Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has privately told members of the Supreme Court that the country’s tightly contested election “is over”, according to local media reports, after the far-right leader was defeated by Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
But thousands of Bolsonaro’s supporters have taken to the streets across Brazil, blocking major highways and calling on Wednesday for the armed forces to prevent Lula from taking office.
Bolsonaro broke nearly 48 hours of public silence on Tuesday afternoon, telling reporters that he would respect Brazil’s constitution but stopping short of conceding or congratulating his left-wing rival.
After a private meeting with Bolsonaro later that day, Supreme Court Justice Luiz Edson Fachin said the former army captain had said, “It is over. So, let’s look ahead.” The justice made the comment in a video broadcast on local media.
Bolsonaro’s silence – both in public statements and on social media – had fuelled concerns he could be seeking to contest the results, especially after he had falsely claimed for months that Brazil’s electronic voting system was vulnerable to fraud.
But in a very brief address on Tuesday from the presidential palace in Brasilia, Bolsonaro said, “As President of the Republic and as a citizen, I will continue to respect all the commandments of our Constitution.”
His chief of staff then took the podium and said Bolsonaro had “authorised” a transition to Lula’s government, which will be sworn in on January 1.
The president-elect won 50.9 percent of the vote compared with Bolsonaro’s 49.1 percent in Sunday’s run-off, which capped what was described as the most divisive presidential election campaign in Brazil’s history.
Lula, who previously served as president from 2003 to 2010, now faces the difficult challenge of uniting a deeply polarised nation.
Those divisions came into sharp focus on Wednesday as thousands of pro-Bolsonaro protesters rallied in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia and other cities to call on the military keep the outgoing president in power.
Many carried Brazil’s yellow-and-green flag draped over their shoulders and blew horns. Outside the Eastern Military Command in Rio de Janeiro, one of the army’s eight regional headquarters, some chanted, “Armed forces, save Brazil!” and “United, the people will never be defeated!”
“We hope the army will intervene in this situation,” said Reinaldo da Silva, 65, a retired government worker at a rally at the entrance to a Sao Paulo army barracks. “I came today because I want Brasil to be free, socialism does not work with the Brazilian nation.”
Al Jazeera’s Monica Yanakiew, reporting from Rio de Janeiro, said the protesters had pledged to continue their demonstration until their demand for intervention is met. “The military have not responded,” she added.
In his victory speech on Sunday, Lula – who has promised to reverse some of Bolsonaro’s most contentious policies – also pledged to govern for all 215 million Brazilians, not just those who voted for him.
“We are telling the world that Brazil is back,” he tweeted on Tuesday evening, promising to tackle hunger, inequality, and the climate crisis. “This is the Brazil that we are going to build together. With work, dialogue and democracy.”
But despite that conciliatory message, and the acknowledgement from Bolsonaro’s team that a transition would take place, many of the outgoing president’s supporters have said they will not recognise the election results.
Crowds of Bolsonaro backers – including Brazilian truckers, a key constituency of the outgoing president – also have used burning tyres and vehicles to shut down major highways since polls closed on Sunday.
The Supreme Court earlier this week ordered the Federal Highway Police to disperse the blockades, threatening to impose fines if it did not act quickly.
The force said highways were partially or fully blocked in 156 locations as of Wednesday morning, down from about 190 the previous night. The blockages were reported in 15 Brazilian states, most notably in the Bolsonaro strongholds of Santa Catarina and Mato Grosso.
Although smaller than in previous days, the protests are still likely disrupting fuel distribution, meat production, food deliveries to supermarkets and shipments of grains to ports. Anvisa, the national health agency, warned that they could lead to shortages of medical supplies.
During his speech on Tuesday, Bolsonaro said the protests were the result of “indignation and a sense of injustice” about how the vote was carried out. He said people should avoid destroying property or “impeding the right to come and go”, but did not ask them to stop the blockades.
Brazil was under authoritarian military rule from 1964 to 1985, and Bolsonaro has expressed admiration for the former regime, which rights groups describe as a “brutal dictatorship”.
That added to concerns around the elections, and spurred calls for world leaders to put pressure on the Brazilian military leadership to not back a potential “coup”.
Amid Wednesday’s protests, Paulo Chagas, a retired cavalry general who campaigned for Bolsonaro in 2018, said in a message to the Reuters news agency: “The military know full well what their duty is: the constitution does not allow them to intervene in politics.”
General Otavio Rego Barros, a former spokesman for Bolsonaro, also said in a column published on Wednesday that it was time for the election losers to concede and think of Brazil’s future.
He criticised “groups with no sense of responsibility that still seek to destabilise a weakened social fabric with provocations and misinformation”. Both Barros and Chagas fell out with Bolsonaro over his efforts to get the armed forces to endorse him politically.
Many international leaders have congratulated Lula on his election victory, with US President Joe Biden also commending Brazil for carrying out “free, fair, and credible elections”.