BRASILIA, Brazil -- Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on Tuesday stopped short of conceding the election to leftist rival Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, instead using his first public comments since his defeat two days ago to thank his supporters and encourage their protests, as long as they remain peaceful.
Moments after the remarks, which lasted less than two minutes, the outgoing president's chief of staff, Ciro Nogueira, announced that Bolsonaro had authorized him to begin the process of handing over power.
The conservative leader, who before the election had repeatedly questioned the reliability of the country’s electoral system, had little room for potentially rejecting the results. U.S. President Joe Biden and other international leaders have publicly recognized da Silva’s victory, as have some of Bolsonaro’s closest allies. And Cabinet members, governors-elect and evangelical leaders who have been strident supporters of Bolsonaro are now offering overtures to the incoming leftist government.
Bolsonaro lost Sunday’s race by a thin margin, garnering 49.1% of the vote to da Silva’s 50.9%, according to the nation’s electoral authority. It was the tightest presidential race since Brazil’s return to democracy in 1985, and marks the first time Bolsonaro has lost an election in his 34-year political career.
Flanked by more than a dozen ministers and allies as he delivered his short speech at the presidential residence, the fiery leader did not mention the election results, however. Instead, he defended his tenure.
“I have always been labeled as anti-democratic and, unlike my accusers, I have always played within the four lines of the constitution,” he said.
Bolsonaro also thanked the 58 million people who voted for him and said he supports ongoing protests by truckers who have erected nationwide roadblocks, as long as they don't become violent.
“Current popular movements are the result of indignation and a feeling of injustice regarding how the electoral process occurred,” he said.
The president's statement amounted to a “two-fold move,” said Thomas Traumann, an independent political analyst.
“He didn’t recognize his defeat, and sustains the suspense," Traumann said. "But as he wants to continue to dominate, to be the leader, he maintains the possibility of peaceful demonstrations.”
Much like former U.S. President Donald Trump, whom Bolsonaro openly admires, the far-right incumbent has claimed that electronic voting machines are prone to fraud. He never provided any proof, even when ordered to do so by the electoral court.
Many of his supporters also said they believed the election had been fraudulent and some called for military intervention and for Congress and the Supreme Court to be disbanded.
Earlier Tuesday, the Brazilian Supreme Court ordered the federal highway police to immediately clear the roadblocks.
A majority of the court's justices backed the decision, which accuses the highway police of “omission and inertia." Failure to comply will mean its director could be fined up to 100,000 reais (more than $19,000) per hour, be removed from his duties and even face arrest. Federal prosecutors in Sao Paulo and Goias states said they had opened investigations into the blockades.
Highway police said late Tuesday that they had removed 358 blockades, but more than 200 were still in place.
Earlier in Sao Paulo — Brazil’s most populous state and largest economy — traffic jams around the international airport led to dozens of flight cancellations, with videos on social media showing travelers rolling their suitcases along the highway in the dark trying to catch their flights. The highways had been cleared by Tuesday morning, but airport officials said access remained difficult as traffic was still backed up in and out of the airport.
There, Dalmir Almeida, a 38-year-old protester, told The Associated Press that after completing three days of strikes, he and others will drive their trucks to the military barracks to ask for their support. “The army will be in our favor,” he added.
At another road block in Sao Paulo state, protesters set tires on fire. Several demonstrators were wrapped in the Brazilian flag, which has been co-opted by the nation’s conservative movement for demonstrations. Huge lines of cars could be seen snaking along the highway.
Concern about escalation grew as the country's leftist Landless Workers’ Movement, a key ally of da Silva’s that has long staged occupations of what it considers vacant or unused lands, asked its militants on Tuesday to organize demonstrations in several states to unblock roads.
Sao Paulo Gov. Rodrigo Garcia told a news conference that the time for negotiations was over, and he was not ruling out the use of force by law enforcement.
In Minas Gerais, a key battleground state in the election, a video on social media showed a protester telling a reporter from the O Tempo news outlet that the election was “fraudulent” and warned of future protests. “We want Bolsonaro in 2023 and for the years to come," he said.
In Itaborai, a region in Rio de Janeiro state, an Associated Press reporter saw truck drivers kneeling in front of police officers and refusing to evacuate.
Users on social media, including in multiple Telegram and WhatsApp chat groups with names like “Paralysation," shared demands that the military take the streets, or that Congress and the Supreme Court be disbanded and the president remain in office.
Following the election, the electoral authority blocked two dozen Telegram groups that defended a military coup and called on their more than 150,000 followers to organize demonstrations, according to online news site UOL.
The Supreme Court's decision on Tuesday permits regular state police forces to reinforce federal highway police. The same was done in 2018, when an 11-day trucker strike brought Brazil to a halt.
Bolsonaro commands wide support from the police forces' rank and file, however, and it wasn’t clear how effective their involvement would be.
The 2018 stoppage caused food prices to spike and left supermarket shelves without products as gas stations ran out of fuel. It caused billions in losses and revealed the vast power that truckers possess, particularly when they organize through social media platforms.
Bolsonaro, a lawmaker at the time and months away from winning that year's presidential election, was an outspoken supporter of the truckers, who are now among his constituents. This year, his administration limited interstate fuel taxes to help bring down prices and launched a financial aid program for truckers just months before the election.
In his speech Tuesday, Bolsonaro was "sending a message to his hardcore supporters to keep protesting,” said Robert Muggah, co-founder of Igarapé Institute, a Rio de Janeiro-based think tank focused on security. “He’s playing with fire: There’s a real risk that prolonged unrest and police inaction could ignite simmering tensions.”
Jeantet reported from Rio de Janeiro. Associated Press producer Diarlei Rodrigues and writer David Biller in Rio contributed to this report.