Lula defeats Bolsonaro in the tightest Brazilian elections in decades

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has done it again: Twenty years after his first victory as Brazilian president, the leftist beat incumbent Jair Bolsonaro on Sunday in an extremely close election that marks a turnaround for the country after four years of politics far right. With more than 99% of the vote in the second round, Lula had 50.9% and Bolsonaro 49.1%, and the electoral authority said Mr da Silva’s victory was a mathematical certainty. It’s a stunning reversal for da Silva, whose 2018 jailing over a corruption scandal sidelined him in the 2018 elections that brought to power Mr. Bolsonaro, an advocate of conservative social values.

“Today the only winner is the Brazilian people,” Lula said in a speech at a hotel in downtown São Paulo. “It is not a victory for me or the Workers’ Party, nor for the parties that supported me during the campaign. It is the victory of a democratic movement that has formed above political parties, personal interests and ideologies for democracy to emerge victorious.

Lula promises to govern beyond his party. He wants to bring in centrists and even some right-wingers who voted for him for the first time, and restore the country’s more prosperous past. Yet he faces headwinds in a politically polarized society where economic growth is slowing and inflation is soaring.

It was the country’s tightest election since returning to democracy in 1985, and the first time since then that the incumbent president has not been re-elected. Just over 2 million votes separate the two candidates; the previous closest race, in 2014, was decided by a margin of around 3.5 million votes.

The highly polarized election in Latin America’s largest economy extended a wave of recent victories by the left in the region, including in Chile, Colombia and Argentina.

As Lula spoke to his supporters – promising to “govern a country in a very difficult situation” – Bolsonaro had yet to relent.

Lula’s inauguration is scheduled for January 1. He last served as president from 2003 to 2010.

Thomas Traumann, an independent political analyst, compared the results to US President Joe Biden’s victory in 2020, saying Lula inherits a deeply divided nation.

“Lula’s huge challenge will be to pacify the country,” he said. “People are not only polarized on political issues, but also have different values, identity and opinions. Moreover, they don’t care about the values, identities and opinions of the other side.

Congratulations for Lula – and Brazil – began pouring in from across Latin America and around the world on Sunday night, including from Mr Biden, who highlighted the country’s ‘free, fair and credible elections’ . The European Union also praised Lula in a statement, hailing the electoral authority for its efficiency and transparency throughout the campaign.

Bolsonaro had led throughout the first half of the count, and as soon as Lula passed him, cars on the streets of downtown São Paulo began honking. People could be heard in the streets of the Ipanema district of Rio de Janeiro shouting: “It turned!

Lula’s siege at the hotel in downtown São Paulo only erupted after the final result was announced, underlining the tension that was the hallmark of this race.

“Four years of waiting for this,” said Gabriela Souto, one of the few fans allowed in due to heavy security measures.

Outside Bolsonaro’s home in Rio, ground zero for his support base, a woman on top of a truck said a prayer over a loudspeaker, then sang excitedly, trying to generate energy as the count was increasing for Lula. But supporters decked out in the green and yellow of the flag barely responded. Many woke up when the national anthem played, singing loudly with their hands on their hearts.

For months, it appeared Lula was headed for an easy win as he stoked nostalgia for his presidency, as Brazil’s economy boomed and social assistance helped tens of millions join the middle class.

But while Lula led the October 2 first round election with 48% of the vote, Bolsonaro was second with 43%, showing that opinion polls had significantly underestimated his popularity.

Bolsonaro’s administration has been marked by inflammatory rhetoric, his testing of democratic institutions, his widely criticized handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the worst deforestation of the Amazon rainforest in 15 years. But he has built a dedicated base by championing conservative values ​​and portraying himself as a hedge against left-wing policies that he says undermine individual freedoms and produce economic turmoil. And he built his support in an election year with vast government spending.

“We did not face an adversary, a candidate. We faced the machine of the Brazilian state put at its service to not be able to win the elections,” Lula told the crowd in São Paulo.

Lula implemented an extensive social welfare program during his tenure that helped lift tens of millions into the middle class. The man universally known as Lula also presided over an economic boom, leaving office with an approval rating of over 80%, prompting US President Barack Obama to call him “the most popular on Earth.

But he is also remembered for his administration’s involvement in vast corruption uncovered by sprawling investigations. Lula’s arrest in 2018 sidelined him in that year’s race against Bolsonaro, a fringe lawmaker at the time who was an avowed fan of former US President Donald Trump.

Lula was imprisoned for 580 days for corruption and money laundering. His convictions were later overturned by Brazil’s highest court, which ruled the court president had been biased and colluded with prosecutors. This allowed Lula to run for the country’s highest office for the sixth time.

Lula pledged to increase spending for the poor, restore relations with foreign governments and take bold steps to eliminate illegal clear-cutting in the Amazon rainforest.

“We will again monitor and do monitoring in the Amazon. We will fight any illegal activity,” Lula said in his acceptance speech. “At the same time, we will promote the sustainable development of communities in the Amazon.”

The president-elect has pledged to set up a ministry for the native peoples of Brazil, which will be led by an indigenous person.

But as Lula attempts to achieve these and other goals, he will face strong opposition from conservative lawmakers likely to take inspiration from Bolsonaro.

Carlos Melo, professor of political science at Insper University of São Paulo, compared the likely political climate to that experienced by former President Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s hand-picked successor after her second term.

“Lula’s victory means that Brazil is trying to overcome years of turmoil since the re-election of President Dilma Rousseff in 2014. This election has never ended; the opposition demanded a recount, they governed under pressure and were impeached two years later,” Melo said. “The gap became huge and then did Bolsonaro.”

This year, unemployment has fallen to its lowest level since 2015 and, although headline inflation has slowed during the campaign, food prices are rising at a double-digit rate. Bolsonaro’s social benefits have helped many Brazilians get by, but Lula has emerged as the candidate most willing to keep aid going in the future and raise the minimum wage.

In April, he tapped centre-right Geraldo Alckmin, a former rival, to be his running mate. It was another key part of an effort to create a broad pro-democracy front not just to unseat Bolsonaro, but to facilitate government.

“If Lula manages to talk to voters who did not vote for him, which Bolsonaro has never tried, and seek negotiated solutions to the economic, social and political crisis we have, and links with other nations that were lost, then he could reconnect Brazil in a time when people might disagree and still do certain things,” Melo said.

This story was reported by the Associated Press. Carla Bridi contributed to this report from Brasilia.

Edward N. Arrington