SAO PAULO ― Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won Brazil’s presidential election on Sunday, defeating far-right President Jair Bolsonaro in a heated contest during which the incumbent repeatedly threatened to dismantle the world’s fourth-largest democracy.
Brazil’s Superior Electoral Tribunal called the race for da Silva just before 7 p.m. Eastern time, with the leftist holding a narrow 50.83% to 48.17% lead with more than 98% of votes counted.
The victory will complete a triumphant return to the top of Brazilian politics for da Silva, the leader of the leftist Workers’ Party who previously served as the country’s president from 2003 to 2010, then spent nearly two years in prison on a corruption conviction that was ultimately annulled.
Four years after Brazilian discontent with a political establishment that da Silva had long represented helped propel Bolsonaro to victory, Brazilians turned back to the man they refer to simply as “Lula” in historic fashion: Bolsonaro is now the first president since Brazil’s return to democracy in the late 1980s to fail to win a second term.
The election did not provide a resounding defeat of Bolsonaro, one of a cadre of right-wing leaders putting democracies at risk worldwide, which da Silva and many of his supporters had once hoped for. But it was still a rejection of a leader who had spent his four years targeting Brazil’s democratic institutions and who seemed likely to use a second term in office to further erode the country’s democracy.
“The majority of the Brazilian people made it clear that they want more, not less, democracy,” da Silva said in his first speech as president-elect. “They want more social inclusion, not less. They want more, not less, equality and fraternity in our country.”
Da Silva and Bolsonaro advanced to Sunday’s runoff round after finishing as the top two candidates in a first round of voting on Oct. 2. In the closing stages of the race, the leftist who helped topple Brazil’s erstwhile military dictatorship a generation ago harked back to that fight for democracy in an effort to inspire Brazilians to reject a more modern threat.
He also pledged to renew Brazil’s fight against deforestation in the Amazon rainforest and reclaim its role as an important player on the world stage, where Bolsonaro has been increasingly isolated because of his anti-climate and anti-democracy actions.
Now attention will turn to how Bolsonaro will greet the news of his defeat.
For the last two years, Bolsonaro has targeted Brazil’s election system, which experts regard as one of the world’s best, with a barrage of attacks and conspiracy theories about voter fraud. He has said he would only accept the results if he believed they were “clean,” while also making it clear that any election he lost could not be considered such. And he has at times told supporters that he is willing to “go to war” to remain in office and prevent da Silva and the leftist Workers Party from returning to power.
Hours into Sunday’s vote, social media sites exploded with reports that police had begun stopping buses carrying voters to the polls, particularly in the northeastern region that is da Silva’s strongest base. The stops made by the Federal Highway Police ― there were more than 500 in all, and more than half occurred in northeastern states, according to reports ― defied the electoral court’s prohibition on such investigations during election day and drew cries of voter suppression from the Workers’ Party and its allies.
Multiple news outlets reported that the stops were part of a deliberate strategy developed by the Bolsonaro government in meetings held at the presidential residence earlier this month.
Alexandre de Moraes, the head of Brazil’s top electoral court, ordered the police to stop the operations but insisted that they had not affected the race: “We didn’t have any voters who didn’t vote because of the operations,” he said.
Bolsonaro had already ramped his threats against Brazil’s electoral authorities earlier in the week. He warned Brazil’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal, which oversees elections, that he may seek “ultimate consequences” in response to its refusal to investigate claims from Bolsonaro’s campaign that radio stations had censored his advertisements. (There was no evidence to support the assertions.) Eduardo Bolsonaro, the president’s son and a member of Brazil’s Congress, said that the elections should be delayed in a television interview Thursday night.
Bolsonaro has used rallies throughout this year to suggest that his supporters could take to the streets to contest the election results, and a sizable bloc of his voters have indicated in polls that they do not want him to recognize the results. Earlier this month, he told them to remain at polling places after they voted Sunday to monitor for potential irregularities ― which have never been seriously reported in Brazilian elections.
There is little chance, most experts believe, that Bolsonaro could successfully undermine the election results. Da Silva and his allies have said they have no doubt that the outcome will ultimately be respected and certified, and called for international leaders ― including U.S. President Joe Biden and heads of state from Europe and around the world ― to swiftly recognize the results.
“The people want democracy, and want the vote to be respected,” Aloízio Mercadante, a longtime da Silva ally, told reporters at a Thursday news conference.
Da Silva on Saturday said that he hoped Bolsonaro would respect the results but that he did not need the president to participate in ceremonial transition festivities.
“If necessary,” he said in São Paulo, “I’ll receive the presidential sash from the Brazilian people.”
The United States and many European nations have expressed confidence in the Brazilian electoral system for months. On Sunday, Biden congratulated da Silva on his victory less than an hour after the results were known.
“I send my congratulations to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on his election to be the next president of Brazil following free, fair, and credible elections,” Biden said in a statement. “I look forward to working together to continue the cooperation between our two countries in the months and years ahead.”
Brazil’s largest newspaper reported Sunday that Biden is also planning to send White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan to visit the country in the coming days to help lend legitimacy to the result and foster a smooth transition.
As president, da Silva oversaw an economic boom that catapulted Brazil to the cusp of global superpower status. By the time he left office in 2010, his country was a major international player on issues like climate change, a key member of a bloc of emerging nations that included China and India, talking about a potential permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, and on the verge of overtaking nations like France and the United Kingdom economically.
Da Silva’s expansions of social welfare programs helped boost millions of Brazilians out of poverty, while affirmative action policies opened college admissions and government jobs to Black Brazilians who had lacked access to them.
He was, as former U.S. President Barack Obama declared, “the most popular politician in the world,” with approval ratings north of 80%.
Then it all fell apart: The economy collapsed under da Silva’s successor, President Dilma Rousseff, who was also a member of the Workers’ Party. Da Silva was the most high-profile of the hundreds of politicians ensnared in a massive political corruption crisis. His political career seemed over, his legacy impossibly tarnished. Bolsonaro surged to an improbable victory in 2018’s election that was premised, first and foremost, on vanquishing the Workers’ Party and da Silva for good. During that campaign, he promised that members of the PT, as the party is known in Portuguese, would have two options: “Leave, or go to jail.”
Instead, da Silva, who maintained his innocence all along, came roaring back. In 2019, The Intercept Brazil exposed judicial and prosecutorial improprieties in the corruption investigation into him, and his conviction was eventually annulled.
Bolsonaro’s authoritarian approach to the presidency and his scandal-plagued government turned many Brazilians against him. Bolsonaro focused intently on waging a right-wing culture war throughout his presidency, targeting LGBTQ people, Indigenous rights, the press and his critics. He took a conspiratorial approach to the coronavirus pandemic, opposing lockdowns, vaccines and other mitigation measures even as the virus killed more than 680,000 Brazilians ― the second-highest official total in the world.
The pandemic and record rates of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest embarrassed and isolated Brazil on the world stage, and left many in the country weary of the right-winger.
In August, elite business leaders, judges and lawyers released a letter in defense of Brazilian democracy that did not mention Bolsonaro by name but was clearly meant to highlight the fears that he might tear it down. Civil society groups traveled to the U.S. and Europe to raise alarm. And senior officials and lawmakers in both the United States and Europe expressed major concerns about the election, warning Bolsonaro to stop threatening it.
Still, Bolsonaro gained momentum in the polls early in the runoff as he shifted the focus onto his opponent: In one poll, 43% of voters said they regarded da Silva’s return as the “worst possible outcome” for the country, a number equal to those who viewed a second Bolsonaro term as such.
He also launched an unprecedented spending blitz that promised billions of dollars in new aid to poorer voters in an attempt to swing their votes. And his supporters hammered da Silva with a barrage of false allegations that spread across social networks like YouTube and WhatsApp.
But Bolsonaro stagnated in the race’s final weeks, in part because his anti-democratic threats to the country and its institutions were often on full display.
Prominent members of Brazil’s centrist establishment backed da Silva, helping him build a “broad front” of allies: Sen. Simone Tebet, a centrist who finished third in the election’s first round, endorsed da Silva and campaigned relentlessly for him. Pre-election surveys suggested that as many as 70% of her voters intended to back da Silva on Sunday. The week before the vote, a prominent Bolsonaro ally attacked police who were trying to arrest him, a development that helped put a stop to Bolsonaro’s rise in the polls.
Major issues facing Brazil were largely drowned in a sea of fake news that turned the runoff race into a slog to the finish line. In television ads, however, both candidates focused largely on the the state of Brazil’s economy, as rising costs of food. Da Silva argued that Bolsonaro was responsible for surges in hunger and poverty rates, and promised that he would restore their “right to barbecue” ― a nod to the high costs of meat that had rendered it unaffordable for many Brazilians. Bolsonaro countered by leaning on his late expansions of aid to the poor and the economy’s general improvement in the months before the election.
Da Silva’s campaign was light on specific detail: He largely chose to remind Brazilians of the economic prosperity and social advances made during his presidency more than a decade ago. Late in the race, he released an outline of his economic platform and pledged to pursue an ambitious environmental agenda that could be likened to a Brazilian version of the Green New Deal that progressives in the United States sought to implement.
The Brazil that he will now lead, however, is in a much different position than the one he left.
Its economy has still not fully recovered from the last decade’s collapse or the pandemic. The sort of social assistance da Silva delivered as president may be constrained by caps on spending. Reversing rates of deforestation in the Amazon will pose a challenge. Brazil’s power on the global stage is not what it once was, even if the United States and many leaders in Europe will likely welcome his victory as a chance to partner on trade, climate and other issues.
And even if Bolsonaro does not mount a major challenge to the election, Bolsonarismo is likely to remain a significant aspect of Brazilian politics, after Bolsonaro-aligned candidates won the largest share of congressional seats on Oct. 2.