Wide-spread protests of election results continue in Brazil over a week after Lula da Silva beat incumbent president Jair Bolsonaro in the country’s closest election ever.
The protests started on Sunday evening, October 30th, after left-wing former president Lula—as Lula da Silva is known—was proclaimed the winner, garnering 50.9% of the votes against conservative Bolsonaro’s 49.1%. Protests began with truckers blockading highways throughout the country, while Bolsonaro’s voters waited for him to speak.
Bolsonaro kept completely silent for 45 hours, neither conceding nor challenging the election results, while blockades continued, and other protests started to form.
Bolsonaro finally broke his silence on Tuesday, November 1st in a short two-minute speech in which he offered his support to protestors but without challenging election results. Immediately following his comments, his chief of staff told the press that they would begin the transition to the Lula-led government.
“Brazilians are in the streets because they don’t agree to handing Brazil to an ex-convict,” one protestor told the BBC.
Bolsonaro spoke again briefly on Wednesday, November 2nd, on Twitter, encouraging protestors to leave the highways and move their proclamations of discontent to other areas.
“I know that you are upset and that you are sad, you expected something else, I did too … But we have to keep our heads. It’s not legal to close highways across Brazil … the request is let’s clear the highways for the good of the nation and so that we can continue fighting for democracy and freedom,” he said.
Though blockades have largely dispersed, protestors have continued to take to the streets by the hundreds, gathering in cities across the country. Diego Hernandez, a journalist and analyst with the Political Network for Values, describes the protests as completely organic and peaceful, the spontaneous manifestation of a wide and diverse conservative base not content to easily return to the days of Lula’s banana-republic corruption and policies, particularly after an election with clear indications of institutional favouritism towards Lula.
Hernandez is based in Belo Horizonte, one of Brazil’s largest cities, and has witnessed the protests in person, as well as combed social media to better understand the protestors’ organisation and demands. Apart from the initial wave of truckers’ blockades, the amassment in the streets has come largely from grassroots groups and movements, which grew up in the country over the last decade, he explained. There is no single leader nor demand, except to not be governed by Lula and a sense that the elections were unfair.
“They are ordinary people—the elderly, families. They pick up their trash when they leave,” Hernandez described the protestors.
On news outlets and social media, they can be seen singing and dancing. But the joyful patriotism is mixed with anger, not only at the prospect of Lula’s presidency but also at how the elections were managed by the country’s electoral and high courts.
“There was a real imbalance in the election,” Hernandez explained. “They really feel like this is the end of the world.”
Lula, president from 2003 to 2010, was convicted of corruption in 2018, the same year Bolsonaro won elections as the country tired of the left-wing Labor Party that had governed for years. Lula was serving his prison sentence when the supreme court overturned his conviction on a technicality, ruling that the court that condemned him did not have jurisdiction, essentially paving his way back into politics. The same supreme court has been imposing censorship on conservative and pro-Bolsonaro politicians, YouTubers, and journalists since 2019, and only intensified the smack-down during the electoral campaign that Lula ultimately won.
Hernandez cites, as one of the most obvious examples, the electoral court’s prohibition of media reports and political ads linking Lula to abortion, corruption, and left-wing dictatorships—such as those in Venezuela and Cuba—during the four weeks between the first vote on October 2nd, in which Bolsonaro lagged slightly behind Lula and the run-off election on October 31st. He also notes that it is well-documented that Bolsonaro’s campaign ads weren’t running on radio stations in the northeast part of the country, one of Lula’s strongholds. Under Brazilian law, electoral advertising is strictly regulated, requiring the media to provide equal publicity to all candidates.
Anthony Tannus Wright, who worked for the Brazilian government until recently, cites the example of a documentary on Bolsonaro produced by the right-leaning and popular YouTube channel Brasil Paralelo that was due to come out during the campaign but was also censored by the electoral court (overseen by the supreme court) before it even ran. These are only a few of the incidences of censorship in Brazil recently.
The sense of injustice among protestors is so strong that many are asking for the military to intervene, and protests have slowly come to concentrate near military barracks. But Hernandez cautions that there are as many people against a military intervention as for it. The principal reason they have gathered near the army is safety. They sense that neither counter-protestors nor police will attempt to interfere with their demonstrations right under the nose of Brazilian soldiers.
And there are legitimate safety concerns. On Wednesday, November 2nd, a car drove through a group of protestors on a road, seriously injuring approximately ten of them, including children.
Fortunately, according to Hernandez, there have been few incidences of violence. Though the police have been clearing highway blockades, since it is a federal offence under Brazilian law to block them, protests held away from highways have been allowed to go on undisturbed.
But both Hernandez and Wright doubt that the military will intervene, for two reasons. First, according to Hernandez, those wanting military intervention cite article 142 of the constitution, which allows for a temporary military takeover of the country at the request of the populace. But that provision was written into the old, pre-1985 constitution. The current constitution only allows a military intervention in the case of disorder, and puts the authority to call for such an intervention in the hands of the government, principally the president. But the interpretation of the clause is contested, and using it is also politically risky.
“There’s no clear definition of the clause,” he explained.
Also, while Bolsonaro has supporters in the military, he does not have its unequivocal support, according to both Hernandez and Wright. Generals span the political spectrum from Left to Right.
They both see Bolsonaro as having lost what political support he had and having missed his opportunity to act. Hernandez considers Bolsonaro’s apparent inability or unwillingness to directly confront the electoral process as another of his several political miscalculations in a governance that nevertheless objectively improved the country.
He believes there is enough evidence of the electoral courts’ favouritism towards Lula to make a case that it influenced the results of the election. Bolsonaro had also organised a monitoring system for the elections consisting of three private companies as well as military personnel to track irregularities in electronic voting machines and other irregularities. Various documents claiming to be draft reports of irregularities in the election are circulating through Brazil and beyond, including two seen by the European Conservative, but their origin and authenticity are difficult to discern. The drafts could be accurate, but they are not signed, nor do they have any stamp or heading indicating who authorised them. Earlier in October following the first round of voting, when asked by the electoral court for a report of the election monitoring, Bolsonaro’s government refused to hand it over, and so far, he has not formally presented any evidence of election fraud.
“There was silence from the president so the people went to the streets, but you can’t annul an election by popular acclaim,” Hernandez said. “The question is where are the results of this monitoring? I don’t understand why Bolsonaro doesn’t have a team to organise the evidence and present it.”
Wright considers Bolsonaro a victim of ‘the machine,’ as Brazilians refer to the government and its long-ingrained corruption.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re right if you don’t have the power to prove it. He won the office, but he didn’t rule,” Wright explains, noting how the supreme court managed to out-manoeuvre Bolsonaro at every turn during his presidency, sometimes with support from the country’s congress.
“If this [election] is not overturned fast, I don’t think there is any chance,” he said of real change in Brazil right now. “What else needs to happen?”
Bolsonaro could have seized the moment and fought directly against the election results, but he likely lacked the deep political and institutional support needed, whether in the military or Congress, Wright laments.
Hernandez cites a recent tweet by General Hamilton Mourão, once vice president for Bolsonaro and now a senator-elect, to demonstrate Bolsonaro’s isolation:
“Brazilians, today there is a feeling of frustration, but the problem arose when we passively accepted the scandalous legal manoeuvre that, under a paltry argument and after 5 years, annulled the processes and consequent convictions of Lula,” he wrote.
Bolsonaro is now also defenceless in the face of likely retaliation from the Left, according to both Hernandez and Wright. Additionally, the supreme court has declared questioning the election results a criminal act against democracy and threatened to leverage the rule against protestors.
Hernandez fears for Brazil under Lula’s governance, but the people in the streets give him hope. Neither Wright nor Hernandez thinks the social tension will lead to overt violence or civil war.
But the grassroots conservative movement in Brazil will continue and is already giving Lula much stronger opposition than he had counted on, Hernandez believes. He noted that Lula has been even more silent in the face of the protests than Bolsonaro, a sign that the incoming president is scared. The public, he predicts, will also be keeping a close eye on Lula, ready to pounce on him in protest at the least sign of corruption. If Lula isn’t careful, Hernandez warns, he may find Brazil ungovernable, refusing to submit to his politics and censorship.