Jair Bolsonaro lost in Brazil, but his threat to democracy remains

Supporters of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva gather on a city street in São Paulo, Brazil, after he defeated incumbent Jair Bolsonaro in a presidential run-off election on Oct. 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix)
Supporters of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva gather on a city street in São Paulo, Brazil, after he defeated incumbent Jair Bolsonaro in a presidential run-off election on Oct. 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix)

The days leading up to the recent Brazilian election were tense, violent and desperate.

Days before the run-off vote on Oct. 30, 2022, Carla Zambelli, a congresswoman and outspoken Jair Bolsonaro supporter, got into a confrontation on the streets of São Paulo with a Black activist. It ended with her drawing a gun and chasing him through the streets.

On election day, there were reports of a pro-Bolsonaro voter suppression campaign by Federal Highway Police causing intentional traffic delays in the country’s northeast. It was apparent that the country was more polarized than ever before, and onlookers feared a Brazilian insurrection.

Ultimately, however, Brazil elected leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva over incumbent right-wing firebrand Bolsonaro by extremely thin margins, 50.9 per cent to 49.1 per cent.

Bolsonaro’s surprising numbers

The election results highlighted a strong nostalgia for the man commonly referred to as Lula, who governed during a time of economic and social prosperity for Brazil. The northeast region of the country, the poorest in Brazil, voted for Lula in overwhelming numbers.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva kisses his ticket after voting in the run-off presidential election. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva kisses his ticket after voting in the run-off presidential election. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

However, Bolsonaro had strong numbers in almost every other state. His success surprised many people, given his terrible COVID-19 pandemic response, abysmal track record on the Amazon and a floundering economy.

Despite this, 49 per cent of Brazilians still voted for him, suggesting a broader conservatism growing in Brazil.

Jair Bolsonaro makes the victory sign before voting. (AP Photo/Bruna Prado, Pool)
Jair Bolsonaro makes the victory sign before voting. (AP Photo/Bruna Prado, Pool)

Bolsonaro’s movement is still strong, and will remain so for years to come. And Lula will likely struggle to appeal to the Brazilian middle class as he attempts to expand his support.

Immediately following the results, world leaders rushed to congratulate Lula on his victory. U.S. President Joe Biden, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Canada’s Justin Trudeau posted tweets congratulating him.

Brazil’s Supreme Electoral Court also confirmed the election results, and diplomats encouraged world leaders to recognize the outcome.

Millions of Brazilians also took to the streets to celebrate Lula’s victory and the hope it signalled for the Amazon, LGBTQI+ folks and Indigenous people. Lula echoed this hope in his first address as president.

These actions were co-ordinated to dissuade Bolsonaro and his supporters from attempting a violent insurrection.

No military intervention

However, after Lula’s speech, Bolsonaro remained quiet. The Supreme Court and even Bolsonaro’s supporters began calling on him to acknowledge the election results.

After two days, he finally spoke. He did not formally concede but stated he would adhere to Brazil’s constitution and the peaceful transition of power.

Following this speech, Bolsonaro’s supporters co-ordinated hundreds of roadblocks across the country, hoping for a military intervention to keep Bolsonaro in power. These ongoing protests are significant and represent a mobilized conservative movement in the country that will organize against Lula.

The new Brazilian president faces significant challenges. He will have to unite a politically, socially and economically shaken country. He’ll also have to work with a newly elected conservative congress that is more right-wing than it was during Bolsonaro’s presidency.

In Lula’s first 100 days, he aims to make access to guns more difficult and to tackle rising levels of deforestation. These promises will pit him against Bolsonaro voters who support the existing policies.

Lula receives a headdress from Assurini Indigenous people during a meeting near the Amazon in Belem, Para state, Brazil, in September 2022. He has promised to reverse a surge in deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. (AP Photo/Raimundo Pacco)
Lula receives a headdress from Assurini Indigenous people during a meeting near the Amazon in Belem, Para state, Brazil, in September 2022. He has promised to reverse a surge in deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. (AP Photo/Raimundo Pacco)

Repairing Brazil’s global image

Additionally, Lula will have to approve a new budget that Bolsonaro gutted of social benefits during a time of inflation and a stagnant Brazilian economy.

He’ll also need to show the world that Brazil is a strong democracy with a vibrant economy to repair its global image and attract foreign investment. Ultimately, he will have to do this under extreme scrutiny, given corruption accusations once levelled against him.

Bolsonaro and the growing conservative movement in Brazil will look for every opportunity to disrupt his presidency and challenge his ability to rule.

Truckers supportive of Jair Bolsonaro block a highway to protest his election loss on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Nov. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
Truckers supportive of Jair Bolsonaro block a highway to protest his election loss on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Nov. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

Polarization

While Brazil may have avoided its own Jan. 6-style insurrection, the country is emerging from the vote more polarized than ever.

The election of a leftist leader in Brazil will undoubtedly fuel support for similar parties and leaders across Latin America. But it’s important to note that despite democracy succeeding in Brazil, there are growing forces mobilizing against it across the Americas.

A clear example is the polarized mid-term elections in the United States that resulted in some candidates who denied the results of the 2020 presidential election winning high-profile races, as well as the so-called freedom convoy movement in Canada.

Read more: The 'freedom convoy' protesters are a textbook case of 'aggrieved entitlement'

Democracy remains threatened by the rise of authoritarian figures like Bolsonaro and Donald Trump, whose legacies live on.

Polarization and the threat of authoritarianism will continue to plague Brazil and democracies worldwide for years to come.

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Gerson Scheidweiler, York University, Canada and Tyler Valiquette, UCL. If you found it interesting, you could subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

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The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.