Far-right president forces second round after closely trailing Lula, disappointing those who had hoped to turn a page on his influence
Tears filled Beatriz Simões’s eyes as she digested Jair Bolsonaro’s startlingly strong performance in Sunday’s Brazilian election.
Hours earlier the 34-year-old publicist had been convinced a hope-filled dawn was coming with the election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as Brazil’s next leader.
But as she stood outside São Paulo’s museum of art – where Lula had come to insist his fight for power was alive – Simões wept as she pondered how loved ones had helped Brazil’s far-right incumbent surpass the predictions of pollsters.
“How can it be that my friends, my relatives, people who know me – who know that I am a black woman – still support the kind of thing Bolsonaro supports?” Simões asked as she and three friends grappled with the far right’s seemingly profound grip on society.
“It is terrifying, it’s just bizarre for us, it’s frightening,” said Raquel Barbosa, a 28-year-old community manager whose mother-in-law was one of nearly 700,000 Brazilians killed by a Covid outbreak Bolsonaro called “a little flu”.
Bolsonaristas trumpeted their movement’s stronger-than-forecast showing, which saw their trailblazer secure more than 51m votes despite his international notoriety as an authoritarian-minded zealot.
Lula won the first round with 57m votes, or 48% of the total to Bolsonaro’s 43%. But Bolsonaro’s unexpectedly high share – pollsters had tipped him to claim 36% or 37% – has shattered predictions that re-election is beyond his reach in the 30 October runoff against Lula.
“After what happened yesterday, I rule nothing out – absolutely nothing at all,” said Maria Cristina Fernandes, a political commentator from the newspaper Valor Econômico. “Bolsonaro is not out of the picture.”
Bolsonaro celebrated what he declared “the greatest patriotic victory in the history of Brazil” while his senator son, Flávio, hailed “a victory over the mainstream media, which has been relentlessly anti-Bolsonaro”. The incumbent triumphed in two key south-eastern states, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, home to more than 47 million voters.
Adding to the progressive pain, a wave of Bolsonarista hardliners were elected to congress, with Bolsonaro’s Liberal party claiming 99 of its 513 seats – the largest bloc in more than two decades. The winners include Eduardo Pazuello, the army general-turned-health minister accused of bungling Brazil’s Covid response, and Ricardo Salles, the controversial environment minister under whom Amazon deforestation soared.
Damares Alves, the evangelical preacher who was Bolsonaro’s human rights minister, won a senate seat, as did his vice-president, Hamilton Mourão, his former science minister Marcos Pontes, and his former security minister, the judge Sergio Moro.
“Bolsonarismo … has become a political project with a beginning, a middle and an end,” said Fernandes. “The degree of conservatism they have managed to insert into congress is something permanent and will take a very long time to reverse.”
Fernandes believed the results revealed a troubling disconnect between how Brazil’s chattering classes and journalists viewed Bolsonaro, and how voters themselves felt. “The media and the whole world was outraged by Bolsonaro’s conduct and handling of the pandemic … [But] the people do not share our thoughts,” she said. “There’s a divorce between the press and the intellectual elites and the people.”
Consuelo Dieguez, the author of a book on Brazil’s right called The Serpent’s Egg, attributed Bolsonaro’s performance to deep-rooted and widespread voter rage at the corruption scandals that blighted the 14 years that Lula’s Worker’s party (PT) held power. “Their reasoning is: I don’t want the PT, I don’t want this crook Lula, and I don’t want these lefties coming along championing things like gay marriage and abortion,” she said.
The Bolsonaro vote had also been strengthened by billions of dollars of welfare handouts to the poor. “He has dished out so much money – and even so he didn’t manage to win,” Dieguez said, rejecting the portrayal of Sunday’s election as an unmitigated triumph for Bolsonarismo.
The president’s son and political heir apparent, Eduardo Bolsonaro, was re-elected to congress, but received 1m fewer votes than the last election and lagged behind one of Lula’s proteges, the leftist Guilherme Boulos. Other prominent Bolsonaristas such as Douglas Garcia and Sérgio Camargo floundered.
“This wasn’t a victory for Bolsonaro – he did badly,” Dieguez insisted. “This is the first time that a candidate who is president came second in the first round. Lula nearly won – he missed by very little.”
Dieguez still believed Lula would beat Bolsonaro when 156 million Brazilians return to the polls later this month. The third-place candidate, Simone Tebet, is tipped to back Lula in exchange for a cabinet job.
But for now, Bolsonaro’s unforeseen surge has dealt a distressing and unanticipated blow to his foes.
“How is this possible? How can people can still sign off on this … and think Bolsonaro’s a decent option?” Simões demanded as Lula and his supporters headed home voicing a mix of deflation and defiance.
“My tears are tears of exhaustion,” Simões said, “but not surrender.”
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