Brazilians delivered a very tight victory to Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in a bitter presidential election, giving the leftist former president another shot at power in a rejection of incumbent Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right politics.
Da Silva received 50.9 per cent of the vote and Bolsonaro 49.1 per cent, according to the country’s election authority. Yet hours after the results were in – and congratulations poured in from world leaders – Bolsonaro had yet to publicly concede or react in any way.
Bolsonaro’s campaign had made repeated — unproven — claims of possible electoral manipulation before the vote, raising fears that, if he lost, he would not accept defeat and try to challenge the results.
For Mr da Silva, the high-stakes election was a stunning comeback. His imprisonment for corruption sidelined him from the 2018 election won by Bolsonaro, who has used the presidency to promote conservative social values while also delivering incendiary speeches and testing democratic institutions.
“Today the only winner is the Brazilian people,” Mr da Silva said in a speech on Sunday evening at a hotel in downtown Sao Paulo. “It’s the victory of a democratic movement that formed above political parties, personal interests and ideologies so that democracy came out victorious.”
Mr da Silva is promising to govern beyond his party. He says he wants to bring in centrists and even some leaning to the right, and to restore the kind of prosperity the country enjoyed when he last served as president from 2003-2010. Yet he faces headwinds in a politically polarised society.
Bolsonaro’s four years in office have been marked by proclaimed conservatism and defence of traditional Christian values. He claimed that his rival’s return to power would usher in communism, legalised drugs, abortion and the persecution of churches – things that did not happen during Mr da Silva’s earlier eight years in office.
This was the country’s tightest election since its return to democracy in 1985, and the first time that a sitting president failed to win re-election. Just over two million votes separated the two candidates; the previous closest race, in 2014, was decided by a margin of roughly 3.5 million votes.
Among world leaders offering congratulations on Sunday night was US President Joe Biden, who in a statement highlighted the country’s “free, fair, and credible elections”. The European Union also commended the electoral authority for its effectiveness and transparency throughout the campaign.
Cars in the streets
Bolsonaro had been leading throughout the first half of the count and, as soon as Mr da Silva overtook him, cars in the streets of downtown Sao Paulo began honking their horns. People in the streets of Rio de Janeiro’s Ipanema neighbourhood could be heard shouting, “It turned!”
Bolsonaro’s administration has been widely criticised for its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the worst deforestation in the Amazon rainforest in 15 years. But he has built a devoted base by presenting himself as protection from leftist policies that he says infringe on personal liberties while producing economic turmoil and moral rot. He sought to shore up support in an election year with vast government spending.
“We did not face an opponent, a candidate. We faced the machine of the Brazilian state put at his service so we could not win the election,” Mr da Silva told the crowd in Sao Paulo.
Mr da Silva built an extensive social welfare programme during his tenure at president that helped lift tens of millions into the middle class. The man universally known as Lula left office with an approval rating above 80 per cent, prompting then US president Barack Obama to call him “the most popular politician on Earth”.
But he is also remembered for his administration’s involvement in vast corruption revealed by sprawling investigations.
Mr da Silva was jailed for 580 days for corruption and money laundering. His convictions were later annulled by Brazil’s top court, which ruled the presiding judge had been biased and colluded with prosecutors. That enabled Mr da Silva to run for president for the sixth time.
Mr da Silva has pledged to boost spending on the poor, re-establish relationships with foreign governments and take bold action to eliminate illegal clear-cutting in the Amazon rainforest.
“We will once again monitor and do surveillance in the Amazon. We will fight every illegal activity,” Mr da Silva said in his speech. “At the same time, we will promote sustainable development of communities in the Amazon.”