Hundreds of thousands of Brazilians gathered on Avenida Paulista, São Paulo’s main thoroughfare, and when Lula’s win was called on television, the street exploded with an unrestrained joy that I have never before witnessed. The subway turned into a series of parties as people sang and danced their way to the streets. Friends of mine who had never been Lula supporters belted out partisan, left-wing songs. I walked past people sobbing out of relief on the streets outside of McDonald’s and motorcades filled with people waving the red flag of Lula’s Workers’ Party.
Supporters of the incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, on the other hand. collapsed into tears of grief and displays of impotent rage. Telegram groups suddenly experienced a drop in meme quality as Bolsonaristas begged for the military to step in and reverse the election result.
This wasn’t the overwhelming victory many were hoping for: Lula won by just over 2 million votes, with the final margin being 50.9 percent to Bolsonaro’s 49.1 percent, making it the closest election since Brazil returned to democracy in 1985.
Still, Lula won, marking the first time an elected president has lost a reelection bid. And Lula won despite Bolsonaro’s best efforts. The soon-to-be former president effectively bought off Congress by altering the Constitution to allow him to spend billions of dollars in “emergency social payments” to purchase legislative votes. Bolsonaro also assembled one of the most sophisticated disinformation machines anywhere in the world, and on the day of the election, the Federal Highway Police (PRF), closely allied with Bolsonaro, attempted to suppress the vote across the country.
As of writing, nobody has heard from Bolsonaro since the election was called. The only sign of life so far has been when he and his wife unfollowed each other on Instagram. His allies are abandoning him: His former minister of the environment, Ricardo Salles, called for peacemaking and serenity; the powerful speaker of Congress, Arthur Lira, offered his congratulations to Lula and declared it “the hour to enter into dialogue with everyone regardless of differences”; and Silas Malafia, one of the most powerful and sinister of Brazil’s evangelical leaders, called for God to offer “his blessings to Lula.”
While there are now road blockades being carried out by groups claiming to be truckers, which appear to be actively aided by the PRF, all reports suggest Bolsonaro will be forced to concede defeat today. Key allies and military leaders have indicated that they want an orderly transition. The Supreme Court have ordered the PRF to clear the highways today; it remains to be seen if these orders will be obeyed.
That the most extreme elements of Bolsonaro’s base are present in vital organizations of the state makes them dangerous even if there is no real institutional support for a coup. This was evident only a few hours after the polls opened on Sunday: Reports emerged from across the country that the PRF had launched over 500 illegal operations and roadblocks targeting public transport (free on election day) in an apparent attempt to prevent as many as 3 million people from voting. This was despite the Superior Electoral Court’s specifically ordering that no such operations were to take place on the day of the election. The operations were focused on pro-Lula areas and targeted working-class voters, particularly in the northeast.
Reports soon surfaced that the director general of the PRF, an open Bolsonaro supporter, had planned the operations at the presidential palace two weeks before the election. After demanding that the PRF explain its actions, Justice Alexandre de Moraes, the head of the electoral court, held an emergency press conference in which he offered a timid response, claiming that while he had ordered the operations to cease, there was no evidence that they had impeded voting rather than only delaying voters by 15 minutes. This was an absurd statement; the roadblocks caused miles-long traffic jams across the country.
I can only speculate here, but my guess is that Justice Moraes made the strategic calculation that extending the election or accusing the PRF of voter suppression would have only triggered a greater crisis than the actual voter suppression itself and elicited the type a reaction from what the right calls the “the Judicial Dictatorship” that might have been the plan all along. It is impossible to know what actual effect the PRF’s operations had on the eventual result, but Lula nevertheless won.
Democracy and Brazil are back
In his victory speech, Lula declared, and with good reason, “They tried to bury me alive, but I am still kicking.… We didn’t just defeat a candidate; we defeated the entire machinery of the Brazilian state,” and “Democracy is back in Brazil.” Indicating that, unlike Bolsonaro, he would “govern for all Brazilians not just those who voted for him,” in contrast to the narratives emphasizing the polarized and divided nature of the country, Lula emphasized, “There is only one Brazil.”
I won’t repeat the standard narrative that governing Brazil now is the true challenge or point to other defeats such as the one suffered by the Workers’ Party’s candidate for governor in São Paulo. Instead, I will offer cautious optimism. This was one of those rare moments in Brazilian history in which the country has pulled itself back from the brink, averting a military coup and a slide into authoritarianism, at least for now. These moments include the mass outpouring of anger and grief that followed the suicide of former dictator turned president Getulio Vargas in 1954, when hundreds of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets in spontaneous actions that thwarted a coup attempt led by radicalized sections of the military and the right-wing vanguard of the middle class. This victory, however, did not require Lula to sacrifice himself. It was won through the ballot box.
Scholars of Brazilian politics know that one of the first patterns in the country’s history that a student encounters is the extraordinary ability of its ruling class to make compacts to avert a moment of rupture and refashion the political system rather than break it. One of the reasons for this is the willingness of a political class to do business with anyone—in the case of the 2022 election, this is a relief. Bolsonaro’s allies largely act out of self-interest rather than ideology. In this case, with the end of his reign in sight, he can no longer offer them the resources and power they want. As such, they will now reach out to Lula to see what they can extract from him.
This likely explains why Bolsonaro is sulking in the dark. He may know the game is up, that his best attempt at undermining the election didn’t work, and that he now must worry about losing his congressional immunity and ending up in jail.
Millions of Brazilians are breathing a sigh of relief and dreaming of a return of a government that will seek to build a future, offer some social progress, and not systematically dismantle the mechanisms of governance.
For the right, a new season of Succession has started. The battle to be next leader of the forces that brought Bolsonaro to power is underway. Newly elected state governors will seek to be the “Ron DeSantis of South America,” and it will soon become clear if Bolsonaro and his sons will be able to maintain their base as Donald Trump and company have in the US. I suspect not. Bolsonaro doesn’t have Trump’s communication skills or political instincts.
As Lula declared in his victory speech, Brazil is ready to rejoin the world and end its status as a pariah nation. No longer will Brazil have a government that boasts of its environmental crimes or celebrates its isolation at global meetings. A return to the world from the abyss of extreme-right politics is more than welcome. The planet could use a win right now.