Right-wing populist President Jair Bolsonaro’s refusal Monday to concede a knife-edge election triggered fears of political unrest in Brazil, a key battleground country in the growing cold-war-style rivalry between the U.S. and China for influence over South America.
Chinese President Xi Jinping congratulated leftist icon Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Monday. China’s investment in Brazil has dramatically outstripped that of the U.S. in recent years.
Mr. da Silva defeated Mr. Bolsonaro by less than 2 percentage points in the runoff election Sunday, according to official tallies.
“I attach great importance to the development of China-Brazil relations,” Mr. Xi said in a statement calling for a new level of “comprehensive strategic partnership between China and Brazil.”
Hours earlier, President Biden rushed to congratulate Mr. da Silva, whose win marks an about-face for Brazil after four years of populist, far-right policies. Mr. Bolsonaro nearly came back to win a second term in the tight contest.
Mr. Biden emphasized that the election was “free, fair and credible.” Yet fears were mounting that Mr. Bolsonaro may refuse the result and spark demonstrations that could violently divide Brazil, the top U.S. trade partner in South America and the Western Hemisphere’s second most powerful economy.
Mr. Bolsonaro, often dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics,” consistently trailed in polls to Mr. da Silva. Before the vote, he made repeated but unproven claims of possible electoral manipulation, raising fears that his supporters would not accept defeat.
Mr. da Silva, who was president from 2003 to 2010, held a 50.9% to 49.1% lead after 99.9% of the votes were counted Sunday night, Brazilian election officials said. The count, they said, meant it would be mathematically impossible for Mr. Bolsonaro to be declared the winner.
Sen. Flavio Bolsonaro, who served as a coordinator on his father’s campaign, thanked supporters Monday and told them to keep their heads up and “don’t give up on Brazil.”
Several top Bolsonaro associates said they accepted the narrow defeat. Mr. Bolsonaro’s movement will retain considerable influence with gains among key state governorships and in the national legislature.
The acrid tone of the election was laid bare in fiery television debates in September. Mr. da Silva, whose political career was nearly derailed by corruption scandals after he became a darling of the global left during his previous presidency, said Mr. Bolsonaro’s brand of unapologetic pro-market, right-wing populism had “destroyed” Brazil.
Mr. Bolsonaro, 67, countered by repeatedly referring to Mr. da Silva, 77, as an “ex-convict” and drew attention to the 19 months the former president spent in prison in 2018 and 2019 for corruption and money laundering tied to sprawling scandals during his time in office.
Mr. da Silva’s early-2000s economic growth and anti-poverty initiatives were popular. The programs were funded with profits from an unexpected fossil fuel boom after the 2007 discovery of the massive Tupi oil field off the Brazilian coast.
Brazil has become one of the top 10 suppliers of oil to China, which has spent the past decade expanding its investments in the South American country.
The China-Brazil business council has claimed Chinese companies invested some $5.9 billion in Brazil in 2021, more than three times the roughly $1.9 billion Chinese companies reported spending in the country in 2020, according to the Chile-based economic analytics firm BNamericas.
The Chinese investment pales in comparison with the total $108 billion in foreign direct investment stocks in Brazil held by U.S. companies. China’s overall trade with Brazil and other South American countries is growing.
A February report by Bloomberg said China had bought up so much copper, pork and soy — and constructed so many roads, trains, power grids and bridges — on the continent that it surpassed the U.S. as South America’s largest trade partner. Combined with Brazil, Chile and Peru, it is now the single biggest trader.
The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported Monday that trade between China and Brazil hit a record $135 billion in 2021, marking four consecutive years of growth despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
A new partner in Brasilia?
Analysts are framing the da Silva victory as a boost for Brazilian-Chinese ties. During Mr. da Silva’s presidency from 2003 to 2010, Brazil considered China as a key partner in helping restructure the international order.
“In 2004, Lula drew closer to Beijing, leading a delegation of more than 450 business leaders to China to lay the foundations for a partnership that intertwined the economies of both countries,” the South China Morning Post reported, and “during Lula’s presidency, he met former Chinese President Hu Jintao eight times.”
Where Mr. da Silva intends to take the relationship upon his return to the presidency remains to be seen. Brazil is dealing with high inflation and a forecast of slowing economic growth.
Shoring up domestic political divisions may also factor into Mr. da Silva’s foreign policy. Thus far, he is promising to govern beyond his party by bringing in centrists and even some leaning to the right who voted for him for the first time. He also pledged to restore the country’s more prosperous past.
The highly polarized election extended a wave of leftist victories in the region, including Chile, Colombia, Peru and Argentina. One complaint of Bolsonaro partisans was that a da Silva administration would turn the country into “another Venezuela,” where the socialist regime has overseen a major economic and humanitarian catastrophe.
Thomas Traumann, an independent political analyst, compared the results to Joe Biden’s 2020 victory over President Trump. He said Mr. da Silva is inheriting a divided nation.
“The huge challenge that Lula has will be to pacify the country,” Mr. Traumann told The Associated Press. “People are not only polarized on political matters, but also have different values, identity and opinions. What’s more, they don’t care what the other side’s values, identities and opinions are.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.