Lula wins Brazil's bitter presidential vote, Bolsonaro silent

Brazilian president-elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva called for "peace and unity" after narrowly winning a divisive runoff election Sunday, capping a remarkable political comeback by defeating far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro -- who has yet to accept defeat.

The victory marks a stunning turnaround for charismatic but tarnished leftist icon Lula, who left office in 2010 as the most popular president in Brazilian history, fell into disgrace when he was imprisoned for 18 months on controversial, since-quashed corruption charges, and now returns for an unprecedented third term at age 77.

"This country needs peace and unity. The Brazilian people don't want to fight anymore," Lula said to loud cheers in a victory speech in Sao Paulo, where euphoric supporters clad in Workers' Party red flooded the city center.

"It is in no one's interest to live in a divided nation in a permanent state of war."

All eyes will now be on how Bolsonaro and his supporters react to the result, after months of alleging -- without evidence -- that Brazil's electronic voting system is plagued by fraud and that the courts, media and other institutions have conspired against his far-right movement.

Bolsonaro, 67, was silent in the hours after the result was declared.

"I'm hoping the president is meeting with the generals," a Bolsonaro backer in the capital Brasilia told AFP, apparently alluding to a possible power grab.

"We're hoping things will change at any moment," added the 57-year-old dentist, who did not want to give his name, citing Brazil's supposedly hostile courts.

"The Brazilian people aren't going to swallow a faked election and hand our nation over to a thief," said 50-year-old teacher Ruth da Silva Barbosa.

In the closest race since Brazil returned to democracy after its 1964-1985 dictatorship, electoral officials declared the election for Lula, who had 50.9 percent of the vote to 49.1 percent for Bolsonaro with more than 99.9 percent of polling stations reporting.

Bolsonaro, the vitriolic hardline conservative dubbed the "Tropical Trump," meanwhile becomes the first incumbent president not to win re-election in the post-dictatorship era.

- 'Restore peace' -

Congratulations for Lula poured in from US President Joe Biden, France's Emmanuel Macron, Canada's Justin Trudeau and others including several Latin American leaders.

Decked out in the red of Lula's Workers' Party (PT), supporters exploded into celebration in cities across the country, setting off colorful fireworks in Rio de Janeiro and erupting into huge cheers in Sao Paulo.

"We've had four years of a genocidal, hateful government," said Lula supporter Maria Clara, a 26-year-old student, at a victory party in downtown Rio.

"Today democracy won, and the possibility of dreaming of a better country again."

In tears, Bolsonaro supporters in the green and yellow of the flag -- which the ex-army captain has adopted as his own -- meanwhile fell to their knees to pray, gathered outside the seat of government in Brasilia.

Bolsonaro surged to victory four years ago on a wave of outrage with politics as usual, but came under fire for his disastrous handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, which left more than 680,000 dead in Brazil, as well as a weak economy, polarizing style and attacks on democratic institutions.

Regardless of how the incumbent reacts, Lula will face huge challenges from the day he is inaugurated on January 1.

Bolsonaro's far-right allies scored big victories in legislative and governors' races in the first-round election on October 2, and will be the largest force in Congress.

- Huge challenges -

In his victory speech, Lula also touched on gender and racial equality and the urgent need to deal with a hunger crisis affecting 33.1 million Brazilians.

"Today we tell the world that Brazil is back," he said, adding that the country is "ready to reclaim its place in the fight against the climate crisis, especially the Amazon."

Lula inherits a deeply divided country, with a hugely difficult global economic situation that looks nothing like the commodities "super-cycle" that allowed him to lead Latin America's biggest economy through a watershed boom in the 2000s.

Lula's win is "one of the biggest comebacks in modern political history," tweeted Brian Winter, editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly.

But the charismatic-but-tarnished left-wing icon will also have "a weak government," Winter told AFP.

The result heralds "an attempt to dial back the clock to the 2000s," he said.

"The problem is that you can't repeat the past. Brazil has a very strong, resurgent conservative movement. Lula will be under the microscope from day one, and facing a hostile Congress."

None of that mattered for the time being to elated Lula supporters.

"Brazil is starting to stand upright again after four years of darkness. We were going through so many problems, so much fear," Larissa Meneses, a 34-year-old developer, told AFP at a joyful victory party in Sao Paulo.

"Now with Lula's victory, I really believe things will start getting better. This is a day to laugh a lot."

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