Bolsonaro: Brazil’s brash president mum after election loss

BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) — In Brazil’s capital on Monday, the silence was deafening.

Many hours after President Jair Bolsonaro lost his bid for reelection, the usually brash right-wing leader had neither conceded defeat nor challenged the results of the country’s closest political contest in more than three decades.

Bolsonaro hadn’t spoken a word to reporters camped outside the official residence or the supporters who regularly gather nearby. Nor did he post on his otherwise prolific social media platforms. The only sign of protest came from Bolsonaro-supporting truckers who blockaded some roads across the country.

Bolsonaro’s rival, former president and left-leaning ex-union leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won the runoff Sunday night with 50.9% of the votes, to Bolsonaro’s 49.1%. It was the closest election since Brazil’s return to democracy in 1985.

Much like former U.S. President Donald Trump, whom Bolsonaro admires, the departing Brazilian leader has repeatedly questioned the reliability of the nation’s electronic voting system. At one point he said he possessed proof of fraud, though he provided no evidence. And as recently as last month, he remarked that if he didn’t win in the election’s first round, something was “abnormal” — even as most polls showed him trailing.

As time passes and an increasing number of international leaders publicly recognize da Silva’s victory, the president’s room for dispute is dwindling, experts told The Associated Press.

Some of Bolsonaro’s closest allies indicated the same.

“The will of the majority seen on ballots shall never be contested,” Lower House Speaker Arthur Lira told reporters Sunday.

Other Bolsonaro supporters who publicly acknowledged da Silva’s win include Sao Paulo governor-elect Tarcísio de Freitas and Senator-elect Damares Alves, both of whom served as ministers under Bolsonaro, and Lower House whip Ricardo Barros. Evangelical pastor Silas Malafaia, who has been a strident Bolsonaro supporter, called for God to bestow his “blessing” on da Silva.

“He must have several plans for how to contest the results of the polls; the question is whether he has the political support to go ahead with these plans,” said Paulo Calmon, a political science professor at the University of Brasilia. “He won’t have the support of Sao Paulo’s governor, of the Lower House, Senate, and he will have to face opposition from everyone.”

Calmon added that Bolsonaro had recently said during an interview last month that he would accept the result even if he lost, but that congratulating da Silva would hurt his popularity among his most radical base.

Abroad, U.S. President Joe Biden was among the first world leaders to salute da Silva, highlighting the country’s “free, fair, and credible elections.” By contrast, Bolsonaro took more than a month to congratulate Biden’s 2020 victory against Trump.

Like Trump, Bolsonaro has his own potential legal concerns. He is one of the targets of a Supreme Court inquiry into the spread of fake news and a Senate investigation recommended that he be charged with crimes for his mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Brazil’s Independence day last year, Bolsonaro told a cheering crowd that only God can remove him from office, then continued: “For all of us, there are only three alternatives, especially for me: arrested, dead or victorious. Tell the scoundrels I’ll never be arrested!”

The high-stakes election was a stunning reversal for da Silva, 77, whose imprisonment for corruption sidelined him from the 2018 election that brought Bolsonaro, a defender of conservative social values, to power.

“Today, the only winner is the Brazilian people,” da Silva said in a speech at a hotel in downtown Sao Paulo. “This isn’t a victory of mine or the Workers’ Party, nor the parties that supported me in the campaign. It’s the victory of a democratic movement that formed above political parties, personal interests and ideologies.”

Da Silva has promised to govern beyond his party. He wants to bring in centrists and even some leaning to the right who voted for him for the first time, and to restore the country’s more prosperous past. Yet he faces headwinds in a politically polarized society and is likely to face strong opposition from conservative lawmakers.

Thomas Traumann, an independent political analyst, compared the situation to Biden’s victory: Da Silva, like the U.S. president, is inheriting an extremely divided nation.

“People are not only polarized on political matters, but also have different values, identity and opinions,” Traumann said. “What’s more, they don’t care what the other side’s values, identities and opinions are.”

The election in Latin America’s biggest economy extended a wave of recent leftist victories in South American countries, including Argentina, Chile and Colombia.

Da Silva’s inauguration is scheduled to take place on Jan. 1. He last served as president from 2003-2010.

For months, it appeared that he was headed for easy victory as he kindled nostalgia for his presidency, when Brazil’s economy was booming and welfare helped tens of millions join the middle class.

Bolsonaro’s administration has been marked by incendiary speech, his testing of democratic institutions, his widely criticized handling of the pandemic and the worst deforestation in the Amazon rainforest in 15 years. But he has built a devoted base by defending conservative values and presenting himself as protection from leftist policies that he says infringe on personal liberties and produce economic turmoil. And he shored up support in an election year with vast government spending.

“We did not face an opponent, a candidate. We faced the machine of the Brazilian state put at his service so we could not win the election,” da Silva told the crowd during his acceptance speech in Sao Paulo.

Da Silva built an extensive social welfare program during his tenure that helped lift tens of millions into the middle class. The man universally known as Lula also presided over an economic boom, leaving office with an approval rating above 80%, prompting then-U.S. President Barack Obama to call him “the most popular politician on Earth.”

But he is also remembered for his administration’s involvement in vast corruption revealed by sprawling investigations. Da Silva’s arrest in 2018 kept him out of that year’s race against Bolsonaro, a fringe lawmaker at the time who was an outspoken fan of Trump.

Da Silva was jailed for 580 days for corruption and money laundering. His convictions were later annulled by Brazil’s top court, which ruled the presiding judge had been biased and colluded with prosecutors. That enabled da Silva to run for the nation’s highest office for the sixth time.

Da Silva has pledged to boost spending on the poor, reestablish relationships with foreign governments and take bold action to eliminate illegal clear-cutting in the Amazon rainforest.

“We will once again monitor and do surveillance in the Amazon. We will fight every illegal activity,” da Silva said in his acceptance speech. “At the same time, we will promote sustainable development of the communities of the Amazon.”

The president-elect has pledged to install a ministry for Brazil’s original peoples, which will be run by an Indigenous person.

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