foreign interests

Bolsonaro Blinks

Jair Bolsonaro on Tuesday. Photo: Andressa Anholete/Getty Images

After losing to challenger Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva by 51 percent to 49 percent on Sunday night, sitting Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro — who once said the election would end in his death, his arrest, or his victory — stayed quiet for almost 48 hours. Brazilians faced highways clogged with extreme-right protests led by truck drivers as Bolsonaristas alleged fraud, called for military intervention, and awaited some kind of signal from the presidential palace.

Finally speaking briefly on Tuesday afternoon, Bolsonaro offered implicit criticism of some methods employed by demonstrators but did not concede defeat, congratulate Lula, or ask his supporters to stand down. “The current popular movements are the product of indignation and feelings of injustice with the electoral process,” he said. “Peaceful protests are always welcome, but we cannot adopt the methods of the left, who have always harmed the population by invading and destroying property and restricting free movement.”

Bolsonaro has been under pressure from allies and many foreign governments, and most paths to an effective coup d’état now seem closed. The military has stayed silent, courts have ordered the highways cleared, and prominent government figures have recognized Lula’s victory. But hardcore Bolsonaristas and some elements within the Brazilian police have appeared committed to complicating the transition.

“He may have waited to speak for so long because he was afraid of appearing powerless, and now that he did, the limits on him do seem clear,” said Mathias Alencastro, a political scientist at the Centro Brasileiro de Análise e Planejamento. “He cannot tell his base to demobilize because it would be the end of his political project. But he cannot tell them to escalate because there is nowhere to escalate to.”

At Brazil’s largest bus terminal early Tuesday morning, stranded commuters slept on the floor as listless ticket agents refreshed maps of highway paralysis across the country. Truck drivers and protesters had blocked roads in almost every state, sometimes by setting tires on fire and placing them in the way of traffic, and the country’s largest airport was surrounded. Outside the São Paulo bus station, taxi drivers scrolled their phones, checking in on a steady stream of baseless rumors about voting irregularities and insider plotting.

“Facebook and WhatsApp are going crazy!” one cabbie told me. “It looks like the military is going to intervene today and arrest the head of the Electoral Court.”

But in the real world, major figures around Bolsonaro have accepted that he lost, including Ricardo Salles, the notorious former environmental minister; former judge Sergio Moro, the man who imprisoned Lula in 2018 (before the Supreme Court overturned the charges); and Carla Zambelli, the politician who pulled a gun on an unarmed Black man on Saturday and chased him through the streets of São Paulo after an argument about the election. All three were elected to Congress in first-round voting last month, underlining another reason for the president’s relative isolation: The Bolsonarista bloc did so well that it makes more sense for many extreme-right politicians to take office and mount opposition than it does to make a dangerous bet on a radical insurrection.

Since Sunday, the major node of institutional crisis in Brazil has been the relationship between the country’s electoral authority, the Tribunal Superior Eleitoral, and the country’s highway police, the Polícia Rodoviária Federal. Before the election, the head of the PRF had asked his Instagram followers to vote for Bolsonaro, then deleted the post; he then disobeyed Electoral Court orders by pulling over buses across the country and stopping voters on their way to the polls. Powerful Supreme Court justice and TSE chief Alexandre de Moraes, the center of a lot of attention this year, dragged PRF chief Silvinei Vasques in for questioning and ordered him to stand down. Then, as Bolsonarista protests sought to “paralyze” the country Monday and Tuesday and some PRF officers expressed support for the wave of golpista roadblocks, the same judge ordered the same police chief to clear the roads once more or face arrest.

Things have been much clearer on the international front. Within minutes of the results on Sunday night, foreign leaders began to congratulate Lula on his victory. This was apparently a coordinated effort on the part of many embassies in Brazil that sought to underline their support for democracy in the country and make it harder for Bolsonaro to contest an election. For at least a year, he has attacked the electoral system itself, laying the groundwork for a Trump-style rejection of the results or something much worse. On Sunday night, Lula retweeted messages of support from President Joe Biden, Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez, French president Emmanuel Macron, and many others, as Bolsonaro simply turned off the lights in the presidential palace at 10 p.m. and went to bed.

Given the deep fears that many pro-democracy Brazilians have held over the past few months — that the voting process could be derailed, Bolsonaro could be reelected, or he could openly call for a violent uprising after losing — some citizens and analysts were relieved that the worst thing to happen so far has been wildcat road blockages that lack much institutional support. But for many people, this is a low bar.

“He is the president! Bolsonaro is not just supposed to refrain from wrecking the county more; he is supposed to actually govern. It was his job to recognize the result and make sure the roads actually work,” said Maria, who works on elevators in downtown São Paulo but asked to keep her last name private so she could really let loose. “He is a criminal!”

Bolsonaro Blinks