Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva claimed victory in Brazil’s presidential election, defeating incumbent rightwing leader Jair Bolsonaro by less than two percentage points, setting the stage for a return to leftwing governance in Latin America’s largest nation.
The tight result on Sunday completes a dramatic comeback for Lula, who served two terms as president between 2003 and 2010 but was subsequently accused of corruption. He served time in prison for graft before his convictions were annulled.
“From January 2023, I will govern for 215mn Brazilians, not just those who voted for me. We are one people, one country, one great nation,” the 77-year-old politician said after his victory, in a speech that focused on democracy and the importance of giving Brazilians a dignified life.
“We no longer want to fight. We’re tired of seeing the other as the enemy,” he added.
Bolsonaro had by Monday morning still not conceded, with almost all his close allies also remaining silent on social media.
Lula’s win follows a bitter campaign marred by fake news and violence in an atmosphere of polarisation, leading to concerns of post-election conflict.
After a tense vote count, supporters of the one-time metalworker from Brazil’s impoverished north-east took to the streets in celebration, shouting his name from apartment windows, honking horns and letting off fireworks.
His win concluded a long campaign that brought an end to four years of conservative populism under Bolsonaro. It is the latest in a string of races that have turfed out incumbents across Latin America, returning mainly leftwing leaders.
“This is the most important election I’ve taken part in,” said Brenda Santos Cunha, a publicist who was among those celebrating on Paulista Avenue, the main boulevard through São Paulo. “The last few years have been barbaric, it’s been maddening. I don’t expect Lula’s government to be revolutionary, but I hope it will provide an ounce of hope, a moment to breathe.”
Lula won 50.9 per cent of the vote versus 49.1 for Bolsonaro after a cliffhanger three-hour count. In total, the leftwinger won 60.3mn votes, just over 2mn more than his rival. He will take office on January 1 and faces a huge challenge to unite a deeply divided nation.
In the run-up to the vote, Bolsonaro persistently claimed Brazil’s electronic ballot machines were vulnerable to fraud, leading opponents to fear he was preparing a justification to reject a losing result.
He claimed in recent days that rulings from the country’s electoral court had prejudiced his campaign.
Arthur Lira, speaker of the lower house of Congress and one of the few Bolsonaro allies who made a public comment, said it was “time to disarm the passions and reach out to opponents”. He added: “Everything that will be done from now on has a principle — to pacify the country and bring quality of life to the Brazilian people.”
Tathiana Chicarino, a political scientist, said a challenge for Lula would be how to “deal with the part of the electorate that voted for Bolsonaro, especially his radical base”.
On the campaign trail, Lula focused on the risks to democracy from Bolsonaro’s far-right movement, framing the election as a choice between “democracy and fascism, democracy and barbarism”.
He also took aim at the nation’s high levels of poverty and hunger, saying estimates that 30mn Brazilians suffered from a lack of food were “unacceptable”.
Lula has pledged to abolish a constitutional spending cap to allow the government to spend more on social projects and infrastructure. He has offered few details on his broader economic agenda and his rhetoric has unnerved some investors.
On the environment, he has pledged to end illegal deforestation of the Amazon, following a surge in destruction of the earth’s largest rainforest under Bolsonaro.
“[Lula] will take over the country after Bolsonaro and his group tried to deconstruct most of the public policies that were in place,” said Maria do Socorro Braga, a political scientist at the Federal University of São Carlos. “He will have to lead the country back to democratic stability and try to reduce social inequalities.”
After three failed attempts, Lula won the presidency for the first time in 2003 and served two terms during a heady period of commodities-fuelled growth.
He won international acclaim for reducing poverty in one of the world’s most unequal countries.
However, his reputation was tarnished by the Lava Jato corruption scandal that rocked Brazil’s business and political establishment, while the economy fell into a deep recession under his chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff.
Lula served almost two years in prison before his graft charges were annulled by the Supreme Court. He has always maintained that the investigations were a political witch-hunt.
Lula’s agenda is likely to face obstacles in the broadly right-leaning Congress. “He will have to be a centrist, listening to everyone. His alliances show that he is this way already,” said Mario Marconini, managing director at Teneo.
Presidents Joe Biden of the US and Emmanuel Macron of France were among the first world leaders to congratulate Lula. Biden highlighted that the elections were “free, fair and credible”, while Macron said Lula’s victory “opens a new page in the history of Brazil”.