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LATIN AMERICA | 01-11-2022 11:57

Brazil protesters block roads, airport as Bolsonaro stays silent

Protests led by truck-drivers escalate; Bolsonaro has refused to make any public comment after losing the presidential run-off to Lula by less than two percentage points – the narrowest margin for a presidential election in the country’s modern history.

Protests by backers of Jair Bolsonaro, led by truck drivers, have spread across the country as the Brazilian president remains silent over his loss in Sunday’s election, so far refusing to concede defeat to his foe Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. 

Supporters of the firebrand president, unhappy with the election result, blocked more than 200 roads across more than a dozen states and the capital and restricted access to São Paulo international airport, forcing the cancellation of 25 flights. The protests prompted Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes to order the federal highway police to clear the blockades, warning of fines reaching 100,000 reais (US$19,306) per hour per vehicle.

Bolsonaro has refused to make any public comments after losing the presidential run-off to Lula by less than two percentage points, the narrowest margin for a presidential election in the country’s modern history. Pressure from some allies is building for him to say something to de-escalate the rising tension. His Communications Minister Fabio Faria said late Monday that he will speak on Tuesday.

Bolsonaro is meeting with heads of the Navy and Air Force at the presidential palace in Brasilia Tuesday morning, in addition to the ministers of Defence, Justice and Public Security. Bolsonaro’s Chief-of-Staff, Ciro Nogueira, and running-mate in the election, General Walter Braga Netto, are also attending.

“Bolsonaro is too isolated to successfully challenge the results,” said Mario Braga, an analyst with Control Risks in São Paulo. While demonstrations by truck drivers and supporters allow him to create a narrative that he has broad backing, “the conditions for him to stay in power simply aren’t there.”

In addition to highways, the port of Paranaguá in Paraná state was blocked by protesters, according to a statement, while the head of the Brazilian supermarkets association said that some shortages have already begun to be reported by members. 

Braga said it’s important to watch how quickly the federal highway police moves to clear roads as its director is an ally of the president. Since Monday evening, the number of blockades has fallen.

The uncertainty could put a dent in the rally seen in Brazilian assets following the vote. The real pared early gains to trade 0.1 percent stronger on Tuesday while stocks climbed 0.2 percent.

“Markets are on edge waiting for Bolsonaro to address the outcome of the election,” said Brendan McKenna, a strategist at Wells Fargo in New York. “My base case scenario is an orderly transition of power, but if Bolsonaro opts for a hostile challenge of the election markets will certainly react negatively.”

Lula, who is focused on organising the transition team ahead of taking over on January 1, hasn’t commented on the protests. Gleisi Hoffmann, the head of his Workers’ Party, said on Monday the strikes are political and up to Bolsonaro to resolve, according to newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo

The federation of truckers, which represents the main transportation companies in the South American nation, disavowed the protests. But it’s unclear the sway it has over individual truckers. 

Truck drivers are one of the main bases of Bolsonaro’s support and yield significant political power in the geographically vast country. They organise mostly in grassroots groups, with no clear leadership, which makes negotiations particularly tricky. Back in 2018, a strike over diesel prices lasted for about 10 days and caused major economic harm to the country.

The president’s oldest son, Senator Flavio Bolsonaro, appeared to accept the election result in a Twitter post on Monday when he thanked his father’s supporters and said they wouldn’t give up on Brazil. 

The president’s decision to not immediately concede isn’t a complete surprise given his long history of attacks against Brazil’s electoral system. But a prolonged dispute could test the country’s institutional strength. 

The heads of the country’s Senate and Lower House quickly accepted the outcome on Sunday night along with the Supreme Court justices and some of Bolsonaro’s closest allies. US President Joe Biden also congratulated Lula in a phone call on Monday. The Armed Forces have yet to comment.

Rodrigo Garcia, the outgoing governor of São Paulo state who supported Bolsonaro in the run-off, said he recognises Lula’s victory and “we’re all waiting for the president” to do the same.

The president’s silence could hurt the transition process. By law, Brazil’s government needs to organise a formal handover process right after the vote, with the president-elect allowed to nominate 50 people to meet officials and exchange government information. The outgoing administration typically coordinates with the team of the next president during the following two months so there is a smooth transition.

While a strategy to try to discredit the election “is unlikely to yield a favourable result for Bolsonaro, that can be a tactic to keep his base mobilised to oppose a Lula administration,” Eurasia Group analysts wrote in a report.

“We are watching the truckers road blockades across the country and their potential to spread, remain persistent and become very disruptive,” said Valerie Ho, a portfolio manager at DoubleLine Group LP in Los Angeles. “Financial markets are cautious of the tail risk for a prolonged disruption.”

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by Andrew Rosati & Daniel Carvalho, Bloomberg

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