In a nail-biting finish, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was narrowly elected the President of Brazil with 50.9 per cent of the votes polled. President Jair Bolsonaro, who till a couple of months ago was trailing by double digits in exit polls, managed to get 49.1 per cent of the votes in the second round election on October 30. Interestingly, of the eligible voters more than 20 per cent did not vote and around 5 per cent chose to invalidate their vote by casting either blank or spoilt ballots. This is also the first time since the re-introduction of democracy in Brazil in 1985 that a sitting President has lost a re-election bid.
“I will govern for 215 million Brazilians, not just for those who voted for me,” Lula said in his victory speech. “There are no two Brazils. We are one country, one people, one great nation.” Tensions were high as Brazilians went to the polling booths. Many pollsters had predicted before the final round that the election was too close to call. Bolsonaro launched a no-holds-barred campaign in the final weeks, promising freebies and spreading falsehoods on social media. Retired and serving senior army and police personnel were among his vociferous supporters on the campaign trail.
Bolsonaro’s main focus was on discrediting the process itself, refusing till the very end to confirm that he would accept the result. He had authorised the country’s military leadership earlier in the year to keep an eye on the Election Commission’s preparations. The military had suggested a few minor changes regarding the electronic counting machines and the commission accepted them. After the first round election in September, the military high command said it found no discrepancies in the counting of votes and in the second round, too, it did not cast any aspersion on the counting process.
Alleging foul play
Bolsonaro alleged foul play in the first round despite performing much better than predicted. He and his supporters claimed that Brazil’s electoral system was seriously flawed and that the results could be easily tampered with. However, there has been no plausible evidence of electoral fraud since the introduction of electronic voting machines in Brazil in 1996. Election observers and experts from all over the world, including the United States, have certified that elections in Brazil are among the cleanest in the world.
Before voting machines were introduced, Brazilian elections were marked by widespread fraud and booth capturing. Bolsonaro and his allies brought up the fact that there was no paper trail after people electronically cast their votes. In the 2014 presidential election also, the centre-right alleged foul play in the counting after suffering a narrow defeat. An audit of the vote at the behest of the opposition showed that there were no irregularities.
There were serious apprehensions in Brazil and the international community that Bolsonaro and his supporters would not accept the outcome of the second round this time. Bolsonaro had said in June: “A new class of thieves have emerged in our nation who want to steal our elections. If necessary, we will go to war.” Last year, he told his supporters that there were only three electoral outcomes—either he wins, or he is killed, or he is arrested. “Tell the ba.....s I will never be arrested,” he had said.
Edson Fachin, the top Election Commission official who is also a Supreme Court judge, had said that the claims of fraudulent elections were unfounded and dangerous. “These problems are created by those who want to destroy Brazilian democracy,” he said. “What is at stake in Brazil is not just an electronic voting machine. What is at stake is maintaining democracy.”
Another Supreme Court judge, Alexandre de Moraes, who took over as Chief Election Commissioner in August, just before the first round election, ensured that Bolsonaro did not interfere with the electoral process. While being sworn in, he warned that he would take strict action against those questioning the legitimacy of the electoral process. “We are the only democracy in the world that calculates and publishes election results on the same day, with agility, security, competence, and transparency”, he said.
It was clear that Bolsonaro lacked the institutional support to overturn the results or to stage a coup with the support of sections of the armed forces. Almost immediately after the results were announced on October 31, many of his senior cabinet ministers, Supreme Court judges, and allies in the Congress, including the Speaker, urged him to concede defeat and move on.
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However, almost two days later he made a half-hearted concession speech, in which he authorised the transition of power to Lula. The new President will be sworn in on January 1. Bolsonaro did not explicitly concede defeat and refused to acknowledge that the election was free and fair. He supported the peaceful protests that were being staged by his supporters all over the country and claimed that the protests “were inspired by feelings of injustice in the electoral process”.
He eventually urged his supporters to stop blockading major cities and “protest in other ways, in other places”. Truck drivers had blockaded main arterial roads to cities, stopping the movement of essential commodities, briefly inconveniencing life in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and other cities. In Chile, too, after President Salvador Allende came to power in 1970, the truck drivers’ union had led the protests against his left-wing government. Bolsonaro’s supporters called for the military to intervene and stage a coup. In fact, many of the protests in Brazil were held near military bases.
The protesters said that the blockades were part of the efforts to “paralyse” Brazil and force the military to intervene. In the Cold War days, Washington and the CIA backed the moves against the Allende government. Fifty years later, the situation has changed in Latin America. The Biden administration, like the rest of the international community, was quick to welcome Lula’s victory.
The only people outside Brazil who supported the allegations that Bolsonaro was cheated out of victory were Donald Trump’s supporters in the Republican Party. The majority of Trump supporters continue to believe that the 2020 presidential election in the US was stolen. Polls show that three out of four Bolsonaro supporters also believe that the recent election in Brazil was stolen.
And, like Trump, Bolsonaro had the solid backing of the Christian Right. Evangelical groups, to which more than 30 per cent of the population belongs, had thrown their support behind Bolsonaro in a big way. Lula had to publicly deny that he had “a pact with the devil” or that he supported “abortion rights”. Both evangelical and Catholic Christians are opposed to the legalisation of abortion rights. The Christian groups supporting Bolsonaro were also critical about the Workers’ Party’s stance on gay rights and the right of people to practice Afro-Brazilian religious traditions.
One of the factors that led to an erosion of Lula’s support base was the inroads Christian fundamentalists had made in Brazilian society in general and among the working class and the poor in particular. Also, weeks before the final round, Bolsonaro ordered a 50 per cent increase in welfare payments for the poorest section of Brazilians. This move also helped Bolsonaro get votes which would have otherwise gone to Lula.
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All the same, it has been a remarkable comeback for Lula and a momentous event not only for Brazil but the entire region. Recent elections in Chile, Colombia, and Honduras resulted in victories for the left. Six of the seven largest countries in the region have elected left-wing presidents since 2018. A defeat in Brazil for Lula, Latin America’s left-wing icon, against an unreconstructed right-wing leader like Bolsonaro, would have been a serious setback for progressive forces in the region.
But Lula faces immense challenges in a deeply polarised country. The man who left the presidency with an unprecedented 80 per cent approval rating in 2011 is today viewed with suspicion and even outright hatred by a significant section of the populace. Though the Brazilian Supreme Court threw out his conviction for corruption after he had spent 580 days in prison, many Brazilians continue to believe that he was guilty. In television debates, both Bolsonaro and Lula accused each other of indulging in corrupt practices. The Supreme Court while throwing out the charges against Lula ruled that the trial court judge was biased. The court, however, did not give a specific ruling acquitting Lula of corruption charges but allowed him to run for the presidency.
The unproven charges will dog Lula as he strives to fulfil his promises. Lula has pledged to lift up the living standards of the poor. Bolsonaro’s gross mishandling of the pandemic had a terrible impact on the economy, worsening the living standards of the middle and working classes. More than 7,00,000 Brazilians had lost their lives in the pandemic.
In his victory speech, Lula promised to fight against discrimination and inequality. He said he would expand the welfare measures for the poor, introduce a higher minimum wage, and build more affordable housing. To finance this scheme, the new government aims to substantially increase taxes on the affluent sections of society.
But Lula faces an uphill task. The Workers’ Party’s representation in both the upper and lower houses of the legislature has shrunk considerably. Extreme right-wing parties have made significant gains in this year’s elections. Sao Paulo, Brazil’s industrial hub and until recently a Workers’ Party stronghold, is now under the control of the right-wing. A centre-right bloc of parties controls the majority in both houses. Lula’s hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, was not allowed to complete her term in office by a legislature dominated by opposition parties. She was impeached on fabricated charges.
One important reason why Lula’s election has been welcomed by the international community is his commitment to preserve the Amazon rainforest region. Bolsonaro allowed ranchers, miners, and agribusiness companies to move into the area. His government slashed funds for the environmental agencies tasked with protecting the rainforest and its original inhabitants. Deforestation coupled with wildfires soared during the last four years.
Lula has said that his government will “be open to international cooperation to preserve the Amazon, whether in the form of scientific research or investments”. At the same time, he emphasised that his government will fight for “a fair global trade” to replace current trading practices that “condemns our country to be an eternal exporter of raw materials”. Lula has a herculean task ahead of him: about 115 million Brazilians are fighting “food insecurity”.
Lula is also one of the key architects of the BRICS grouping and is immensely respected by the leaders of the global south for his efforts to build a multipolar world.
- Lula was narrowly elected the President of Brazil with 50.9 per cent of the votes in the second round election on October 30, while outgoing President Jair Bolsonaro managed to get 49.1 per cent.
- Bolsonaro alleged foul play in the first round despite performing much better than predicted.
- But, he lacked the institutional support to overturn the results or to stage a coup with the support of sections of the armed forces.
- In his victory speech, Lula said he would expand the welfare measures for the poor, introduce a higher minimum wage, and build more affordable housing.
- Lula has a herculean task ahead of him: about 115 million Brazilians are fighting “food insecurity”.