Bolsonaro agrees to transition of power in Brazil
By Jack Nicas and André Spigariol
Two days after losing Brazil’s presidential election, President Jair Bolsonaro agreed to a transition of power on Tuesday, easing fears that the far-right leader would contest the results after warning for months that the only way he would lose would be if the vote were stolen.
In a two-minute speech, Bolsonaro thanked his supporters, encouraged protesters to be peaceful, celebrated his accomplishments, criticized the left and said he had always followed the constitution. What was absent was any acknowledgment that he had lost the vote or that the election had been free and fair.
Instead, after Bolsonaro spoke, his chief of staff took the lectern and said that the government would hand over power to the incoming administration.
“President Bolsonaro has authorized me — when requested, based on the law — to start the transition process,” said Bolsonaro’s chief of staff, Ciro Nogueira.
The question now remains how the president’s comments will be received by his thousands of supporters who have blocked hundreds of highways across Brazil in a bid to “paralyze” the country and somehow overturn the election.
Bolsonaro said Tuesday that those protests “are the fruit of the indignation and feelings of injustice in the electoral process.” But he urged his supporters to halt disruptions. “Peaceful demonstrations will always be welcome,” he said. “But our methods cannot be those of the left, like property invasion, destruction of goods and restrictions on the right to come and go.”
His comments appeared to do little to deter many protesters, who continued to block roads into Tuesday night. “It’s exactly what we expected. The president has always known how to recognize our support,” said Wellington Rodrigues, 41, a protester drinking a beer who had helped block a highway outside São Paulo. “We want to continue, because it’s our right to protest.”
The Bolsonaro administration’s decision to begin transferring power to the leftist candidate who had defeated him, President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was welcome news for Brazil’s democracy. The president has long attacked Brazil’s election system as rife with fraud, despite a lack of evidence, and before Sunday’s election, he had suggested that the left was trying to rig the vote.
So when the talkative president suddenly went silent for two days, the nation was kept on edge, wondering if he would dispute his loss — much as Donald Trump did after he lost to President Joe Biden.
Now, Brazil’s government can fully begin working toward a transition to da Silva, a former president known universally as “Lula” who is returning to lead Brazil 12 years after he left office. He is set to be inaugurated Jan. 1.
Bolsonaro did not mention da Silva on Tuesday.
For people who have watched Bolsonaro’s three decades in politics — a stretch in which he had never lost an election until Sunday — his reaction was not surprising. He has long been a politician driven by his emotions who rails against the political establishment and casts himself as a victim of a conspiracy by the left.
In the two days following his loss, Bolsonaro’s ministers and a Supreme Court justice pushed him to concede, according to four government officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private meetings. The officials had stressed that the final decision on what Bolsonaro would say would be the president’s alone.
Now, after authorizing the government transition, Bolsonaro will have little ability to reverse course, with the full weight of the Brazilian government pushing ahead, including leaders of Brazil’s Congress, the courts, the military and his own administration. And several senior government leaders said the president’s comments were as close to a concession as he would give.
“The president used the verb ‘to end’ in the past tense. He said ‘ended,’” Edson Fachin, a Brazilian Supreme Court justice, told reporters after meeting with the president Monday evening. “Therefore, let’s look ahead.”
Bolsonaro and his right-wing movement will remain a major force in Brazil. His party won the most seats in Congress this month and his allies now run Brazil’s three biggest states. “Our dream is more alive than ever,” Bolsonaro said Tuesday.
Da Silva will also have to confront Brazil’s deep division. He was elected in the closest presidential contest in the 34 years of Brazil’s modern democracy, winning 50.9% of the vote, to Bolsonaro’s 49.1%. Bolsonaro received 58.2 million votes.
Many of Bolsonaro’s supporters consider da Silva a criminal; he served 17 months in prison on corruption charges that were later thrown out. And polls show that 3 out of 4 of Bolsonaro’s supporters have lost faith in the integrity of Brazil’s elections, in part thanks to his years of attacks on the nation’s election system.
The radicalization of some on Brazil’s right was illustrated by the unrest across the country. As of Tuesday night, Bolsonaro’s supporters had set up 190 active blockades of roads in 21 of Brazil’s 27 states, according to the federal highway police. The police said they had cleared 419 other blockades since the election ended and issued 438 fines related to the protests.
Protesters said they were trying to create enough of a disruption that the military would intervene, enabling the president and the armed forces to overturn the election.
“We want the truth about the voting machines,” said Reginaldo de Moraes, 45, an evangelical pastor who echoed Bolsonaro’s conspiracy theories. He was standing on the side of the main highway leading to São Paulo’s airport, which he had helped block for hours. “We don’t believe them,’’ he said, “and we want the army to take over and count the votes correctly.”
There has been no credible evidence of fraud in Brazil’s voting machines since they were introduced in 1996, and independent security experts say that while the machines are not perfect, multiple layers of security prevent fraud or errors.
Concerns about postelection unrest were heightened after it appeared, that in many locations, the federal highway police were allowing the road blockades. On Monday, three federal highway police officers stood and watched as protesters blocked the main highway between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Brazil’s two largest cities.
Late Monday, Alexandre de Moraes, a Supreme Court justice, ordered the federal highway police and state police to clear all national highways. Under the order, the director of the federal highway police faced arrest if his agency did not comply.
Federal police did increase enforcement on Tuesday. After the blockade outside São Paulo’s main airport forced the cancellation of 25 flights, the federal highway police sprayed a chemical agent to clear protesters off the road.
There was little sign, however, that the protesters were prepared to give up. Nearly 200 blockades were still active more than three hours after Bolsonaro’s speech, and in groups on Telegram, a messaging app, many of his supporters framed the president’s comments as a tacit support of their movement.
Many protesters claimed that with enough time, the military would be forced to intervene. A military spokesperson said Tuesday that the blockades were a police matter.
Marco Territo, the federal highway police’s second in command, told reporters on Tuesday that his agency was struggling with the protests. It is a very complex operation,” he said. “We have points with up to 500 protesters, stopped trucks, children in arms.”
Protesters also demonstrated outside the army’s headquarters in Brasília on Tuesday, and a senior military leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said officials were worried that such protests could grow without a more clear condemnation from Bolsonaro.
Amid the turmoil inside the presidential palace and on highways across the vast country, da Silva’s team moved forward with forming a government. His team said it had spoken with Nogueira, Bolsonaro’s chief of staff, about the start of a transitional government, and that da Silva tapped his running mate, a center-right former governor, to lead the effort.
Da Silva then planned to take a few days off with his new wife.