RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on Tuesday broke two days of silence after his election loss to former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva with an ambiguous pledge to follow the constitution without acknowledging the victor or conceding defeat as his supporters staged protests across the country aimed at bringing Latin America’s largest nation to a halt.
The right-wing incumbent, who had remained out of view for 45 hours after the race was called Sunday night for Lula, spoke for less than two minutes Tuesday afternoon at the Alvorada Palace in Brasília, thanking his voters and describing the blockading of highways throughout Brazil as rightful expression of “indignation and a sense of injustice.”
“The right has truly emerged in our country,” Bolsonaro said. “Our robust representation in Congress shows the strength of our values: God, country, family and freedom.”
He left it to his chief of staff, Ciro Nogueira, to say he had authorized a transition to Lula.
It amounted to a tacit acknowledgment of the loss while at the same time taking a page from his ally, former U.S. president Donald Trump, by suggesting, without evidence, that the vote was somehow tainted — a posture aimed at undermining Lula’s legitimacy and authority.
After months in which Bolsonaro and his supporters sowed unfounded doubts about the integrity of Brazil’s electoral system, his comments appeared to spur his supporters on. Since Sunday night, they have blocked highways with trucks and burning tires, causing shortages of gas and medicine in some Brazilian cities. As of Tuesday night, hundreds of Bolsonaro supporters were rallying, chanting and praying in front of the army’s headquarters in Brasília.
“Peaceful demonstrations will always be welcome, but our methods cannot be those of the left, which have always harmed the population, such as invasion of property, destruction of patrimony, and curtailment of the right to come and go,” Bolsonaro said.
Following a bitterly fought campaign stained with disinformation and culture-war attacks, Bolsonaro’s remarks appeared to rub salt in wounds. Gleisi Hoffmann, president of Lula’s Workers’ Party, called Bolsonaro’s message “irresponsible” and selfish, and said his lack of clarity and failure to clearly condemn the roadblocks only emboldened protesters.
“Bolsonaro is the first … to bet on chaos in the face of defeat,” she tweeted. “Recognizing roadblocks as a peaceful movement encourages them. Irresponsible, never a thought about the country.”
Lula appeared to ignore Bolsonaro.
“I am sure we will have an excellent transition,” he tweeted after the president spoke. “We will build a government for all Brazilians.”
In a statement, the country’s Supreme Court — which met with Bolsonaro after his statement — said it took the president’s words as “recognition of the final results of the elections.” Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin told journalists in Brasília that Bolsonaro during their meeting had effectively conceded the election. “He said, ‘It is over.’ Therefore, look forward.”
Bolsonaro, known for his divisive and incendiary rhetoric, had come under increasing pressure from political allies, adversaries and business leaders to recognize his loss. Bolsonaro had already lost on the global stage: World leaders including President Biden — whose 2020 victory Bolsonaro questioned as recently as this year — were quick to recognize and congratulate Lula on Sunday night.
In agreeing to a transition, Bolsonaro had sought assurances from his party that it would pay him a salary and cover his housing, according to Brazilian media reports. The specter of criminal charges has hung over Bolsonaro and his lawmaker sons over allegations including bid-rigging and criminal mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic. The president pointedly asked his party to cover the cost of lawyers, according to reports.
Bolsonaro appeared ready to follow Trump’s example in denying the election result, setting up the possibility of a prolonged and ugly national division while ensuring that Brand Bolsonaro remained intact.
“By refusing to acknowledge the result of the election, he aims to keep Bolsonarismo alive,” said Robert Muggah, co-founder of the Rio-based Igarapé Institute, a think tank. “This will add fuel to his claims that there was electoral fraud and perpetuate a Brazilian variation of the ‘great lie.’”
“He will step down, as the constitution requires, leaving the logistical details of the transition to his chief of staff,” Muggah said. “One rule of Bolsonarismo, like Trumpism, is never admit defeat.”
For Bolsonaro’s backers, reactions ranged from praise to stoic acceptance of the president’s methods.
“The president continues to be a political, electoral and media phenomenon,” Roberto Motta, a former secretary of security in Rio de Janeiro, told the conservative television network Jovem Pan news. “Today’s speech was, for me, a further step in the consolidation of a leadership that continues to be unparalleled in this country.”
He said Bolsonaro had, in his own way, “asked” protesters to go home. “It was the voice of a serene and confident leader.”
Ricardo Barros, the Bolsonaro government’s leader in the Chamber of Deputies, said it was time to move on and called for protesters to unblock the highway in his hometown in Paraná state. “We will move on, with our heads held up,” he tweeted. He said he had called the opposition leader in the Chamber to start discussing the transition.
Lula is the latest in a string of leftist leaders elected in Latin America; liberals now control all of the region’s most influential countries, from Mexico to Argentina. Hoffmann told journalists in São Paulo that the transition work would begin Thursday, in Brasília. “One of the first focuses will be understanding the 2023 budget proposal and [suggest] the changes we want,” she said.
Hoffmann said Lula will attend the COP27 climate summit in Egypt this month. The invitation to the climate summit came from governors from the Amazon region, she said.
Bolsonaro’s comments came as his supporters — a confederacy of truckers, farmers and other militant backers — had thrown up hundreds of roadblocks in 22 states, forcing the cancellation of some flights in São Paulo, the hemisphere’s largest city. Security forces said they had managed to clear 200, but as more arose, at least 267 were still active Tuesday afternoon. The actions affected highways, bus stations and airports; Brazilian media reported that a United Airlines flight from Chicago to São Paulo returned to the United States because access to the international airport was blocked.
The country’s top election authority demanded that the Federal Highway Police use “all necessary measures” to unblock the highways. That authority, Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes, threatened the head of the police with imprisonment and fines of nearly $20,000 if he did not comply by midnight Tuesday. Moraes also authorized state police to step in, beyond their jurisdiction, and authorized fines for truckers.
The highway police, who have strong ties to Bolsonaro, set up checkpoints on election day in areas heavily populated by supporters of Lula — a two-term former president — delaying voters in some cases by hours. However, the union representing the road police issued a statement Tuesday squarely blaming the earlier silence of the incumbent for the protests.
“The posture of the current president of the Republic, Jair Bolsonaro, in maintaining silence and not recognizing the results of the polls has made it difficult to pacify the country, encouraging some of his followers to adopt blockade actions on Brazilian roads,” the union said.
Pro-Bolsonaro groups on WhatsApp and Telegram celebrated the president’s speech. His more radical supporters saw encouragement to continue protesting, even with the Supreme Court ruling they must clear the highways. Calls for demonstrations continued, as did requests for financial aid to bring food and water to those who are blocking the roads.
“The message has been given,” read a WhatsApp message.
“We keep going!” read another.
“Our dreams are more alive than ever. We are for order and progress. That, patriots, was the most important part of the speech!” read a Telegram message.
Security forces used tear gas bombs to try to break up blockades. Bolsonarists were organizing to demonstrate Wednesday in front of army barracks. “I want to see them send shock troops in front of the barracks,” one supporter said. “At the first gas bomb, they will already be beaten by the armed forces, who will never allow them to attack the population in front of the barracks.”
The protests were taking a toll. In the southern state of Santa Catarina, authorities said 95 percent of the gas stations in one city were out of fuel Tuesday. Lines were long at pumps across the country, and local media in Florianópolis, the capital of Santa Catarina, reported citizen complaints over a sharp rise in fuel prices.
Observers described the situation as increasingly worrying, but not yet as critical as the truckers strike that paralyzed the country in 2018. Yet it had the potential to explode as far-left groups announced they might confront Bolsonaro supporters.
“We hope the police welcome us in the same way they have the bolsonaristas,” the left-wing Homeless Workers Movement said in a statement.
Traffic on the main highway from São Paulo to Rio de Janeiro was blocked in nine stretches and partially blocked in two others at 11 a.m. Officials in São Paulo state said they expected to unblock all major roads in the state by afternoon. Road access to Guarulhos International Airport, the main air link in South America’s largest city, had already been cleared. A shipment with more than 500,000 eggs used for production of H3N2 influenza vaccines was stopped in São Paulo state. According to the Butantan Institute, a major research center that produces vaccines for the Ministry of Health, the delays could cause the loss of 1.5 million vaccine doses, O Globo reported.
The protests had echoes of Canada’s “Freedom Convoy,” which paralyzed Ottawa this year for weeks. Muggah, of the Igarapé Institute, described the protests as “headless” and without “a centralized leadership.”
“We don’t see a coherent strategy that unifies them,” Muggah said. “What we do see are small groupings of militant Bolsonaro supporters intent on disrupting and destabilizing the election results.”
There was evidence of a more forceful police response unfolding in some areas. Images from Rio de Janeiro on social media showed police officers in riot gear and municipal guards pepper-spraying several protesters standing in the middle of a highway. The protesters, some wrapped in the Brazilian flag, fell back. One officer in a black mask pepper-sprayed a woman who was holding a sign standing in front of a car. She fell to the ground covering her face, while other protesters recorded and shouted at him.
Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes retweeted the video with praise for the officer’s actions: “We respect the law here, we won’t tolerate riots!”