The Captain in His Labyrinth

Forrest Hylton

‘Tá na hora de Jair/arrumar mala e já ir/já ir embora’ (‘It’s time for Jair [Bolsonaro] to pack his bags and go’). All week long, the song kept playing, people kept singing it – waiters, street sweepers, doormen and women, shop assistants, rubbish collectors – and according to word on the beach at Porto da Barra in Salvador da Bahia on Monday morning, it was number two on Spotify. You hear it everywhere.

More than any other city and state in Brazil, Salvador and Bahia vote for Lula, not Bolsonaro, who has never won a single district in the country’s third-largest city; Bolsonaro lost the state by 3.75 million votes, with Lula taking 72.1 per cent. When the sun set on Sunday, at roughly 5.30 p.m., Rio Vermelho in Salvador was a sea of people, expectant and dressed in red, waving white banners, awaiting the results of the most important presidential elections in anyone’s lifetime – perhaps the most important the world has seen this century. Across the street, on the Rio Vermelho beach, small fishing boats floated in the tiny harbour where, every 2 February, people pay homage at the Casa de Yemanjá – the goddess of the waters where the river meets the sea.

As in the first round, the margins were thinner than polls predicted, with Lula taking 50.9 per cent of the vote and Bolsonaro 49.1 per cent. But it was enough for Lula to win. In the words of the journalist Hildegard Angel, who fought the military dictatorship from the 1960s to the 1980s, the victory was ‘epic’ and ‘historic’ – one to tell your grandchildren about.

This was not hyperbole, much less sentimentality. People struggled to remain calm, and panic rose, with Bolsonaro in the lead until nearly 70 per cent of the votes had been counted. Once Lula finally surpassed Bolsonaro, at around 6.45 p.m., people exploded in cheers, tears, hugs and kisses. Women, Afro-Brazilians and the people of the north-east – the poorest in the country – had saved Brazil from self-destruction, just as they did before the coup against Dilma Rousseff, in the elections that brought her to power in 2010 and kept her there in 2014. In 2010, Dilma’s opponent, Aécio Neves, refused to accept defeat, introducing the evangelical, paramilitary far right into Brazilian politics.

Brazil is evidently now a fractured society (like the US). As Lula stressed in his victory speech, it will take time to heal divides that have split families and ended long-standing friendships.

There were rousing speeches from the outgoing PT governor, Rui Costa, who is likely to play a key role in the new government, and the PT’s governor-elect, Gerônimo Rodrigues, once the result was official, around 8.30 p.m. The festivities lasted through the night, with copious amounts of cachaça, beer and marijuana, along with song and dance. It was the party of a lifetime; an improvised mini-carnival. In the water at Porto da Barra early on Monday morning, swimmers complained of vicious hangovers. No one has any illusions about the gridlock that lies ahead.

How did Bolsonaro close the gap by three points between the first and second round, taking seven million additional votes to Lula’s three? How could someone as awful, as manifestly destructive, vicious and incompetent as Bolsonaro, nearly outcompete his opponent, probably the most respected leader, and certainly the greatest campaigner, on the world stage today?

The elections were the dirtiest since the end of the coffee plantation owners’, bankers’ and generals’ First Republic in 1930, and threatened a return to that earlier time. The journalist Florestan Fernandes Jr (b.1953) cried on TV, thanking his colleagues for helping him survive the worst four years of his life: after the end of the military dictatorship in 1985, he never thought he would have to unite in a collective effort to stop fascism from ending democracy in Brazil. (Fernandes and his father, the legendary USP polymath who was imprisoned twice in the 1960s, actively fought the dictatorship; Fernandes Sr was a PT congressman from 1987 to 1994.)

Aided by evangelical pastors, who reach one in three Brazilians, as well as far-right governors and mayors, Bolsonaro spent an unprecedented 18 billion reais to buy votes, especially in the wealthiest, most populous states: Minas Gerais, Rio and São Paulo. Of this sum, we do not know how much was allotted to Carlos Bolsonaro and his digital militias to fabricate an estimated five hundred items of fake news a day, aimed at a section of the public whose educational achievements are few, and who see university professors as political enemies. In the water on Monday, a middle-aged woman told me the PT had stolen the elections; when I responded with incredulity, she prayed, and we agreed not to talk about it any more.

With the exception of an incident on the bridge between Rio and Niterói (an area where Lula has support), the army stayed out of the streets, but Bolsonaro mobilised the federal highway police – who five months ago improvised a mobile gas chamber in which they murdered a suspect – to stop traffic and create queues that stretched for kilometres in the areas where Lula won most heavily in the first round. There were close to six hundred of these roadblocks in the north-east. We will never know how many votes such manoeuvres cost Lula.

Bolsonaro advanced in 968 municipalities in the north-east – even in Bahia – between the first and second rounds, but in the south-east his share of the vote fell compared to 2018: in Sao Paulo it dropped from 68 to 55.2 per cent; in Minas from 58 to 48.8; and in Rio from 68 to 56.5. He boasted that he would turn Minas, converting Lula’s 600,000 vote first-round lead into a 2.5 million vote loss, but he didn’t. Even though Lula did not take a single additional city between the first and second rounds, he won a large majority among voters who earn less than twice the minimum wage (40 per cent of the electorate). In Brasil, that wins elections.

As the PT’s leading political thinker, André Singer, has demonstrated, the party has transformed itself and its base since the 1990s, when it was the party of the (progressive) middle class and the industrial labour aristocracy – both of which, thanks to the Lava Jato scandal and Senator Sergio Moro, are now in the hands of bolsonarismo. The PT is now the party of the poorest, and of the enlightened sectors of the rich and upper-middle class. A party born out of industrial trade unionism confronts a bleak landscape of deindustrialisation with an informal, non-union service proletariat, and deeply conservative middle classes.

As Breno Altman has argued, if Lula and his anti-fascist coalition – which, as always, contains conflicting and contradictory interests, including people who supported the coup against Dilma and the destruction of the PT – are to govern successfully, they will have to tax the rich in order to win over the heterogeneous middle class that the PT helped to create during its years in power, but which turned against it in 2013-14, supporting the coup against Dilma and backing Bolsonaro in 2018 and 2022.

Otherwise, Lula will lose crucial battles in healthcare, education, finance-credit, housing, hunger eradication, land reform and job creation. Although the battle will be uphill, it will be fought, and perhaps even won, across a range of key government ministries and institutions. Lula and the PT have done this before, and are poised to do it again.

Abandoned by his generals, the former army captain’s response – he was expelled from the military for plotting a false flag operation – has been a destructive, petulant silence, accompanied by a truckers’ strike in eighteen states, backed by the agribusiness interests that financed Bolsonaro’s campaign in order to continue burning down the Amazon and displacing Indigenous people from their territories. Last night, his bolsominos shut down Guarulhos airport in São Paulo, forcing an international flight to return to the US and dozens of others to scramble for places to land. Bolsonaro’s ‘cattle’ claim the election was stolen.

But on Tuesday, Bolsonaro’s allies in the governorships in Minas, São Paulo and Rio called for the lifting of blockades, and said they will use the police to end them otherwise. Elements of the federal highway police, seen fraternising with strikers, have now lifted at least 325 blockades, and their leader, Silvinei Vásques, will be investigated for his role in electoral fraud on Sunday. The Landless Workers’ Movement and the Homeless Workers’ Movement have sent in contingents to clear the roads so that basic necessities can get through.

Bolsonaro’s friend Roberto Jefferson engaged in an armed stand-off with federal police at his home, where he was under house arrest, on the Sunday before elections. Carla Zambelli, Bolsonaro’s closest ally in Congress, pulled a gun on an Afro-Brazilian journalist near a massive PT rally on the Avenida Paulista the day before the elections, for which she could be stripped of her parliamentary immunity, investigated and tried. Like them, Bolsonaro appears to have used up the last of his ammunition right out of the gate. Abandoned by his allies, he is almost certain to come under investigation or go into exile, so it’s hard to see how he can lead an effective congressional opposition. Will his sons prove up to the task, or will justice come for them as well? Does Saudi Arabia or Dubai beckon?

This afternoon, Bolsonaro broke 48 hours of silence with a five-minute speech. He did not acknowledge or accept the result of the election. While violent protest was not acceptable, he said, some people were angry about the injustice of the electoral process, and he understood them. He did not call off the blockades, which are now threatening the healthcare system; food and fuel scarcities are on the way.

In contrast to partisan forecasts suggesting otherwise, the ‘markets’ were thrilled with news of Lula’s victory, as the stock market shot up in São Paulo and the real strengthened against the dollar. Fuel prices and inflation are likely to drop soon. Lula has already spoken with Biden about the Amazon. He was supposed to take a day off, but will only do so after he comes to Salvador to thank people for their support. As they say in Bahia, ‘O pai tá on, rapá!’ (‘Dad is on, man!’)


  • 2 November 2022 at 7:20am
    nlowhim says:
    Some good news. With the right once again showing how they'll stop at nothing to suppress votes. So it goes, but what would happen if they won as they may well do here in the states.

  • 2 November 2022 at 3:08pm
    ptrptr says:
    For non-Portuguese speakers, worth noting that the song lyric at the beginning of this piece is based on a pun on Bolsonaro’s first name – “já ir” means “go already”. Here’s the tune:

    • 2 November 2022 at 3:10pm
      ptrptr says: @ ptrptr
      “já ir *embora*” is “go *away*/leave already"

  • 2 November 2022 at 6:23pm
    Alvaro Fernandes says:
    This is sound reporting. Up to the minute and clear, sober and (how can it be otherwise) with a generous undertone of hope. I agree: it's the most important election of the century so far because of its consequences for the rise of extreme-right populism and for the climate emergency. Lula's victory will ensure that Brazil will stop (for the next four years at least) devastating the Amazon and I would definitely not put is past him, the most skilled political negotiator of the last 50 years of so, to have brought back to mainstream democratic politics at least 25-30% of the 49.1% share that Bolsonaro amassed even as the two legislative chambers have been won by the populist parties. If so, at 81 (his age in four years' time), he'll leave office with a record of immense, almost incomparable importance for Brazil and the world.

  • 2 November 2022 at 6:31pm
    Alvaro Fernandes says:
    On the pun, if you can bring yourself to imagine a nasty politician called Hythyme, the Portuguese lyrics would translate to something like: "It's high time, Hythyme! Just bloody go!" (the original uses the third person, not the second, but the pun is fun and it spread like sacred fire).

  • 2 November 2022 at 11:20pm
    fbkun says:
    We're told that the leaders of all "liberal" democracies around the world are rather relieved that Bolsonaro lost, including in Washington.
    Yet in 2014 the US government eagerly participated in the plot that eventually sent Lula to prison in 2018. Remind me who was president and who was vice-president of the US in 2014...

  • 3 November 2022 at 7:55am
    Guido the Younger says:
    Surely the author does not mean to imply that, by singing a new song, and a hit song at that, Bahians and other Brazilians have cleared the roads? Or do lyrics have a force there that is capable of performing work according to the best definitions of physics?

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