The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bolsonaro hasn’t conceded to Lula. Is he following the Trump playbook?

Supporters of president-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva celebrate in São Paulo during his victory address Sunday evening. (Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images)
10 min

RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil and its president-elect, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the winner of Sunday’s election, woke up Monday to a question familiar to Americans: Will the loser concede?

In the tightest presidential election in Brazilian history, following a bitterly fought campaign that deepened divisions in Latin America’s largest nation, President Jair Bolsonaro has remained out of public view since 8 p.m. Sunday, when the Superior Electoral Court declared Lula the winner of the second and final round. Bolsonaro, a close ally of former president Donald Trump, known for his fiery rhetoric and incendiary missives on social media, has opted for a response that for him has been extremely uncommon: silence.

“Starting [Monday] I need to know how we’re going to govern this country,” Lula told supporters late Sunday. “I need to know if the president we defeated will let there be a transition.” He’s set to take office in January.

Lula defeats Bolsonaro to win a third term as Brazil's president

On Monday afternoon, the Brazilian outlet Folha de São Paulo reported that Bolsonaro’s allies had drafted a concession speech, and the president was expected to deliver it Monday. The content of the speech was unclear; Bolsonaro was expected to claim he was a victim of injustice, but would not challenge the results.

However, as of Monday night, Bolsonaro had still not spoken, even as his supporters set up 200 road blockades in 18 states, and observers warned of the potential for further unrest. In Telegram groups, Bolsonaro supporters were calling for occupations on Tuesday of more highways, avenues and entrances to military barracks.

The Federal Highway Police — close allies of Bolsonaro who allegedly slowed down voting Sunday in areas with heavy backing for Lula — said they had dispatched forces to the protests. But amid claims they were failing to act, federal prosecutors demanded further information on their response.

As tension heightened and Bolsonaro’s intensions remained uncertain, Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes, the country’s top election official, issued a demand that police use “all necessary measures” to unblock the highways.

On Monday, Brazilian Sen. Flavio Bolsonaro, the president’s eldest son, tweeted, “Dad, I’m with you for better or worse.”

To many here, Bolsonaro’s delay is little surprise. The president, his sons and supporters have for months laid the groundwork to contest a loss with unsupported allegations of electoral fraud. Bolsonaro summoned foreign diplomats in July to cast doubt on electronic voting, and claimed last week that national law had been violated because radio stations gave more time during the campaign to Lula.

Election authorities dismissed all those claims as fictitious, and called Sunday’s election secure and valid. If anything, irregular checkpoints set up by police with ties to Bolsonaro in territory loyal to Lula on Sunday appeared to delay voters from getting to the polls.

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)

Having followed much of the Trump playbook during his rise to power and in office, analysts say, Bolsonaro could do the same in defeat: refuse to concede, declare Lula’s presidency illegitimate and use his hardcore base to play power broker while preparing for the next election.

“This is the Trump model,” said Marcos Nobre, a political analyst and author. “That’s to say, the one who won the election fair and square is illegitimate. Bolsonaro will seek to weaken Lula in every way.”

His loss comes as the specter of criminal investigations hangs over him and his family.

Even as Bolsonaro resisted acknowledging the result, the world embraced it. It took Bolsonaro months to acknowledge President Biden’s 2020 victory — and seemed to question his legitimacy as recently as June. “I will not discuss the sovereignty of another country,” Bolsonaro told journalists. “But Trump was doing really well.”

Biden quickly threw Washington’s backing to Lula’s corner, publicly congratulating the 77-year-old icon of the left shortly after his victory Sunday and speaking with him by phone on Monday.

“President Biden commended the strength of Brazilian democratic institutions following free, fair, and credible elections,” the White House said in a statement. “The two leaders discussed the strong relationship between the United States and Brazil, and committed to continue working as partners to address common challenges, including combating climate change, safeguarding food security, promoting inclusion and democracy, and managing regional migration.”

Other leaders have rallied to Lula. Argentina’s president, Alberto Fernández, was set to meet with Lula on Monday in Brazil. Lula’s “victory opens a new era for the history of Latin America. A time of hope and future that begins today,” Fernández said on Twitter. “Here you have a partner to work and dream big with for the well-being of our nations.”

Bolsonaro, like Trump, has an adoring base. Some supporters began blocking Brazil’s highways late Sunday, demanding he refuse to concede. Police on Monday morning reported an escalating number of blockades.

They included one of the country’s main highways, which connects São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the country’s largest metropolitan areas. The military police in Brasília on Monday said they had closed off roads leading to key government buildings in the capital after identifying a “possible demonstration” scheduled for the area that was spreading on social media.

One congressman who represents truckers said the roadblocks were the work of “criminals who do not represent the category.” “The Parliamentary Group of Independent Truckers does not support any kind of demonstration against the outcome of the elections!” Nereu Crispim tweeted. After the result Sunday, the Rio Grande do Sul lawmaker said democracy had won and “hate has lost.”

Brazilian police accused of suppressing Lula vote

The company that manages highways in Mato Grosso state said at least four stretches of road were blocked. “Lula will not be our president,” a woman says in a video posted by the news outlet O Globo.

For Bolsonaro, there are a number of options. Does he hold tight, demand a vote audit and spark a constitutional crisis a la Trump in 2020? Or, because his conservative movement did far better than expected, does he solidify a strong position as Brazil’s most powerful opposition leader since the return of democracy — using his massive social media platform as a bully pulpit to complicate Lula’s job? Or, as some have suggested, does he leave Brazil to escape the possibility of criminal prosecution?

Close advisers described Bolsonaro as “sad and disappointed” and said he has expressed indignation at the result, Brazilian media reported. TV Globo suggested the president’s allies, fearful of squandering an impressive conservative turnout that fell just shy of victory on Sunday, are pressuring the president to recognize the result as soon as possible.

In public, his closest inner circle, however, has remained largely mum. But 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.”

Moraes, the top election official, told reporters late Sunday that he had called both candidates before the winner was announced to inform them of the election result. Bolsonaro, he said, had responded “with extreme politeness.”

Moraes 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.

“Three hours after voting ended, and with almost 99% of the ballots counted, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was mathematically elected president of Brazil, with more than 50% of the voters’ votes,” Attorney General Augusto Aras, who critics say has shielded Bolsonaro from corruption investigations, said in a statement Sunday night.

Sergio Moro, the prosecuting judge who sent Lula to prison on charges that were later annulled, was later appointed Bolsonaro’s justice minister and who is now, after a falling-out, an elected senator, said, “This is how Democracy is.”

“Let’s work for the unity of those who want the good of the country,” he tweeted. “I will always be on the side of what is right! I will be in the opposition in 2023.”

One of Bolsonaro’s strongest allies, evangelical pastor Silas Malafaia, recognized “the sovereign people’s will.”

“My prayer, as the Bible says, is to intercede for the constituted authorities,” he tweeted. “God save Brazil from social, political and economic chaos.”

The cannibal vs. the Satanist: Toxic politics is poisoning Brazil

Others demanded that Bolsonaro reject the results. Carla Zambelli, a pro-Bolsonaro lawmaker who pointed a gun at an unarmed Black man after a political argument in São Paulo on Saturday, congratulated the truckers for their blockades. She shared a video of protesters putting fire to tires to close a highway in Goiás state. “Stay, don’t fade,” she tweeted last night as the protests began.

Trump, in a video statement before the election, endorsed Bolsonaro as “one of the great people in all of politics and in all of leadership of countries.”

“There is no possibility that the result of the electronic ballot boxes is correct,” former Trump strategist and Bolsonaro supporter Stephen K. Bannon told the outlet Folha de São Paulo. “We need a ballot-by-ballot audit, even if it takes six months. In the meantime, the president should not agree to leave.”

There are legal paths to challenge elections, according to Luiz Carlos dos Santos Gonçalves, a federal prosecutor and scholar of Brazilian electoral law. But all of them would be judged by the Supreme Electoral Court, which has already declared the elections valid.

Bolsonaro could ask for an audit of the ballot boxes and a recount, as happened in the 2014 race, when Aécio Neves challenged then-president Dilma Rousseff’s victory. The court agreed to an audit, provided his party would bear the costs. The audit concluded there was no evidence of a miscount or fraud.

Bolsonaro could also seek to have his opponent’s candidacy annulled on grounds including, for example, accepting illegal donations or other wrongdoing. Some types of claims must be presented before the winner’s registration ceremony on Dec. 19. Others can be presented as long as 15 days afterward.

Given that the court has already ruled Lula the winner, Gonçalves said, challenges are unlikely to succeed. “He may propose it, but it will be difficult for him,” he said.

When Lula takes office, he’ll contend with a Senate and House of Deputies in which his own supporters are minorities, and a country where the most prosperous and powerful states — including São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro — are run by governors allied with the incumbent.

Yet in Brazilian politics, centrist lawmakers, tempted by pork barrel and backroom deals, almost always side with the winner. With their support, Lula appears just shy of being able to secure a regular supermajority for major initiatives such as tax reform, but he should fairly easily secure the kind of coalition required to avoid gridlock.

“Ultimately, we don’t have a scenario where the government will be a lame duck from the start,” said Mario Braga, senior Brazil analyst for Control Risks.

Yasmeen Abutaleb in Washington contributed to this report.