In Brazil’s runoff presidential vote, former two-time leftist president Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva narrowly defeated far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro. Given his systematic efforts to undermine the credibility of the voting system, it was feared Bolsonaro would challenge the results. Protests by his core supporters calling for military intervention followed as Bolsonaro stayed silent for two days, before giving the go-ahead to an orderly transition – without ever really conceding. The new president will have to work to bring together a deeply divided country, implement a progressive social agenda and reverse harmful, climate-denying environmental decisions in a context of severe fiscal restraint and while in the legislative minority.

For almost two days following the proclamation of the results of Brazil’s 30 October presidential runoff vote, incumbent far-right president and failed re-election hopeful Jair Bolsonaro was missing in action. He disappeared from the public eye, refused to see anybody and remained unusually silent, including on Twitter.

But the heads of the Supreme Court and the House and Senate all quickly recognised the victory of his challenger, former two-time leftist president Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva, as did major international leaders. US President Joe Biden congratulated Lula and highlighted the ‘free, fair and credible’ character of the election barely a half hour after the results were published.

After speaking with Bolsonaro on election night, the president of the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) said he saw ‘no real risk’ of him challenging the results. The challenge, however, came from hardcore Bolsonaro supporters. Starting on Sunday night, truckers started hundreds of roadblocks in 22 states across Brazil, disrupting land and air traffic and causing shortages in major cities. The Supreme Court ordered the Federal Highway Police, an institution with close ties to Bolsonaro, to unblock the roads and threatened its head with imprisonment and steep fines if he didn’t comply by midnight Tuesday.

By Tuesday evening, around 200 – fewer than half – of the roadblocks had been cleared, often with teargas. But by then Bolsonaro supporters had moved to gather outside the army’s headquarters in the capital, Brasília, and in front of military buildings elsewhere, chanting and praying for a military coup. For months on end, their leader had told them that, being a righteous majority, they could only lose if the election was stolen from them. They believed him.

Transition in progress

For almost two days, speculation mounted – would Bolsonaro tell his supporters to go home, or would he double down and go full Trump? His systematic efforts to sow doubts about the integrity of the electronic voting system had brought people to the streets, and the longer Bolsonaro stayed silent, the more emboldened they became, so how could he back down now? On the other hand, it was clear that no one senior in the military, the business community or in his own political coalition would side with him on this, so how could he not?

Bolsonaro seemed pulled by conflicting incentives: should he keep playing the game of democracy, in which, given his recent election result, he could well come back to win again in the future, or should he maintain his bellicose rhetoric, without which he might alienate his core supporters?

The president finally resurfaced for a two-minute speech in which he thanked his voters and described the blockading of highways as a legitimate expression of ‘indignation and a sense of injustice’, but also rejected the use of what he called the damaging ‘methods of the left’. Many tried to read a concession in between the lines, but Bolsonaro never mentioned Lula and didn’t really concede. Speech delivered, he immediately left the stage and it fell upon his chief of staff to pick up the mic and respond to journalists’ desperate questioning by announcing the transition was underway.

‘I am sure we will have an excellent transition’, President-elect Lula tweeted in response. The Supreme Court issued a statement interpreting Bolsonaro’s words as recognition of the election results. And the two-month transition kicked off in a surprisingly normal manner, following the rules established by law to ensure the incoming team gets access to information and documentation before the 1 January inauguration. A far-right authoritarian wannabe subjected Brazilian institutions to a stress test – and they resisted.

A country cut in half

Lula beat Bolsonaro by the narrowest lead since democracy was restored in Brazil in 1985: 1.8 percentage points, or two million votes – a fine margin in an election where 118 million people voted.

The polarisation of the Brazilian electorate was apparent in the first round of voting, in which 11 candidates ran, but Lula and Bolsonaro combined took 91 per cent of the vote.

In the run-up to both elections, pollsters consistently underestimated Bolsonaro’s vote. In the runoff he gained more new voters than Lula: after taking 43.2 per cent of the vote on 2 October, he added an additional 7.1 million votes on 30 October, while Lula, who won the first round with 48.4 per cent, gained 3.3 million further votes.

But this didn’t change the fact that Bolsonaro became the first Brazilian president in the post-dictatorship era who sought re-election and failed to win it – and Lula the first to take a third term. He will take office 12 years after the end of his second term. In between, he spent 580 days in prison for a subsequently quashed corruption case that kept him out of the 2018 race, which Bolsonaro subsequently won.

Two opposing blocs

The clash between the two charismatic leaders – one previously a trade union leader, the other a former army officer – expressed the opposition between two clearly differentiated geographical and social blocs. The progressive camp has a strong base among poor people – at least among those who don’t belong to evangelic churches. Women and Black voters were disproportionately part of the progressive, pro-Lula bloc. The conservative camp includes a big segment of business, agribusiness and the growing evangelical electorate.

While the north and the north-east gave a majority to Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT), the southeast, the south and the more urban, industrialised areas of the centre preferred Bolsonaro. Lula won in 13 states, Bolsonaro in 14.

Notably, Bolsonaro’s candidates for governor won not only in states such as Sao Paulo, which were carried by Bolsonaro, but also in states such as Minas Gerais, where Lula narrowly won. These two governors, Tarcisio Gomes de Freitas and Romeu Zema, appear to have presidential aspirations. All seems to indicate that Bolsonaro’s ideology and approach to politics will far outlast his time in office.

The two blocs put forward opposing narratives about the election: for the pro-Lula camp, it was a choice between democracy and fascism; for the pro-Bolsonaro camp, it was a battle between good and evil and between the national homeland and communism. Political polarisation divided families and shattered friendships.

Bolsonaro supporters denounced supposed anti-Bolsonaro conspiracies that included the mainstream media and all established institutions, from the Supreme Court and the TSE to schools and universities, portrayed as factories of leftist activists. They called Lula corrupt, a liar, an atheist who had made a pact with the devil and a destroyer of the traditional family. Lula supporters called Bolsonaro a fascist, violent, racist, homophobic and misogynistic climate denier who lacked any empathy, pointing to his refusal to take responsibility for his mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the almost 700,000 resulting deaths.

Bolsonaro seemed pulled by conflicting incentives: should he keep playing the game of democracy, in which, given his recent election result, he could well come back to win again in the future, or should he maintain his bellicose rhetoric, without which he might alienate his core supporters?

No wonder an ‘anything goes’ mood prevailed throughout a campaign characterised by mutual accusations and insults, including during a live televised debate on 28 October. Violence flared up not only on social media, riddled with disinformation and hate speech, but also in the real world.

Enabled by a violent rhetoric coming from the top, there were several killings of left-wing politicians, activists and journalists in the run-up to the first round. Ahead of the runoff further acts of political violence were committed in broad daylight by pro-Bolsonaro politicians. One of them, congresswoman Carla Zambeli, chased a Lula supporter with a gun on the streets of São Paulo. A former deputy and leader of one of the parties in the pro-Bolsonaro coalition, Roberto Jefferson, threw explosives at federal police while barricaded in his home resisting arrest. He faced prison for breaching the terms of house arrest imposed on him for attacking a Supreme Court judge on social media.

Lula’s to-do list

Already on election night, Lula set out to tackle the first challenge awaiting him: that of healing the wounds of polarising politics and uniting the country, including by speaking with those who don’t see him as Brazil’s legitimate leader.

At a massive street celebration in São Paulo, he offered a conciliatory speech presenting his win as a victory for democracy and promising to govern in the interests of all Brazilians, not just those who voted for him.

The 77-year-old Lula who has just made a comeback is very different from the politician who left the presidency in 2010 with sky-high approval rates. He’s a moderate leftist whose agenda now places greater emphasis on women’s and LGBTQI+ people’s rights, the rights of Indigenous and Black people, and climate justice.

He didn’t try to win alone. Instead he deepened the strategy that he signalled when choosing centrist Geraldo Alckmin as his vice-presidential running mate, building a broad front. His second-round electoral coalition included personalities such as the socialist leader of the Homeless Workers’ Movement, Guilherme Boulos, environmentalist deputy Marina Silva, former president and long-time Lula critic Fernando Henrique Cardoso and two former governors of Brazil’s Central Bank, Henrique Meirelles and Pérsio Arida.

Lula also secured the support of first-round third-placed candidate, centre-right senator Simone Tebet, and many well-known centrist and centre-right politicians, economists, academics and celebrities who took the view that democracy would be at risk if Bolsonaro were re-elected.

Lula collected votes from the left and centre of the political spectrum, with many voting for him mainly to ensure Bolsonaro’s defeat. His victory fits into an ongoing regional trend that is not so much about ideological turns but more about the almost inevitable defeat of incumbents. People everywhere seem to be looking for alternatives to those in power. Out of the 11 most recent presidential elections in South America, 10 have been won by the opposition.

The president-elect now faces the immediate challenge of turning his electoral coalition into a ruling coalition, which he will need to navigate a Congress where his party is in the minority.

In addition to having a much weaker mandate than he used to, Lula will lack the fiscal resources that once helped fund the mass social policies that lifted millions out of poverty. Still, there’s at least two broad campaign promises he will need to fulfil. The first is to improve the situation of Brazil’s poorest people – the 33 million who currently face acute hunger and the 100 million who live in poverty.

The second is to address the climate crisis by reversing the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and repositioning Brazil as a global leader on climate action. The president-elect has given a positive signal in this regard when he announced he would participate in the COP27 climate change summit, where Brazil is in talks to develop a rainforest alliance.

His policy agenda is bound to encounter resistance in both the House and the Senate, in the states governed by Bolsonaro supporters and, as the protests that greeted election results suggest, in the streets, once the domain of PT-affiliated social movements. To get anything done, the PT-led government will have to negotiate with the conservative politicians of the called ‘centrão’ (big centre), now Bolsonaro allies.

To implement the policy agenda his party’s social base demands, the new president will have to engage in the kind of alliances and negotiations that could well trigger an identity crisis among his supporters. He will have to keep his balance on this tightrope – or else risk joining the growing ranks of defeated incumbents at the next election.


  • President Bolsonaro must commit to a peaceful transition of power, including by reversing any narrative that sows doubts on the legitimacy of the election results.
  • President-elect Lula should focus on bridging political divides and turning his electoral coalition into a plural governing coalition.
  • Once in office, Lula must reinstate environmental protections, enable environmental agencies and mechanisms and reverse restrictions on climate activism.

Cover photo by Reuters/Amanda Perobelli via Gallo Images