A "Brazil of hope": Leftist Lula narrowly defeats Bolsonaro in presidential election

Leftist ex-president completes dramatic comeback, beating "Trump of the tropics" — who has yet to concede

Published October 30, 2022 8:31PM (EDT)

Supporters of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva break into tears as official vote count shows him as the winner of Brazil's presidential runoff election on Oct. 30, 2022, in Rio de Janeiro. (Joao Laet/Getty Images)
Supporters of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva break into tears as official vote count shows him as the winner of Brazil's presidential runoff election on Oct. 30, 2022, in Rio de Janeiro. (Joao Laet/Getty Images)

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"A huge blow against fascistic politics and a huge victory for decency and sanity."

That's how RootsAction director Norman Solomon described Brazilian leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's presidential runoff victory on Sunday against right-wing incumbent Jair Bolsonaro. Lula's narrow victory marks the culmination remarkable political comeback for a man who was languishing behind bars just three years ago.

With 99.8% of the votes counted via an electronic system that tallies final results in a matter of hours — and which was repeatedly attacked by Bolsonaro in an effort to cast doubt on the election's veracity — Lula led Bolsonaro by more than two million votes, a margin of 51% to 49%.

Brazil's Superior Electoral Court confirmed the result shortly after 7 p.m. Eastern time. Within 45 minutes, President Joe Biden released a statement congratulating da Silva (who is known universally as Lula) on his victory "following free, fair and credible elections." That is likely an effort to forestall or deflect claims of election fraud by Bolsonaro and his supporters. Brazil has no electoral college and the legislature plays no role in presidential elections; the popular vote is the final verdict. "I look forward to working together to continue the cooperation between our two countries in the months and years ahead," Biden added.

Lula himself declared victory with a one-word tweet: "Democracy."

"Brazil is my cause, the people are my cause and fighting poverty is the reason why I will live until the end of my life," Lula said during his victory speech.

"As far as it depends on us, there will be no lack of love," he vowed. "We will take great care of Brazil and the Brazilian people. We will live in a new time. Of peace, of love and of hope. A time when the Brazilian people will once again have the right to dream. And the opportunities to realize what you dream."

Lula, the 77-year-old co-founder of the leftist Workers' Party, became the first challenger to defeat an incumbent president since the restoration of Brazilian democracy after the end of military dictatorship in 1985. His campaign overcame rampant social media-enabled disinformation, political violence (including the assassination of a congressional candidate from Lula's party), and what some observers called massive Election Day voter suppression by pro-Bolsonaro police.

Bolsonaro and his version of far-right nationalism (often compared to that of Donald Trump) will nonetheless remain a powerful force in Brazilian politics after this narrow defeat. His tenure was marked by accelerated environmental destruction, especially of the Amazon rainforest; gross mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which killed more people in Brazil than in any other country except the U.S.; disdain for the rights of indigenous peoples; rampant bigotry and flirtation with authoritarianism.

According to the Brazilian right-wing website Antagonista, Bolsonaro "will not call the president-elect" tonight, but does not "intend to question the result," citing the incumbent president's representatives. As the Guardian reported on Sunday night, that will "come as a relief amid widespread fears that Bolsonaro, a former army captain who has spent years attacking Brazil's democratic institutions, might refuse to accept defeat."

Bolsonaro and his campaign have remained silent in the hours since Lula was declared the winner. Journalist Marlos Ápyus tweeted, "'Bolsonaro in silence.' Let him go in silence. As for me, I'll never hear his voice again."

"Bolsonaro lost, but Bolsonarism emerged victorious. The numbers don't lie," tweeted São Paulo state lawmaker Erica Malunguinho, a reference to the incumbent's 58 million-plus votes. "Our project must be political and pedagogical."

Jubilant crowds thronged the streets of cities, including São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, on Sunday evening. Drivers honked horns and people cheered and chanted slogans including the popular campaign jingle "Lula lá" — "Lula's there" — and "Tá na hora de Jair ir embora" — "Time for Jair to leave."

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Brazilian and international progressives, as well as many of the nation's poor, Indigenous, LGBTQ+ people, women and people of color celebrated Lula's imminent return to the Palácio da Alvorada (Brazil's presidential palace), which he occupied for two terms from 2003 to 2010.

"No more fear! With peace, love, and hope we will dream again," tweeted Brazilian author Bianca Santana. "And we will work to live a full democracy where all people fit."

Maria do Rosário, a PT member of the Chamber of Deputies — the lower house of Brazil's National Congress — representing Rio Grande do Sul, exulted: "Today is the Day of Respect for Brazilian Women, it's Workers' Day, the Day of the Free Press and transparency. Today is Children's Day and the fight against pedophilia; Day of the family and victims of Covid; Today is the day of courage and love. I hug you for that!"

"Today, the people of Brazil have voted for democracy, workers' rights, and environmental sanity," tweeted Sen. Bernie Sanders. "I congratulate Lula on his hard-fought victory and look forward to a strong and prosperous relationship between the United States and Brazil."

Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., called Lula's victory "a win for our values and a better world."

UC Berkeley sociology professor Daniel Aldana Cohen said, "Lula's narrow victory is still a massive win for Brazil: for its working class, its Black and Indigenous communities, and against fascism. It's also a win for the Amazon and the planet itself — and thus [very] good news for the multiracial working class of the whole world."

Reuters climate correspondent Jake Spring tweeted, "The lungs of the Earth will breathe easier tonight."

Lula is beloved by millions of Brazilians for his lifelong advocacy for the poor, workers, minorities and rural and indigenous people. As president, he lifted millions of Brazilians from poverty through sweeping social programs, including Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) and Bolsa Familia (Family Allowance), while presiding over Brazil's rise into the top tier of world economies. Barack Obama once called him the "most popular politician on Earth."

Lula's focus on social uplift at the expense of the oligarchy earned him powerful enemies at home, however, and his solidarity with leftist Latin American leaders and opposition to U.S. imperialism made him a target of many in Washington and on Wall Street. 

In 2017, Lula was convicted of corruption and money laundering in connection with the sweeping "Car Wash" scandal and spent 580 days behind bars before being freed after Brazil's supreme court ruled that his incarceration was unlawful. Last year, the high court annulled several criminal convictions against Lula, restoring his political rights and setting the stage for his 2022 run, which has now ended in victory.

His win is the latest in a string of leftist victories in Latin America, which has offered a significant counterbalance to the resurgence of right-wing politics in other parts of the world.

"Congratulations brother Lula, president-elect of Brazil," tweeted Bolivian President Luis Arce. "Your victory strengthens democracy and Latin American integration. We are sure that you will lead the Brazilian people along the path of peace, progress and social justice."

By Brett Wilkins

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