SAO PAULO – Mr Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva won election as Brazil's president in a dramatic comeback for the left-wing politician who was languishing in a jail cell just three years ago on corruption charges.
He defeated the incumbent Jair Bolsonaro by less than 2 percentage points in Sunday's runoff vote, according to the official tally.
It signals a change in direction for Latin America's largest economy after a heated campaign that showed extreme polarisation among the electorate, and marks the first time a sitting president in Brazil has lost a re-election bid.
US President Joe Biden quickly congratulated Mr Lula on his victory in a “free, fair and credible elections”. French leader Emmanuel Macron did the same, saying the poll opened “a new page” in the country's history.
“Together, we will join forces to take up the many common challenges and renew the ties of friendship between our two countries,” Mr Macron said on Twitter, minutes after the announcement of the final election results. Mr Bolsonaro has yet to concede or comment on the results.
The result sets up a third term for the former president, who campaigned on pledges to reduce inequality and protect the environment while preserving the country's fiscal health. The election exposed the divide between a sizable minority who support Mr Bolsonaro's right-wing, pro-business populist rhetoric, and predominantly poorer voters with memories of better times under Mr Lula, who oversaw an economic surge amid a boom in commodity exports when he ran the country from 2003 to 2010.
Despite his triumph, the next president will face a divided country and a divided congress, with Mr Bolsonaro's allies having captured a large presence in both chambers on top of controlling the country's three most populous states, Sao Paulo, Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro.
“Lula's challenge of governing is bigger than that of winning the election. Brazilian society needs to be rebuilt in its institutional and fiscal basis,” said Carolina Botelho, a political scientist with the Institute of Advanced Studies at Sao Paulo University. “Lula will need to recover the internal and external trust of financial agents and civil society.”
The 77-year-old president-elect returns to the helm at a moment of acute political and social tensions in Brazil, with concerns about rising levels of poverty in an economy that's yet to fully recover from the damage wrought by the pandemic. Internationally, Brazil is under pressure to reverse Bolsonaro policies that contributed to deforestation in the Amazon and affirm rights for the LGBTQ community and other minorities that Mr Bolsonaro frequently ridiculed.
As much as an endorsement of Mr Lula, the outcome is a repudiation of Mr Bolsonaro's four years in office, including his erratic handling of the Covid-19 pandemic that left 700,000 Brazilians dead and his constant clashes with institutions such as the electoral authorities. The president consistently struggled with female voters, which make up almost 53 per cent of the total.
“What defines this election is a rejection of Bolsonarismo,” said Christian Lynch, a political scientist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.
Mr Lula's victory continues a trend of wins by left-wing candidates in South America over the past 18 months, most prominently in Chile, Colombia and Peru, as voters punished incumbents that were in charge during the Covid-19 outbreak.
But it also showcases Mr Lula's sharp political skills, particularly his ability to come back from the corruption scandal that marred his legacy.
Mr Lula was a wildly popular president before accusations of wrongdoing and fiscal mismanagement resulted in the impeachment of his hand-picked successor Dilma Rousseff in 2016. By 2019, Mr Lula was behind bars and facing a long prison sentence amid accusations he steered billions of state contracts to allies. Released on a technicality, it cleared the way for him to run last year after the Supreme Court quashed his convictions.
While today many Brazilians see him as a symbol of corruption, he remains revered by others for launching social programs that lifted millions out of poverty. And confronting Bolsonaro's authoritarian bent, Mr Lula campaigned as a defender of democracy.