Sao Paulo — Brazil’s president-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva called for “peace and unity” after a narrow victory in a divisive the second round of elections Sunday, completing a remarkable political comeback with a victory over far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, who has yet to concede defeat.
The victory marks a stunning turnaround for the charismatic but tarnished left-wing heavyweight, who left office in 2010 as the most popular president in Brazil’s history, fell into disgrace when he was jailed for 18 months on controversial, since-dropped corruption charges, and is now making a comeback for an unprecedented third term at the age of 77.
All eyes will now be on how Bolsonaro and his supporters will react to the result after months of claims – without evidence – that Brazil’s electronic voting system is plagued by fraud and that the courts, media and other institutions have colluded against his far-right movement.
“This country needs peace and unity,” Lula said to loud cheers in a victory speech in Sao Paulo.
“The challenge is huge,” he said of the work ahead, citing the hunger crisis, the economy, bitter political divisions and deforestation in the Amazon.
He later addressed a packed crowd of hundreds of thousands of supporters who packed the city center wearing red Labor Party clothing, promising “democracy is back”.
Bolsonaro, 67, remained silent for several hours after the results were announced.
“Anywhere else in the world, a losing president would have already called to concede defeat. He hasn’t called yet, I don’t know if he will call and give in,” Lula told the large crowd.
Some Bolsonaro supporters who gathered in the capital of Brasilia refused to accept the results.
“The Brazilian people are not going to swallow a fake election and give our country to a thief,” said teacher Ruth da Silva Barbosa, 50.
Electoral officials announced the election of Lula, who won 50.9 percent of the vote to Bolsonaro’s 49.1 percent from more than 99.9 percent of polling stations, in the tightest race since Brazil’s return to democracy after its 1964-1985 dictatorship.
Bolsonaro, a hard-line conservative dubbed “Tropical Trump,” becomes the first sitting president not to win re-election in the post-dictatorship era.
When Bolsonaro said nothing, some of his key allies appeared in public to accept the results. Among them was the speaker of the lower house of Congress, Arthur Lear, who said that it was time to “reach out to our adversaries, to debate, to build bridges.”
Congratulations to Lula have poured in from US President Joe Biden, as well as French, British and other European leaders, as well as the governments of Russia and China. Leaders from across Latin America also offered their congratulations.
Lula’s supporters across the country erupted on Sunday night.
“We had a genocidal and hateful government for four years,” said 26-year-old student Lula Maria Clara at a victory party in downtown Rio.
“Today, democracy won and the opportunity to dream of a better country appeared again.”
In Brasilia, a tearful crowd of Bolsonaro supporters – dressed in the green and yellow colors of the Brazilian flag, which the former army captain has adopted as his own – fell to their knees to pray.
Bolsonaro won four years ago on a wave of outrage over politics as usual, but was criticized for its disastrous handling with Pandemic of the coronavirus infection covid-19 — resulting in more than 680,000 deaths in Brazil, as well as a weak economy, his polarizing style and attacks on democratic institutions.
Regardless of how the incumbent responds, Lula will face big challenges when he is inaugurated on January 1.
Bolsonaro’s far-right allies won big in legislative and gubernatorial races in the first round of elections on October 2 and will be the biggest force in Congress.
On Sunday, Bolsonaro’s former infrastructure minister Tarcisio de Freitas was named governor of Sao Paulo, the country’s most populous and richest state.
In his victory speech, Lula addressed gender and racial equality and the urgent need to address the hunger crisis that has affected 33.1 million Brazilians.
“Today we are telling the world that Brazil is back,” he said, adding that the country is “ready to reclaim its place in the fight against the climate crisis, especially in the Amazon.”
He promised to “fight for zero deforestation”.
Lula inherited a deeply divided country with a very difficult global economic situation, not unlike the commodity “supercycle” that allowed him to lead Latin America’s largest economy through a breakthrough boom in the 2000s.
Lula’s victory is “one of the greatest comebacks in modern political history,” tweeted Brian Winter, editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly.
But the president-elect will face a hostile Congress and have a “weak government,” Winter told AFP.
None of this mattered yet to Lula’s enthusiastic supporters.
“Brazil is starting to stand upright again after four years of darkness. We went through so many problems, so much fear,” Larisa Meneses, a 34-year-old software developer, told AFP at a jubilant victory party in Sao Paulo.
“Now with Lula’s victory, I really believe that things will start to improve. It’s a day when you can laugh a lot.”