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Brazil: Lula elected, no coup, Bolsonaro isolated

The aftermath of the 30 October presidential election

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Lula’s victory in the second round of the presidential election on 30 October was announced less than four hours after the polls closed. As it became obvious that he had overtaken Bolsonaro in the vote count, cheering echoed around the big cities, with people pouring into the streets with flags and banners to celebrate.

The efficiency of Brazil’s system of electronic voting machines was proven as the results from all over this vast country were instantly transmitted to the headquarters of the TSE, the national electoral commission in Brasilia, and shown live on every TV channel, as soon as the polling stations closed their doors. As joyful supporters danced and sang,  a mood of optimism and relief swept the country. Congress leaders and authorities here and presidents and prime ministers abroad queued up to congratulate Lula, elected with a narrow majority of just two per cent of the 118 million valid votes. 

Waiting for the blockades

Bolsonaro however refused to concede. Far from congratulating the winner, as electoral etiquette demanded, for two days he shut himself away in the presidential palace in total silence. 

This wasn’t just the reaction of a bad loser. He appeared to be waiting to see if the incipient coup set in motion by thousands of his supporters – who refused to accept Lula’s victory, blockading hundreds of roads all over the country and gathering outside army barracks to demand military intervention – would bring Brazil to a standstill, giving a pretext for declaring a state of emergency and suspending the election result.

It became clear that the blockades were not spontaneous, but pre-planned, because the demonstrators arrived with tents, chemical toilets and food supplies. An army lorry was filmed unloading tyres to form barricades. In some cases children were used as human shields.

Army lorry delivering tyres to assist the demonstrators. Video: Cortes da Politica, November 2022

The blockaders hoped to emulate the Chilean lorry owners’ strike of October 1972, which set the scene for a tide of violence and the eventual military coup against Salvador Allende. 

The road blocks began to create chaos: many flights at Brazil’s major airport, Guarulhos, were cancelled, because plane crews could not get through; patients needing hemodialysis, or in one case a heart transplant, were prevented from getting to hospital. Thousands of passengers were trapped on buses.

Fresh fruit and vegetables began to rot in lorries on their way to markets. Milk producers said they would have to throw away thousands of litres. Supermarkets began to run out of supplies.

Demonstrators and PRF highway police in confrontation at Novo Progresso, Pará. Video: Band Jornalismo, 7 November 2022

In the Amazon town of Novo Progresso, a centuries-old and immensely tall Brazil nut tree, although protected by law, was cut down to block the road.  The PRF, or highway police, commanded by an openly pro-Bolsonaro director, instead of dispersing the demonstrators, crossed their arms and fraternized with the protestors.

The people react

At first reaction was timid as, busy with celebrating Lula’s victory, few people realised the extent of the attempted coup.  The military kept quiet. And in his palace Bolsonaro waited, indifferent to the problems caused by the blockade even in states where he had won most votes.

But then sectors of the population began to take action. First a group of factory workers broke up  a blockade in Angra dos Reis, then members of a favela community broke up one in São Mateus, in the state of Espirito Santo, and finally thousands of supporters of Corinthians, the most popular soccer club in São Paulo, prevented from travelling to Rio to see their club play, linked arms and, chanting pro-Lula slogans, marched on the demonstrators who were blocking the Tiete Marginal, one of the main throughfares in the city, putting them to flight. 

Corinthians fans put an end to pro-coup blockade by Bolsonaro supporters in São Paulo. Video: UOL 2 November 2022

State governors now began ordering their police forces to break up the blockades, applying heavy fines to those who refused. The Supreme Court ordered the highway police to take action, and gradually the roads were cleared.

When Bolsonaro realized the coup had failed, he finally appeared in public, to make a pathetic 2 minute speech, still not acknowledging Lula’s victory, but thanking the 58 million who had voted for him. He left it to his chief political minister, Ciro Nogueira, to announce that transition proceedings would begin, as laid down by law.

Transition unlocks progress

The transition process has now begun, with a 50 strong committee led by vice-president elect Geraldo Alckmin, sitting round a table with  government representatives. The Lula team includes specialists and experts in every area, including those which have been trashed by Bolsonaro, including education, culture and the environment. 

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Some of the member’s of Lula’s transition team. Images: wikimedia

After four years when the only news emerging from the government seemed to be of scandals, corruption and mismanagement, it is heartwarming to see serious people discussing plans and projects.

On the international stage, Bolsonaro, although officially still president of Brazil until 31 December 31, has been sidelined, and Lula has become de facto president, personally invited to COP27 by the Egyptian president. Norway has declared that the Amazon Fund, frozen under Bolsonaro, will be re-activated.

Image: Anadolou Agency, Turkey

Bolsonaro’s immediate concern seems to be how to avoid having to pass the presidential sash into the hands of Lula. Once he loses presidential immunity, he faces the prospect of being charged for the many crimes he has committed while in office. 

It is believed Bolsonaro could take refuge in the United States, possibly becoming an unwelcome guest at the Trump mansion at Mar-a-Lago, although his idol and mentor has often declared that he has no time for losers.

Interestingly, since the election results were announced, the military who so actively tried to interfere in the voting system, with audits and investigations, have gone quiet. 

But even if Bolsonaro flees, he leaves behind millions of Brazilians who voted for a man whose message was one of hate, misogyny, racism, homophobia. 

Pragmatism and ambition

In the newly elected congress, pragmatism seems to be the order of the day, with many from rightwing and centre parties declaring their support for the Lula government, hoping for ministries and perks in the new order. Hardline opponents could find themselves in a  minority.

The new congress also counts on a reasonably sized group of  leftwing and progressive representatives, including several indigenous people. Their number is still very small but they represent an increasingly active and organized indigenous movement, led by articulate young leaders from many different ethnic groups.

The Lula government will face huge challenges, but it is already signaling significant change from the destructive shambles of the outgoing administration.

Tackling the climate emergency and protecting the Amazon have moved to front and centre stage. Lula plans a transition to green, sustainable energy policies. This should mean that the era of giant Amazon dams so beloved of previous PT governments, is over. Solar power is already poised to move into second place behind wind farms.

Diplomacy will once again be used to exercise Brazil’s role as a major player on the world stage, consigning to the dustbin its pariah status under Bolsonaro. Brazil under Lula, whose stature as a world leader is recognized by governments of all hues, will once again be a desirable and admired partner.  

‘The government of the era of darkness, of isolation, instability and environmental destruction, drove investors away, not only those directly committed to climate cause. This money should return,’ wrote one economic commentator.  

Above all there is relief that Brazil does not face another four years of the incompetent, destructive policies of Bolsonaro. Once again this is a country where hope and optimism are possible, where being poor, black, female or gay does not mean having to live in fear and indignity.

Jan Rocha's Blog

Jan Rocha is a former correspondent for the BBC and the Guardian and lives in São Paulo, Brazil. She is the author of a number of LAB books, and contributes this regular column for LAB, known for its incisive analysis of current Brazilian politics.

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