After Two Tense Days in Brazil, the Path Is Clearing for Lula’s Comeback

After Two Tense Days in Brazil, the Path Is Clearing for Lula’s Comeback

Few political encores of modern times have been as epic as that of Brazil’s maximum politician, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who celebrated his seventy-seventh birthday last week. Just three years ago, the charismatic left-winger known universally as Lula, who served as Brazil’s President for two terms, from 2003 to 2010, was in prison, eighteen months into a twelve-year sentence on corruption charges. This past Sunday, having secured early release with a court-ordered suspension of the charges against him, Lula won Brazil’s Presidency for the third time, in a runoff vote. He did so narrowly, with 60.3 million votes to 58.2 million for his far-right rival, the incumbent Jair Bolsonaro.

A couple of hours after the polls closed, Lula appeared at a São Paulo hotel, where he gave a victory speech to a packed roomful of journalists and his election team. He thanked God, his wife, Janja, who was at his side, and several of his political allies for aiding him in his triumph. In a manner that felt reminiscent of Joe Biden’s conciliatory words after beating Donald Trump, in 2020, Lula alluded to Brazil’s bitter divisions by saying that he wished to be the President of “all Brazilians,” while asserting, “There aren’t two Brazils. There’s just one.” (His supporters in the room applauded, but everyone knew that it wasn’t true.)

Afterward, Lula headed to an elevated soundstage that had been built on Avenida Paulista, the city’s main street, where hundreds of thousands of people noisily convened in a raucous celebration of Lula’s return to power. There, into the early hours of Monday morning, Lula spoke, and sometimes wept, in a voice that had turned alternately hoarse and growly with age and raw emotion. He talked about his time in prison, where he had been “buried alive” on trumped-up charges, and about his comeback, and he thanked Brazilians for giving him a chance to govern them once more. He proclaimed that “authoritarianism and fascism” in Brazil had been defeated, and that democracy had returned. Brazil’s political rhetoric, like the United States’, has become dangerously inflamed. Just as Trump began referring to Democrats as “socialists” during his time in office, Bolsonaro, his unabashed protégé, has routinely vilified Lula’s followers in the left-of-center Workers’ Party as “communists.” In the hard-fought Presidential campaign, and in the month since the first round of voting, on October 2nd—which Lula won, but without the necessary fifty-per-cent majority to declare victory outright—the two men had all but come to physical blows, with Bolsonaro calling Lula a thief and a traitor to his face, and Lula, red-faced with anger, referring to Bolsonaro as a liar and as a heartless and negligent leader, recalling his sneering dismissals of the risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has reaped a grim tally of 688,000 Brazilian lives, the second-highest mortality figure in the world, after the United States.

As Lula spoke in Monday’s predawn darkness, his supporters, their arms raised in the air, laughed and shouted, and many cried with emotion. They raised a chant over and over: “Bolsonaro, shove it up your ass!” After Lula spoke, the popular singer Daniela Mercury joined him onstage. She belted out a few of her hits, and people danced and sang along. The night acquired a Carnaval vibe; next to me in the crowd, a trio of scantily dressed trans women, one showing off large, bare breasts, shimmied, while nearby a pair of tattooed, shirtless men wheeled around in a display of acrobatic abandon. People waved red Workers’ Party flags and banners with Lula’s smiling face emblazoned on them. Others wore T-shirts that read “Pincanha, Cerveja, & Lula 2022” (“Steak, Beer, & Lula 2022”), from Lula’s folksy invocations of Brazilians’ beloved tradition of the back-yard barbecue and his promises that, notwithstanding a bad economy, he will try to rid the nation of its chronic inequality and give all Brazilians a decent standard of living. Eliminating hunger in Brazil, he had announced, would be his No. 1 priority. It’s a pledge he’ll find hard to keep, but that night his supporters—many of them still scarcely able to believe that he was back, and that Bolsonaro, despised for his routine displays of misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and racism, among other traits, had been dislodged from power—cheered everything Lula said.

After daybreak on Monday, with the partying over, an eerie silence prevailed. Bolsonaro had said nothing, and remained out of sight, with little in the way of news emerging from meetings that he was said to have held with senior military officers and some of his cabinet officials. Speculation was rife that he might not concede, or might even attempt a January 6th-style mob putsch similar to the one Trump had instigated on Capitol Hill. And, sure enough, by late afternoon reports began spreading of truckers blocking highways around the country, calling the election rigged and demanding that the armed forces intervene on Bolsonaro’s behalf. The federal highway police, meanwhile, said to be rife with bolsonaristas, were pointedly not doing anything to clear the roads. (On Election Night, the head chief of the federal highway police had broken with legal norms by personally urging people, on a social-media account, to vote for Bolsonaro.)

By Tuesday morning, more roads had been blocked, and, here and there, truckers had been joined by groups of civilians who said that they would not leave until the military took over to guarantee the continuation of Bolsonaro’s Presidency. For most of Tuesday, the same surreal situation continued, but with fervid speculation about the eventual announcement that Bolsonaro would make. (Until then, the only communication from the Bolsonaro camp had come from one of his sons, Flávio Bolsonaro, a member of the Senate, who on Monday tweeted his thanks to everyone who helped his father win the greatest number of votes ever in his political career, and declaring that the forces he had mustered would carry on, with their heads held high. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro’s wife, Michelle, a Pentecostalist influencer, reassured her social-media followers that she and her husband remained “united.” This came after rumors to the contrary had begun spreading, when, a few hours after Lula’s victory, her husband had “unfollowed” her on Instagram. The First Lady pointed out that the President did not control his Instagram account. It was later reported that the culprit had been the Bolsonaros’ techie son, Carlos, who is a city councilor in Rio, and with whom she was said to have had a fight.

In the late afternoon, several hours after summoning a waiting crowd of reporters into the Presidential Palace, Bolsonaro emerged, with a tight smile, and read from a written statement for two minutes, then turned and left the room. He never mentioned Lula by name, nor did he mention the specifics of the election results, or even whether he had won or lost. With a tone of menacing ambiguity, however, he said that peaceful demonstrations will always be welcome and added that, as he had done throughout his political career, he respected the constitution.

Then one of his senior aides appeared and said that the Presidential “transition” would begin on Thursday. In other words, Bolsonaro has opted to remain in a state of public denial, but the election was over. As Marina Dias, a politically astute Brazilian journalist and a friend, told me, “He did not contest the election, which is great. He does not have the base or power for that. And he said he will follow the constitution. O.K. And his chief of staff has said the transition could begin. But he did not ask the protests to stop. So what he is basically saying is: ‘Let’s do it under chaos and see how it goes.’ ”

At the hotel where Lula had been meeting with his advisers throughout the afternoon, he appeared briefly to shake a few hands and pose for selfies. He looked perky and enthused. Then he was gone, reportedly headed with his wife to Bahia, on the coast, to try and rest up for a couple of days before the transition begins. The Presidency looms again for Lula and, with it, an enormous amount of work to fulfill the campaign pledges he made. In addition to reunifying a divided nation and solving hunger, they include rescuing the economy, eliminating homelessness, restoring Brazil’s name on the world stage—and easing global climate change by saving the Amazon rain forest. “He knows that if he doesn’t take the days off now, that’s it,” one of his closest aides told me. “After this, they’ll probably never have another chance.” ♦

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