal was unconstitutional, ordering his release after 580 days in prison. A subsequent ruling in 2021 found Judge Moro biased and that Lula’s case had been tried in the wrong court. The Supreme Court threw out Lula’s convictions, making him eligible for the 2022 election. These pivotal rulings lead us to today — the completion of Lula’s political rebirth.
Crowds welcomed Lula’s return with cheers of joy. Those crowds returned Sunday when millions took to the street, predominantly dressed in red, to celebrate Lula’s historic victory.
The Difficult Road Ahead
Lula is entering into a political arena dramatically different from the one he exited in 2010. Lula campaigned on the promise of bringing normalcy and prosperity back to Brazil once again.
His presidency portends good news for the environment, which suffered massively from Bolsonaro gutting protection agencies and promoting extractive industries, thereby accelerating deforestation. Lula wants to roll back these policies, eradicating illegal mining and logging while promoting agricultural conservation practices. Economically, Lula has pledged to raise the minimum wage, increase social welfare, and bolster programs to feed and house people — which he will fund by uncapping public spending and taxing the rich. He has also revived an idea to create a new Latin American currency, called the Sur, to break away from dependency on the U.S. financial system.
But Lula will find himself facing greater opposition than before as he contends with Bolsonaro's lasting legacy: a deeply polarized and unequal Brazil. Pursuing his political agenda will face serious hurdles since many of Bolsonaro’s allies won key elections; Lula will step into office with conservatives in control of both Congress and Brazil’s most powerful states. Lula may even face difficulties from his own broad coalition, ranging from centrists to leftists, who banded together against Bolsonaro but will likely reveal their ideological conflicts once in power.
To see his ideas realized, to return to a state of "civility," to lift his people out of poverty again, Lula will have to navigate a hostile and treacherous political landscape. But hope and optimism about what Lula’s victory signals for the country’s future still persists in Brazil.
Upon his arrest, Lula had this to say at his final speech in São Paulo: “The powers that be might kill one, two or three roses, but they will never be able to stop the spring from coming. And our struggle is a quest for the spring.”
And in his victory speech Sunday, Lula proclaimed, “They tried to bury me alive. And I am here.”
For Lula’s supporters, the arrival of spring may be upon them.