The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lula defeats Bolsonaro to win third term as Brazil’s president

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro allowed a transition to begin Nov. 1 without conceding defeat to president-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)
16 min

RIO DE JANEIRO — Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva reclaimed the office Sunday on pledges to defend democracy, save the Amazon rainforest and bring social justice to Latin America’s largest nation, defeating Brazil’s Trumpian incumbent in a remarkable political comeback some three years after he walked out of a prison cell.

The victory for Lula, who served two terms as president from 2003 to 2010, returns a leftist titan of the Global South to the world stage, where his progressive voice will stand in sharp contrast to that of right-wing — and now one-term — President Jair Bolsonaro. For Latin America, Lula’s return to the Planalto Palace adds the regional giant to a streak of wins by the left: Lula joins a club of leaders who have now bested the political right in Colombia, Chile, Peru, Honduras, Argentina and Mexico.

His win, which followed a slugfest of a campaign in a deeply divided country awash in fake news and explosive rhetoric, came amid allegations of official suppression of the vote by Bolsonaro’s allies in the police. Overall, the race sounded strong echoes of the 2020 showdown in the United States between Joe Biden and President Donald Trump. It pitted Bolsonaro, 67, a staunch Trump ally, against Lula, 77, a stalwart of the traditional left who moved to the center during the campaign. Lula’s strength lay in female and low-income voters — particularly the Northeast, heavily populated by people of color — but also in social progressives and power brokers disturbed by Bolsonaro’s authoritarian bent.

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Lula has pledged a unity government to work on mending the breaches in Brazilian society of the kind that, in an era of toxic politics, have taken root in democracies across the globe. The margin — Lula won by less than two percentage points — was the closest in Brazilian history. It was the first time an incumbent ran for a second term and lost.

As the results were announced, Lula tweeted a close up of the Brazil flag, and one word: Democracy.

“We have reached the end of one of the most important elections in our history,” Lula told supporters in São Paulo. “An election that put face to face two opposing projects of the country and that today has only one winner: the Brazilian people.

“This is not a victory for me or for the [Workers’ Party] or for those who supported me. This is a victory for a huge democratic movement that was formed above political parties, personal interests, ideologies, so that democracy would be the winner.”

Supporters in Rio de Janeiro set off fireworks and cheered. People in downtown São Paulo honked horns and sang through windows: “Lula there,” the most famous jingle of the president-elect. And another tune: “Tá na hora de Jair ir embora” — It’s time for Jair to leave. The city’s famous Paulista Avenue became a sea of pro-Lula celebrants.

“Lula is a myth. The Brazilian Mandela,” said Jussara Brito, 50, a nurse who said she saw too many patients die of the coronavirus, which Bolsonaro dismissed as a “little cold.” “Seeing Bolsonaro leave is a relief. He is a murderer. I worked on the pandemic, he could have prevented thousands of deaths. Today, his defeat is a relief. Today was the answer that the Brazilian people gave him.”

In the capital, Brasília, hundreds of Bolsonaro supporters gathered in the Esplanada, where a man with a loudspeaker urged the crowds not to concede and to wait for their “leader’s statement.”

“We are with you, President Bolsonaro,” he said. “Lula thief, you belong in prison!” the crowd chanted in unison.

Late Sunday, reports emerged of Bolsonaro loyalists blocking roads.

In Mato Grosso, the company that manages highways in the state said at least four stretches of a highway were blocked. In Santa Catarina, Bolsonaro supporters also cut off a stretch of a highway across the state, according to the UOL outlet.

“Lula will not be our president,” says a woman in a video from the Mato Grosso protest shared by O Globo.

As voting unfolded earlier in the day, Brazil’s most bitterly fought election since the collapse of the military dictatorship in 1985 descended into allegations of police attempting to suppress the vote. The Federal Highway Police, an organization closely allied with Bolsonaro, allegedly set up roadblocks to delay voters in the country’s impoverished Northeast and other centers of support for Lula.

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Highway police director Silvinei Vasques had earlier posted a call to vote for Bolsonaro on Instagram, the newspaper O Globo reported. It was later deleted. Sen. Randolfe Rodrigues, a Lula supporter, demanded his immediate arrest. Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes, Brazil’s chief election official, ordered Vasques to stop the operations immediately or face personal fines of nearly $100,000 per hour.

Later Sunday, however, Moraes sought to calm concerns of a broader effort that could taint the vote. He said checkpoints had delayed, but not prevented, voters from casting their ballots, and he would not extend voting hours beyond the planned 5 p.m. close.

“There was no prejudice to the right to vote … There is no need to overstate this issue,” Moraes said. “There were no cases where voters went home.”

Despite the statement from Moraes, who has frequently locked horns with Bolsonaro, Lula’s Workers’ Party demanded an extension of the polls in the 560 places where it said “illegal” police operations had taken place. The party called for prioritizing extensions in the Northeast, where it said the operations were carried out “with greater intensity.”

Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court announced the result just before 8 p.m. Brasília time. Bolsonaro did not immediately concede the race, and uncertainty remained over whether he would. As recently as Friday night, he said, “whoever has the most votes wins. That is democracy.”

But he and his supporters also laid the groundwork to contest a loss with months of allegations of fraud. Bolsonaro summoned foreign diplomats in July to cast doubt on electronic voting. Some analysts predicted that Bolsonaro, who followed much of the Trump playbook during his rise to power and while in office, could do the same in defeat: refuse to concede and declare Lula’s presidency illegitimate.

Another parallel: Bolsonaro’s loss comes as the specter of criminal investigations hangs over him and his family.

Some of Bolsonaro’s allies encouraged him to concede: “It is time to disarm the spirit, extend your hand to your opponents,” House Speaker Arthur Lira said. “We reaffirm the fairness, the stability and the confirmation of the popular will. We cannot accept revanchism and persecution from any side. Now it is time to look ahead.”

Speaking to journalists late Sunday, Moraes said he had called both candidates to inform them of the result before the court’s announcement of the winner, but suggested the conversations had been short and to the point. Bolsonaro, he said, had responded “with extreme politeness.” He described the elections as clean and secure, and insisted there was no “real risk” the results could be contested. “This is part of the rule of law,” he said.

“There has been major polarization and now it is more up to the winners to unite the country,” he said.

In the United States, the contest took on the feel of a proxy war between Democrats and Republicans. In a letter to President Biden, congressional Democrats warned that Bolsonaro’s “reckless and dangerous rhetoric about electoral fraud raise[s] serious fears” that he will try to “impede a peaceful transfer of power if he loses.” Trump, meanwhile, endorsed Bolsonaro, telling Brazilians in a video shared on the incumbent’s Twitter account on Saturday that “you have a chance to elect one of the great people in all of politics and in all of leadership of countries.”

Biden was quick to recognize Lula’s victory Sunday: “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,” he said in a statement. “I look forward to working together to continue the cooperation between our two countries in the months and years ahead.”

With 99.99 percent of the vote counted, Lula was declared the winner with 50.90 percent of the vote. Bolsonaro had 49.10 percent. The transfer of power is set for the first days of January.

The candidates sparred over who would offer more assistance for the poor and who would raise the minimum wage. But they also became deeply mired in the culture wars now emblematic of modern democracies plagued by polarization. For Lula, the job of national healer will not be easy.

Many economists and political analysts view Lula as a pragmatic elder statesman, but Bolsonaro’s core supporters revile him. Danya Dorado, a 44-year-old housewife, who waved a flag with Bolsonaro’s face in Brasília, described herself as “anguished” by the results — which she did not believe to be true. “I am ready to fight for my country because I do not want my children and grandchildren to live in a second Venezuela,” she said.

Election Day in Brazil became a global experiment on the power of misinformation. False narratives spread by Bolsonaro and his supporters in public comments and on social media insisted Lula would close churches and open unisex bathrooms in schools. Lula dismissed those claims as blatant lies, but many Bolsonaro supporters at the polls Sunday steadfastly believed them.

“We can’t just have one bathroom for a kid to use with men of my age,” said Mario Antonio Castro, an actor who voted for Bolsonaro in Rio de Janeiro’s Flamengo neighborhood. He said he’d also heard that Lula was offering “beer and steak” to those who voted for him. “There are rules that exist your entire life. People no longer respect rules.”

Others saw a civic duty in voting out Bolsonaro, who in recent days claimed that Lula’s strong support in the Brazilian Northeast — a region with a disproportionately large population of people of color — was due to high “illiteracy rates” there.

“I’m a Black woman and I am a mother of three kids,” said Vanda Ventura, a 49-year-old stylist who voted in Rio. “The government in Brasília does not represent me.” Asked if she thought Black people in Brazil would vote for Bolsonaro, she said: “Not the Black people I know. … The Black people who want liberty, who want to go to college, and want to grow and who want food will not vote for this genocidal man.”

In the capital, national tensions came to a head at a downtown polling station, where several voters wearing the telltale colors of their candidates — green and yellow for Bolsonaro, red for Lula — squared off in slur-shouting screaming matches, signaling the deep polarization in the country.

“Bolsonaro out!” a young man wearing a red shirt shouted at a Bolsonaro supporter as he walked into the polling station at the University Center of Brasília. “Maconheiro!” — a derogatory word in Portuguese that roughly translates as “stoner” — the woman shouted back.

The same woman engaged another Lula supporter in a similar shouting match, leading police to intervene. Leonardo Rodrigues de Jesus, Bolsonaro’s nephew and a former chief of staff for his eldest son, told a Washington Post reporter that a man shouting at a woman was “precisely the kind of leftist behavior” the country needed to get rid of.

Critics say Bolsonaro, a former army officer, has undermined democracy by stocking the prosecutor’s office and police with loyalists while appointing current and former generals to his cabinet and other senior posts. If he had won the race, they feared, he might have sought to expand the Supreme Court, a body he has said is biased against him.

Lula, casting himself as the defender of Brazil’s young democracy, garnered the backing of center-right leaders and former opponents, including former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

Bolsonaro, known for a blunt manner that included insults aimed at women, people of color and the LGBTQ community, connected with supporters through fiery social media posts. As the coronavirus pandemic hit the country hard — it has killed more than 687,000 people, and at one time was second in deaths only to the United States — he suggested vaccines could turn people into “reptiles,” falsely claimed a link between the vaccine and AIDS, and touted unproven treatments against covid-19. As the virus ravaged the country, Bolsonaro dismissed it as a “little flu” and told Brazilians to stop “whining” and get back to work. He often berated the free press. During the first televised debate in the current campaign, Brazilian journalist Vera Magalhães asked him about the country’s coronavirus vaccination rate.

“I think you go to sleep thinking about me,” Bolsonaro responded to her. “You have a crush on me.”

But Bolsonaro often reserved his harshest comments for the man he saw as his personal nemesis: Lula.

A former shoeshine boy from a poor northeastern family who lost a finger at age 19 in a factory accident, Lula became a union leader and co-founder of the left-wing Workers’ Party. After three failed runs at the nation’s highest office, he won his first term as president in 2002 and reelection four years latter.

His victory initially rattled investors, who feared the rise of a radical leftist.

Lula would calm those fears by dragging his party toward the center while he leveraged the global commodities boom of the 2000s to increase social spending and launch programs that reduced the hunger rate, lifted millions out of poverty and sent the children of poor Brazilian families to university for the first time. Former U.S. President Barack Obama called him “the most popular president on Earth.” He left office in 2011 with a second term in 2011 with an approval rating above 80 percent.

His administration was marred by political scandal, including a vote-buying case in Congress that engulfed members of his inner circle. Claims have emerged that Lula knew about it. He has maintained he did not.

In 2018, Lula turned himself him in to serve a 12-year sentence on separate charges of accepting bribes from one of the country’s major construction companies. Though Lula maintained his innocence, his arrest kept him out of the 2018 election that Bolsonaro won. To the outrage of Bolsonaro, who has called Lula “a nine-fingered thief,” he was released from prison in 2019 when the Supreme Court ruled he had been denied due process. The charges against him were annulled two years later.

“They didn’t lock up a man,” he declared on the day he was freed. “They tried to kill an idea. But an idea can’t be destroyed.”

During the campaign, Lula largely spoke in broad themes. He promised to fight hunger and poverty and to slow the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, which accelerated under Bolsonaro, and suggested an increase of taxes on the rich. Few observers believe he is likely to propose massive spending plans or take radical steps to redistribute wealth.

“Lula understands well that all policies have to be fiscally sustainable and that large budget deficits will backfire in his attempt to be progressive in social issues,” said Paulo Calmon, professor at the University of Brasília. “He certainly will attempt to maintain some fiscal consistency in his policies.”

What Bolsonaro does next will be key. Some say he might leave the country to avoid the possibility of prosecution for alleged crimes including a bloated vaccine deal at the health ministry and mishandling the pandemic. Others expect him to remain in Brazil, transforming himself into a formidable opposition leader who will seek to undermine Lula and stoke national divisions as he bides his time for the next election.

Bolsonaro can count on a loyal base of outspoken national lawmakers, as well as powerful governors in some of the country’s largest states. His most powerful weapon remains an army of digital followers, which he has wielded as a weapon to build or destroy political careers.

In governing a divided nation, Lula might benefit from the nature of Brazilian politics. Victors may draw lawmakers who did not back them during the campaign to fall in line with pork barrel spending and backroom deals.

But some observers see a wild card this time around.

“The nature of the right in Brazil has changed,” said Guilherme Casarões, a political analyst at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. “All they cared about before were office positions and resources, so Lula could run an administration even with the help of the right. But there’s a new kind of right, a super ideological kind of right, a Bolsonarista kind of right. And the pro-Bolsonaro movement is not about political pragmatism. It’s about total loyalty and submission to what Bolsonaro thinks is right.”

Villegas reported from Brasília and Sã Pessoa from São Paulo. Kiratiana Freelon in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.