After defeat, Bolsonaro is silent, and Brazil braces for turmoil
By Jack Nicas
Brazil on Monday woke up to a moment that it had long been bracing for.
President Jair Bolsonaro narrowly lost the presidential election to his leftist challenger, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, but 12 hours later, he had yet to say anything publicly.
His silence was becoming increasingly worrying because Bolsonaro, a far-right leader often compared to former President Donald Trump, has been warning for months that he might not accept defeat, raising concerns about the stability of Latin America’s largest country and one of the world’s biggest democracies.
Bolsonaro has consistently claimed, without evidence, that Brazil’s electronic voting system is rife with fraud and that the left was planning to rig the vote. As a result, millions of his supporters have lost faith in the integrity of their nation’s elections, according to polls, and many said publicly that they were prepared to take to the streets at his command.
But in the hours after Bolsonaro’s election loss, Brazil remained relatively calm, aside from the dancing in the streets among da Silva’s joyful supporters.
As of 9 a.m. local time Monday (8 a.m. Eastern time), 13 hours after the race was called, Bolsonaro and his three politician sons, who are prolific users of social media, had not commented publicly since election results were announced.
Just after 10 p.m. Sunday, the lights were already out at the presidential palace and Bolsonaro’s closest aides had left.
Yet in the meantime, some of Bolsonaro’s top allies were accepting da Silva’s victory, albeit begrudgingly.
“The dream of freedom of more than 51 million Brazilians lives on,” Carla Zambelli, a far-right member of Congress who has warned of rigged elections for years, posted on Twitter on Sunday night. “And I PROMISE you, I will be the toughest opposition Lula has ever imagined,” she added, referring to da Silva.
Zambelli is one of Bolsonaro’s most prominent allies in Congress, with millions of followers on social media, as well as one of Brazil’s most combative politicians. A day before the election, she made headlines for pulling a gun on a supporter of da Silva in São Paulo in a scene captured on video. She was not charged.
Many of Bolsonaro’s supporters appeared less ready to throw in the towel.
Misinformation about potential voter fraud spread rapidly in conservative corners of the Brazilian internet in the hours after the election, including unattributed videos that purported to show voting machines malfunctioning and speculation that patterns in the vote returns suggested something was amiss. Brazil’s election officials said there was no evidence of fraud Sunday.
On the streets of some of Brazil’s biggest cities Sunday night, many of Bolsonaro’s supporters also shouted that the election was stolen — and then said they were returning home, dejected, to wait for word from the president.
“I don’t know if my vote was counted nor the votes of the people here,” said Marcelo Costa Andrade, 45, a government worker scrolling through his phone at what he hoped would be a victory party in Bolsonaro’s wealthy beachside neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro. “I feel robbed.”
But, despite his suspicion that the election might have been stolen, he was preparing to leave. “Now I’ll go home, talk to my family, lean on God and wait for Bolsonaro to say something,” he said.
There were signs, however, that some of Bolsonaro’s supporters were not going to wait for him to speak before publicly rejecting the results. In Mato Grosso, the heart of Brazil’s farming region, near the center of the country, truckers started fires and tried to block parts of a main highway that is a vital link for shipping agricultural goods in the hours after the results were announced, according to videos posted on social media and local news reports.
Brazil’s truckers broadly support Bolsonaro and, a year ago, some had attempted to stop working and block roads in protest of the Brazilian Supreme Court’s efforts to counter some of Bolsonaro’s policies.
And on Monday morning, thousands of supporters of Bolsonaro joined more than a dozen groups on the messaging app Telegram that called for “paralyzing” the country to show they would not accept da Silva’s victory.
In a group focused on Rio de Janeiro, they circulated plans to create a blockade outside one of the nation’s largest oil refineries, just north of the city, on Monday morning. In another group centered on Brasília, the nation’s capital, people posted calls for a military intervention and massive protests in the afternoon.
Adding to some officials’ concerns Monday was that Bolsonaro lost in the narrowest presidential election in the 34 years of Brazil’s modern democracy. Da Silva won by 2.1 million votes, or 1.8 percentage points, in an election where more than 118 million Brazilians voted.
In his acceptance speech Sunday night, da Silva recognized the country’s deep division and said he would seek to unite the nation. “I will govern for 215 million Brazilians, and not just for those who voted for me,” he said. “There are not two Brazils. We are one country, one people, one great nation.”
Da Silva is set to take office Jan. 1.