Bolsonaro lost, but what awaits Brazil from now on?

Brazil has a new president. Or an old one, it depends on how you look at it. Former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was once again elected for a 4-year term. After spending 580 days in jail on corruption charges and see his chances of running for election in 2017 suspended, the charges were dismissed, and Lula came back on top after an extremely violent election campaign and with a divided country.

The difference in votes between Lula and the runner-up, incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro, was just over 2 million votes, with Lula winning by a huge margin in the northeast region and Bolsonaro winning by a large margin in the south bringing to light old and deep-rooted regional prejudices in Brazil.

If on the one hand, 60 million Brazilians voted for Lula’s return, 58 million wanted the continuity of Bolsonaro’s government, responsible for the death of thousands of people during the pandemic – or the “little flu”, as the president used to say -, which actively promoted the destruction of the Amazon and left the country internationally isolated, only maintaining close contacts with pariahs like the president of Hungary, Viktor Orbán.

The election was violent – the post-election as well. Intimidation, aggression and killings – on both sides, albeit in clear asymmetry. Assassinations of supporters of President-elect Lula da Silva, aggression and attempted murder even of children and students, blocking roads with demands for military intervention, aggression even within families and students from an elite school planning on buying guns to kill those who voted or supported the future president.

This is the scenario in Brazil after Lula’s victory against current president Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro, famous for preaching violence against opponents, attacking the press, attacking especially women and LGBT people, for defending guns and for having repeatedly said he would not accept leaving the presidency – despite having chickened out after the defeat at the polls and retreated, leaving his allies on the streets orphaned of leadership – bears the bulk of responsibility for the climate of division that has taken hold of the country.

As much as Brazil has seen cases of violence by Lula supporters against “Bolsonarists”, it was a drop of water in a puddle compared to Bolsonarist violence against left-wing individuals (with even businessmen threatening employees with dismissal and trying to coerce them into voting for Bolsonaro).

All over the country, supporters of the president tried to buy votes, in one case even in front of television cameras that caught the electoral crime in the act – and yet, despite all the use of the public machine and all the violence, Lula was elected for a third term (not consecutive). He will face a country living under great tension, in political, economic and social crisis, with a widening gap between the more educated classes and those who have become hostages of fundamentalist evangelical pastors, and with hunger once again affecting millions of people. In a speech just after the results were out, Lula spoke about reconciliation and joining a divided Brazil, but he’s going to have a hard time achieving it. All over the country, in at least 25 states, truck drivers and other supporters of Bolsonaro are staging demonstrations and blocking road that could lead to shortages of basic goods in an attempt to contest the outcome of the polls and force a coup.

But gradually, the radical militants began to leave the roads and concentrate in protests in front of army barracks, demanding military intervention to ensure the continuity of the Bolsonaro government. On the institutional side, the president’s party, the Liberal Party (PL) has filed in court with a request to impugn 279 thousand ballot boxes used in the second round – without presenting any evidence of any fraud or even malfunctioning of the electronic ballot boxes. The lawsuit was soon dismissed, and the party ordered to pay almost 23 million in fines.

A few weeks later, however, a new wave of road occupations in states where the president had large votes such as Santa Catarina, Mato Grosso and Rondônia – but now the actions have turned violent, with analysts and even the Federal Highway Police (PRF) accusing Bolsonaro militants of terrorism. And that’s important because the PFR itself was accused of being too lenient and even supporting the illegal and often violent demonstrations and road blockings. Bolsonarists used homemade bombs made of bottles with petrol, firecrackers, intentionally spilled oil on the roads and set up barricades with burnt tyres, bins, and tree trunks to prevent traffic to flow. On top of that, they also forced truck drivers to leave their vehicles and set them on fire – two men were arrested for this crime with gallons of petrol, firearms and almost 10,000 reais (approx. 2,000 dollars) in cash. In Mato Grosso, an ambulance and a winch were set on fire, a tyre repair shop was robbed and had its tyres stolen by supporters of the president to make barricades. Flagged by the Military Police, the bolsonarists fired on the police. Three criminals and potential domestic terrorists were arrested. There are also reports of assaults on truck drivers across the country. Molotov cocktails were also used against the base of the concessionaire that runs a road in Mato Grosso, which was also shot at. As with the first protests and road occupations, the police are accused of omitting themselves and allowing pro-coup acts to take place and become increasingly violent.

It does not help democracy that Bolsonaro refused, for almost 2 days after the election results were out, to acknowledge defeat or even make a statement of any kind. In a brief speech on November 1, he thanked his followers, but refused to acknowledge his defeat or to condemn the anti-democratic demonstrations around the country. In subsequent public appearances, Bolsonaro has merely remained in silence, but waving to supporters advocating a coup.

Although not linked to the elections, but also a sign of the radicalisation of the country, there is an accumulation of cases of students invading schools and carrying out mass shootings throughout the country. Bolsonaro has not only made access to weapons easier, but his hateful and belligerent discourse has legitimised violence. Police and justice are trying to identify those coordinating and financing the roadblocks and terrorist acts. Businessmen, many linked to agribusiness, are thought to be backing the illegal and violent actions.

Not only the use of violence as a tool to pressure a coup d’état, but also the fact that they are coordinated and financed by businessmen (who have also donated money to Bolsonaro’s electoral campaign), may end up framing the protests as acts of terrorism and sabotage. The radicalisation of the Bolsonarist discourse, as well as the defence of the use of weapons and the facilitation of access to firearms in the country help explain the growth of the phenomenon of mass shootings in Brazil in recent years. In a country that is already extremely violent, this is a dangerous escalation that could lead the country to collapse. To this can be added Nazi-like tactics such as identifying the homes of Workers’ Party’s (PT) voters in the interior of Rio Grande do Sul with a star in their doors (the symbol of the party), or even boycotting companies accused of supporting the PT in the interior of São Paulo state.

In Santa Catarina, Paraná, and other states, business owners accused of supporting the PT are receiving offensive calls, and negative reviews on social networks. Their names, phone numbers and company addresses are on lists made by supporters of the president in WhatsApp and Telegram groups – some have even received death threats and the atmosphere is the one of fear. In small and medium-sized towns the danger faced by voters or supposed voters of Lula da Silva is even greater. The fear among many Brazilians is that political violence could become the norm. In the camps set by bolsonarists close to military barracks in many cities, there’s intimidation and threats against those who dare to criticise their mobilisation. They are not willing to accept defeat – or democracy for that matter.  

If it is true that during the Bolsonaro government, groups of fascist supporters promoted camps in front of the Supreme Court and threatened the institutions, it is also a fact that now the situation has become even more dangerous.  Already taken over by drug trafficking, militia and armed gangs, the sum of political violence and even terrorism is a recipe for chaos in Brazil.

Brazil does not need a conciliation process as some preach, but a broad process of de-radicalisation that can only succeed if Bolsonaro and those financing and promoting violent acts that can be considered terrorist are held accountable and swiftly punished for the chaos that is beginning to ensue in Brazil.

On the other hand, the new president, Lula da Silva, will have the good will of most of the world’s democracies. President Joe Biden was quick to congratulate his victory and it is expected that the relationship between Brazil and the US will gain new momentum – Bolsonaro had good relations with Trump, but the same cannot be said for Biden. It seems little, but international support is important to safeguard Brazil’s democracy and to prevent that more radical sectors of the Armed Forces decide to go against the constitution. One cannot forget that the 1964 coup that led to a 21-year-long Military Dictatorship in Brazil had not only the support, but the backing of the United States. Now, the situation is very different. 

In Lula’s first and second terms, Brazilian foreign policy sought to have an active position on the world stage: it built an agreement between Iran and Turkey on Iranian nuclear weapons, forged alliances with Africa, recognized Palestine as a state, and ensured Brazil’s international prominence while maintaining excellent relations with Barack Obama. Many remember this period and are hoping that the country could once again regain prominence.

With Bolsonaro, Brazilian foreign policy ended up mostly isolated and now some of Lula’s old policies might return to centre stage, with the country renewing the debate over a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. It remains to be seen how Lula will navigate the thorny issue of Russia’s war against Ukraine – during the campaign Lula ended up repeating the old leftist Latino-American litany of trying to equate the aggressor state, Russia, with the victim, Ukraine – and one must take into account Brazil’s role in the BRICS, but it is a fact that Lula has also preached a cautious rapprochement with the US and the EU, and in his inauguration speech he recalled the need to talk to the EU about environmental issues and the preservation of the Amazon forest.

Lula promised the creation of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, possibly with the indigenous congresswoman Sonia Guajajara occupying the position. It would be a way to apologize for the treatment that the Workers’ Party, in particular during the government of Dilma Rousseff, gave to indigenous people with the construction of Belo Monte, condemned by international courts, and that even today harm indigenous communities in northern Brazil.

Despite having managed to elect a considerable base in parliament, the radicalism of many pro-Bolsonaro activists and politicians could cause a split in their base and weaken an eventual opposition to the Lula government. Bolsonaro himself, avoiding the spotlight since his defeat, seems to show little desire to command the base he himself helped create and strengthen. Or little capacity to do so.

It is hard to know which is worse, an organised fascist base (under a figure who has already demonstrated his total inability to lead) or a disorganised and increasingly radicalised fascist base without anyone capable of limiting their actions. Even though often crossing the line, at least under Bolsonaro even the most fanatical of his supporters could still see where the line was, without any leadership, things could go south. However, in this second scenario, the possibility opens up of the emergence of a new leadership or leaderships that could channel radicalism into something much worse. If they are even remotely more capable than Bolsonaro, the damage could be enormous.

It is worth remembering that Lula was elected in large part not because he was the preferred candidate, but because he was the only possibility of defeating Bolsonaro. Moreover, he would be over 80 years old in an eventual campaign for re-election, and his party, the PT, has not only been unable to produce a new leadership, but the party has acted to prevent the emergence of new leaders across the left, including investing in dirty campaigns against leaders like Marina Silva.

Should the far-right manage to reorganise itself minimally, in 4 years it will find a potentially favourable scenario given the lack of options on the left. But that is, of course, provided that the pro-coup and even terrorist aspirations of the radical bolsonarist base do not cross certain lines – considering that many have been crossed already.

In many aspects, Brazil will have to rebuild itself from a scenario of extreme growing poverty, social unrest, immense dissatisfaction and distrust of institutions, economic crisis at a world level and, above all, will have to find the means to govern on a broad front, including parties and individuals from different ideological spectrums and present a viable programme. Lula will have no room for error. The far-right, even if it needs a new leader or for Bolsonaro to resume his role, remains vigilant and threatening, just as Brazilians’ patience is increasingly short.