In a hotel in downtown São Paulo packed with international press, Lula supporters waited with fingers crossed. The early election returns on October 30 showed the far-right President Jair Bolsonaro with a strong lead over the leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. That was to be expected, since the first results came in from Bolsonaro strongholds. But you could feel the mood shift as the vote count reduced the gap. A few minutes before 8 PM, cheers broke out—the lines on the TV’s voter graph had met, and Lula proceeded to edge into the lead. The final tally for the election showed 50.9 percent for Lula to 49.1 percent for Bolsonaro.
Lula made his triumphant entry shortly thereafter, as photographers yelled at supporters to get down off the chairs. After two presidential terms and nearly two years in prison on trumped-up charges, he seemed more than ready for another go at leading the nation with the 10th-largest economy in the world.
I expected a conciliatory speech, and Lula did promise “to govern for the 215 million Brazilians, not just the ones who voted for me.” Then he went on to make important distinctions.
“The people made it clear they want more, not less, democracy; they want more, not less, social inclusion…they want more, not less, liberty, equality, and fraternity in our country.” He repeated his progressive promises: combating racism and violence against women; the need for “books, not arms,” a reference to Bolsonaro’s arming of civilians and cozying up to security forces; access to health care, education, and housing. He emphasized the distribution of wealth, protecting the Amazon, and support for small- and medium-scale farmers rather than the large landowners given free rein by Bolsonaro. He vowed to launch a new campaign against hunger in the wake of the economic and food crises brought on by the pandemic.
After the speech, I walked the few blocks up from the hotel to Avenida Paulista, into a scene that looked more like a day of Carnival than an election night. Thousands of supporters chanted, sang, and danced down the avenue. After four years of Bolsonaro’s hate speech and discrimination, Black, gay, and Indigenous Brazilians poured into the streets. Bottle rockets and sound systems added to the noise.
Four years marked by one of the highest Covid death rates in the world, rising inequality, the destruction of the Amazon, and international isolation had come to an end. I was in the streets after Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s victory in Mexico and Gustavo Petro’s victory in Colombia, but nothing matched the gigantic party that was Brazil when Lula defeated Bolsonaro.
Brazilians know the hardships that await them. Bolsonaro’s base of “beef, Bibles, and bullets”—the cattle ranchers, evangelical churches, and security forces and armed militias that support him—is not going away. Lula has promised moderate economic reforms, naming the centrist Geraldo Alckmin as his running mate. If and when he attempts structural reforms to the neoliberal system, including moving Brazil away from its reliance on extractive industries and unfair trade agreements, he’ll face pushback. But today, congratulations from foreign nations, including the US, were pouring in, and the support for Lula’s legitimacy was secure.
“Brazil is back,” Lula proclaimed, after those dark years when foreign leaders shunned Bolsonaro as a Covid and climate denier. Although he faces a tough road at home, with a conservative-controlled congress and governorships, Lula may have an easier time advancing his international agenda. He called for strengthening alliances within the Global South through the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, Mercosur, UNASUR, and ties with African nations. These initiatives would redraw the hemispheric map with greater sovereignty and more independence from US military and economic interests.
The global far right, which has been racking up victories from Iowa to Italy, suffered a major setback with the fall of Bolsonaro. The Brazilian elite had mobilized like never before to consolidate control over the nation’s vast power and resources. Steve Bannon, the architect of the international alt-right movement, called the election “the most important of all time in South America,” with Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo standing at his side. When Bolsonaro lost, Bannon practically ordered him not to concede, spewing obscenities on social media.
Before the elections, the possibility loomed of post-electoral conflict, even violence. After Lula was declared the winner, Bolsonaro remained invisible. When he finally appeared, he announced that his government was cooperating with the transition and asked his supporters to lift the roadblocks set up by pro-Bolsonaro truckers. There was no concession and no congratulations. Bannon and company had been counting on Brazil serving as their fascist foothold in Latin America, and their formula of culture wars and class warfare came dangerously close to winning.
But it didn’t. Before the sobering reality of governing sets in, the joy of this victory for freedom is an inspiration for what comes next.
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