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The Brazilian Election: Democracy Wins

Bruna Santos

It was the most bitterly fought election in Brazilian history, and though it is a cliche, it is also profoundly true: democracy was the winner. Jair Bolsonaro and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva were the leading figures in a confrontation that imperiled one of the world’s largest democracies. The contest left behind a divided country, following a campaign tainted by defamation, disinformation and political violence. But following Lula’s victory, on Sunday, October 30 by a margin of 2 million votes, the tightest election in Brazil’s democratic history, a presidential transition began, signaling that Brazil’s institutions had survived a difficult test.

Lula’s coalition included a variety of influential figures, such as former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and former governors of Brazil’s Central Bank Henrique Meirelles and  Pérsio Arida. Together, they prevented Bolsonaro, a former army captain, from winning a second term. That broad coalition began when Lula chose a former rival, Geraldo Alckmin, as his running mate. After the first round of the election, Lula’s coalition expanded to include presidential candidate and center-right senator Simone Tebet.

Brazilians had to wait 44 hours to hear Bolsonaro concede.”

Brazilians had to wait 44 hours to hear Bolsonaro concede. He did it in his way, the following Tuesday, November 1, delivering a solemn and short speech thanking the 58 million people who voted for him. Ciro Nogueira, his chief of staff, then took the podium and said he was authorized to begin the transition process. In a statement, the Supreme Court said it interpreted Bolsonaro’s remarks as a concession, though the president did not congratulate his rival.

Nevertheless, truck drivers and other Bolsonaro supporters have erected hundreds of roadblocks around the country. In his speech, Bolsonaro said the protests were “the fruit of indignation and a sense of injustice of how the electoral process unfolded,” echoing unfounded criticisms about Brazil’s electoral system that the president had spread for months.


The image of Bolsonaro standing on a stage while an evangelical pastor preaches, flanked by an army general, a former businessman turned governor and a YouTube musician elected senator is a fair portrait of his conservative coalition. As the Financial Times has reported, in the corners of small towns in the Brazilian countryside, Bolsonaro had planted the roots of a powerful right-wing movement. Bolsonaro’s rise, however, was a function of deeper trends. Bolsonarismo is a mix of conservatism, culture war politics fought over social media, and nationalist symbols. His rhetoric, full of critiques of political correctness, reverberates among Brazilian conservatives.

Indeed, social conservatism is surging in Brazil. In all, for example, nearly 60 percent of Brazilians oppose legalizing abortion and many favor religious instruction in schools. In his campaign, Bolsonaro and his influencers warned of the “spiritual risk” from his rival. Evangelical Christians make up 30 percent of the population in Brazil and were crucial for Bolsonaro’s movement. For weeks, satanism and cannibalism were trending topics on social media.

Lula’s Resurrection

One year ago, while Bolsonaro was in Planalto, Lula was behind bars. Today, he is celebrating his triumph in one of the most consequential elections in Brazilian history. It’s a plot twist worthy of one of the beloved Brazilian telenovelas. “They tried to bury me alive, and yet here I am,” Lula said in his victory speech. In a campaign replete with religious themes, it was a telling remark.

One year ago, while Bolsonaro was in Planalto, Lula was behind bars.”

Going forward, however, Lula faces an uphill battle, and it will take all of his considerable political talent to succeed. Governing Brazil in 2023 will demand a change in some of Lula’s favorite recipes, as domestic conditions and the wider world have changed considerably since his last time in power. He will have to operate in a nation still angry about his party’s corruption scandals, and shaken by the immense public health and economic impacts of the pandemic.

In his campaign, Lula pledged to put the state back at the center of economic policymaking, and said increased government spending would spur growth. With rising debt and less control over the budget, it is not clear Lula will have the tools to meet those promises. The makeup of congress matters too. Lula should be able to build coalitions to pass some bills; he is already in conversations with Arthur Lira, speaker of the Lower House and one of Bolsonaro’s most important allies, about a modus vivendi with the “centrão,” or “big center,” bloc. Still, structural reforms will require complex negotiations with the opposition.

‘Brazil is Back’

“Brazil is back,” Lula said in his victory speech, pointing to the election as a turning point after years of climate skepticism and the accelerating destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Amid warm congratulations from international leaders, expectations are high regarding Brazil’s climate diplomacy. However, implementing a transformative environmental agenda is easier said than done, and here too, complex congressional dynamics could be an obstacle.

Lula has also promised to repair Brazil’s damaged international brand.”

Lula has also promised to repair Brazil’s damaged international brand, and to “reposition the country into the hearts of international investors.” For that, the president-elect must nominate a credible economic team. Gleisi Hoffman, the Workers’ Party president, has said Lula’s government would not be “a PT government”; rather, it will reflect the broad front that elected him.

About the Author

Bruna Santos

Bruna Santos

Director, Brazil Institute
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