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Why Bolsonaro Is Going Quietly
And what comes next for Brazil.
Somehow, Brazil did not go completely haywire last week. It’s a low bar to clear, but an important achievement nonetheless. Following a bitterly contested campaign, leftist challenger (and two-term former president) Lula beat incumbent far-right president Jair Bolsonaro in a squeaker on Sunday October 30th. It was a scenario many of us had feared, since Bolsonaro had virtually promised a chaotic, “Stop-the-Steal”-style battle if he was announced to have lost.
Instead, he met the announcement with stony silence, ghosting Lula and the world for an interminable 47 hours. Then, in a two-minute speech last Tuesday, he thanked his voters, underlined his followers’ indignation at “how the election was run,” but said that “our methods must not be those of the left” (meaning lawless and chaotic). He never mentioned Lula, much less congratulated him. He neither conceded the election nor contested it. Yet minutes later, through a senior aide, he let it be known that his administration would collaborate in the transition ahead of Lula’s January 1st swearing-in ceremony.
It could have been so much worse. For over a year, Brazilians have been bracing for impact. Again and again, Bolsonaro told his millions of impassioned followers that they would accept no result but victory. He repeated baseless claims that the election would be rigged ahead of the vote, going so far as to say he could only envision three outcomes: prison, death or victory. As a result, die-hard followers in Brazil’s trucking industry were out in force last week, blocking roads and highways all around the country, certain the election had been stolen even if their hero wouldn’t say so out loud. Bolsonaro could have fanned the flames. Everyone expected him to fan the flames.
But he didn’t. Instead, he gently guided his followers to protest in law-abiding ways. The old dread that he would rather torch the country than hand it over to Lula has abated. Victory passed Bolsonaro by… and all of a sudden, prison or death started to look distinctly less appealing as alternatives.
How do we make sense of the coup that didn’t bark? I suspect the full story won’t be known for years, until key players in Lula’s campaign, the armed forces and Bolsonaro’s (misnamed) Liberal Party write their memoirs. For now, we can speculate on a few factors.
Bolsonaro’s allies got elected, he didn’t.
Although Bolsonaro lost his re-election bid, many of his most prominent allies won theirs. Romeu Zema, the Bolsonarista governor of Minas Gerais (a state with the population of Florida), won re-election with 56% of the vote and, on election night, announced he would be open to working together with President-elect Lula. Another key Bolsonaro ally, Tarcisio de Freitas, similarly won his bid for governor of the state of São Paulo (which has a bigger population than California) and immediately announced plans to meet with the president-elect.
None of Bolsonaro’s key allies had an interest in blowing up elections that he had lost but they had won, and their early concessions pulled the rug from under their leader’s feet. As Brian Winter, the prominent Brazil-watcher and editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly, put it, “Brazilian conservatives performed so well in this election that they [wound up] pleading with Bolsonaro not to destroy the movement by encouraging mass civil unrest—by burning the house down on his way out.” In a strange way, Bolsonarismo’s stronger-than-expected showing made contesting the election harder, not easier.
Institutions were ready, both at home and abroad.
By being fully transparent about the danger he presented to democracy, Bolsonaro created every incentive for Brazil’s state institutions to be fully on their guard against him. Prominent members of Congress, the Supreme Court and the military moved immediately to congratulate the president-elect, closing down many of the institutional avenues he might have used to contest the results. Lula fielded congratulatory calls from everyone from Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron to Nicolás Maduro and Vladimir Putin, with only a MAGA rump led by a jail-bound Steve Bannon urging him to contest the election. By moving quickly, this broad coalition made the hopelessness of Bolsonaro’s position clear to him.
All of this must have brought the real stakes into focus. Bolsonaro’s immediate future was never really a toss-up between prison, death or victory; it was just prison, because:
Brazil has no taboo against throwing former presidents in jail.
Perhaps the most unexpected factor here is also the most ironic. Lula, a former president himself, spent much of 2018 and 2019 in prison following a conviction (later overturned) for corruption. Bolsonaro could not, therefore, console himself that the authorities would show restraint about putting a former leader in jail: they’d already done so. In fact, he’d appointed the man who had prosecuted Lula to be his justice minister. There’s a glorious cosmic irony in Bolsonaro being deterred by a precedent some of his most prominent supporters had engineered.
On New Year’s Day Lula will therefore take over a country that’s polarized and on edge, but not, thankfully, one that is at war with itself. He has sought to strike a conciliatory pose, and signaled his third term will be much more centrist than his first two were.
All through the campaign, Lula was strategically vague about what he might do in office, urging journalists to check his 2003-2010 record for clues as to how he might govern. It was a neat rhetorical trick, but inherently misleading. The success of Lula’s economic program back then was largely due to two factors. First, the sky high prices for Brazil’s exports, which left the government flush with cash that it could plough into social programs. Second, a venal congress, some members of which Lula’s party could simply buy off using state funds, a useful lubricant when it came to getting major new legislation approved.
Fast forward to 2022 and that strategy seems impossible to replicate. Congress is now dominated by Bolsonaro’s ideological allies: people who were outraged that Lula got out of jail in the first place, and who would likely sooner impeach him than accept his party’s bribes. Meanwhile, the prices for Brazil’s exports have mostly been flat or declining for a decade. Despite a recent surge in prices on the back of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the cost of borrowing is rising everywhere, and Lula won’t be able to afford another fiscal splurge, lest he find himself in a Liz Truss-type scenario. Which is why Lula could find himself running an austerity budget, right after running on the promise of largesse.
And yet, for all the sobering economic, political and environmental problems that Lula will face, he will not, it seems, face them amid a civil war. It’s not nothing.
Francisco Toro is a journalist and the Content Director for the Group of Fifty.