SAO PAULO ― On Tuesday, far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro finally acknowledged his Sunday election defeat to leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, breaking his nearly 48 hours of tense silence since the results were confirmed.
Bolsonaro spoke briefly — for about 90 seconds in total — at the Brazilian presidential palace and did not expressly accept the election results. Neither did he mention da Silva, who won the race by about 2 million votes (or 2 percentage points).
Instead, he said only that he would “continue to fulfill the constitution.”
His chief of staff, Ciro Nogueira, followed by telling reporters that transition proceedings would begin immediately.
Whether the right-wing leader would accept defeat has always been far from assured: Bolsonaro has spent the last two years spreading conspiracy theories about voter fraud and attacking Brazil’s election system in an effort to undermine his potentail defeat.
While many world leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden, and Bolsonaro allies were quick to recognize the result, Bolsonaro himself remained totally silent, sparking concerns that he would try to contest the results. And while his chief communications officer suggested Monday that Bolsonaro would not contest the results, the president’s failure to acknowledge the election allowed uncertainty to fester and at least some chaos to break out across Brazil.
Since Sunday evening, pro-Bolsonaro truckers have blockaded hundreds of highways and roads in at least 23 Brazilian states in protest of the results. Some of the truckers, a group that has broadly aligned itself with Bolsonaro throughout his presidency, called for military intervention and burned tires to shut down major highways.
Protesters on Monday blocked access to São Paulo’s international airport, causing chaos, flight delays and even cancellations that lingered into Tuesday morning.
Brazil’s Supreme Court on Monday ordered the Federal Highway Police, which is closely aligned with Bolsonaro and had refused to break up many of the blockades, to put an end to the protests, and threatened heavy fines to truckers who persisted. The court accused the highway police of “omission and inertia” in allowing the protests to continue.
The PRF, as the highway police patrol is known, had already faced accusations of attempting to suppress the votes of da Silva supporters during Sunday’s election, when it stopped and investigated hundreds of public buses carrying voters to the polls in defiance of an order from Brazil’s top electoral court.
It was unclear as of Tuesday evening how Bolsonaro’s supporters would react to his concession. Polls conducted this year found that a sizable segment of his base did not want him to accept the results of a defeat, but they also suggested that aside from his most hardcore backers, there was little appetite even among Bolsonaro supporters for a drastic attempt at a democratic rupture in such a scenario.
Biden, whose administration repeatedly expressed confidence in Brazil’s electoral system and urged Bolsonaro to quit attempting to undermine it over the last two years, was among a large group of international leaders who had quickly recognized the results: The White House issued a statement less than an hour after electoral authorities called da Silva the winner, congratulating the former president and lauding Brazil’s “free, fair and credible elections.”
French President Emmanuel Macron and dozens of other leaders issued similar notes. Biden spoke to da Silva by phone on Monday, lending further legitimacy to the results.
Throughout the race, da Silva’s campaign and Brazilian civil society groups saw a fast and unwavering international response as a key way to blunt a potential election challenge from Bolsonaro, a close ally of former U.S. President Donald Trump whose close following of Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of his 2020 loss inspired deep fears that Bolsonaro would act similarly.
Many of Bolsonaro’s closest allies also recognized the results quickly, even as the president remained holed up in discussions with Cabinet officials, advisers and leaders of the Brazilian military. The armed forces, which Bolsonaro tried to enlist in his efforts to sow doubt about the election, has not yet commented on the results.
Arthur Lira, the conservative head of Brazil’s lower chamber of congress, issued a statement Sunday night saying that the results “should never be contested.” Damares Alves, a former minister in Bolsonaro’s government, also acknowledged the loss Monday, as did Vice President Hamilton Mournão, who congratulated Geraldo Alckmin, da Silva’s running mate, Monday night.
Da Silva told reporters on Saturday that he doubted Bolsonaro would call him after the race, but that he did not need the president to participate in formal ceremonies: “If necessary,” da Silva said, “I’ll receive the presidential sash from the Brazilian people.”
Still, he was conscious of the potential for delays to derail the transition process between the Oct. 30 election and his inauguration on Jan. 1.
“I’m half-happy and half-worried, because starting tomorrow, I have to start worrying about how we are going to govern this country,” da Silva told throngs of supporters during celebrations in São Paulo on Sunday night. “I need to know if the president that we have defeated will allow a transition to take place.”
Mourão reportedly told Alckmin that the vice presidential transition would proceed normally. On Monday, Bolsonaro’s chief of staff, Ciro Nogueira, told da Silva’s team the government would begin transition proceedings with da Silva’s team in the coming days, Bloomberg reported.