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Brazil’s brash far-right leader Bolsonaro silent after election loss to leftist Lula

Nearly a full day after President Jair Bolsonaro lost his bid for re-election, the far-right leader had neither conceded defeat nor challenged the results.
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/ Source: The Associated Press

BRASILIA, Brazil — In Brazil’s capital on Monday, the silence was deafening.

Nearly a full day after President Jair Bolsonaro lost his bid for re-election, the usually brash right-wing leader had neither conceded defeat nor challenged the results of the country’s closest political contest in more than three decades.

Bolsonaro hadn’t spoken a word to reporters camped outside the official residence or the supporters who regularly gather nearby. Nor did he post on his otherwise prolific social media platforms.

The only sign of protest came from Bolsonaro-supporting truckers who on Sunday started blocking roads across the country. By Monday night, the Federal Highway Police reported 236 incidents in 18 states, up from 136 three hours prior to that.

On social media, one of Bolsonaro’s sons, Sen. Flávio Bolsonaro, who served as a coordinator on his father’s campaign, thanked supporters and told them to keep their heads up and “don’t give up on Brazil.”

Ricardo Barros, Bolsonaro’s whip in the Lower House, told The Associated Press by phone that he was with the president Monday and that Bolsonaro was “still deciding” whether to speak about the election’s results.

Much like former U.S. President Donald Trump, whom Bolsonaro admires, the outgoing Brazilian leader has repeatedly questioned the reliability of the nation’s electronic voting system. At one point he said he possessed proof of fraud, though he provided no evidence. And as recently as last month, he remarked that if he didn’t win in the election’s first round, something was “abnormal” — even as most polls showed him trailing.

Bolsonaro’s rival, former president and left-leaning ex-union leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won the runoff Sunday night with 50.9% of the votes, to Bolsonaro’s 49.1%. It was the closest election since Brazil’s return to democracy in 1985.

As time passes and an increasing number of international leaders publicly recognize da Silva’s victory, the president’s room for dispute is dwindling, experts told The Associated Press.

Bolsonaro at Alvorada Palace in Brasilia on Monday. Evaristo Sa / AFP - Getty Images

Some of Bolsonaro’s closest allies indicated the same.

“The will of the majority seen on ballots shall never be contested,” Lower House Speaker Arthur Lira told reporters Sunday.

Other Bolsonaro supporters who publicly acknowledged da Silva’s win include Sao Paulo governor-elect Tarcísio de Freitas and Senator-elect Damares Alves, both of whom served as ministers under Bolsonaro, and Lower House whip Barros. Evangelical pastor Silas Malafaia, who has been a strident Bolsonaro supporter, called for God to bestow his “blessing” on da Silva.

“He must have several plans for how to contest the results of the polls; the question is whether he has the political support to go ahead with these plans,” said Paulo Calmon, a political science professor at the University of Brasilia. “He won’t have the support of Sao Paulo’s governor, of the Lower House, Senate, and he will have to face opposition from everyone.”

Calmon added that Bolsonaro had recently said during an interview last month that he would accept the result even if he lost, but that congratulating da Silva would hurt his popularity among his most radical base.

Abroad, U.S. President Joe Biden was among the first world leaders to salute da Silva, highlighting the country’s “free, fair, and credible elections.” By contrast, Bolsonaro took more than a month to congratulate Biden’s 2020 victory against Trump.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador invited da Silva to visit Mexico at the end of November for the Pacific Alliance summit. The Workers’ Party leader responded he had to wait for Bolsonaro to admit his defeat before accepting the invite, according to a video of the exchange.

Lula and Bolsonaro Face to face on Crucial Debate Two Days Before Presidential Run-off
Jair Bolsonaro at a news conference Friday in Rio de Janeiro.Wagner Meier / Getty Images

Like Trump, Bolsonaro has his own potential legal concerns. He is one of the targets of a Supreme Court inquiry into the spread of fake news and a Senate investigation recommended that he be charged with crimes for his mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Brazil’s independence day last year, Bolsonaro told a cheering crowd that only God can remove him from office, then continued: “For all of us, there are only three alternatives, especially for me: arrested, dead or victorious. Tell the scoundrels I’ll never be arrested!”

The high-stakes election was a stunning reversal for da Silva, 77, whose imprisonment for corruption sidelined him from the 2018 election that brought Bolsonaro, a defender of conservative social values, to power.

Da Silva has promised to govern beyond his party. He wants to bring in centrists and even some leaning to the right who voted for him for the first time, and to restore the country’s more prosperous past. Yet he faces headwinds in a politically polarized society and is likely to face strong opposition from conservative lawmakers.

Thomas Traumann, an independent political analyst, compared the situation to Biden’s victory: Da Silva, like the U.S. president, is inheriting an extremely divided nation.

“People are not only polarized on political matters, but also have different values, identity and opinions,” Traumann said. “What’s more, they don’t care what the other side’s values, identities and opinions are.”

The election in Latin America’s biggest economy extended a wave of recent leftist victories in South American countries, including Argentina, Chile and Colombia.

Da Silva’s inauguration is scheduled to take place on Jan. 1. He last served as president from 2003 to 2010.