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Jair Bolsonaro vows to follow Brazil constitution without conceding election

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Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro broke a two-day silence after his election defeat, saying protests by his supporters reflected “indignation” at the outcome but vowing to follow the country’s constitution.

Following 45 hours of self-imposed silence out of public view, the hard-right leader on Tuesday afternoon read out a carefully worded speech that did not directly contest his leftist rival Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s narrow win on Sunday, as some opponents had feared .

Pro-Bolsonaro demonstrators and truck drivers who say their candidate was unfairly denied victory have blocked hundreds of highways across the South American nation, sparking fears of food shortages and prompting threats of a crackdown by the country’s Supreme Court.

“The people’s movements right now are the result of indignation and a feeling of injustice at how the electoral process unfolded,” Bolsonaro said in a short address from the Palácio da Alvorada, the official presidential residence in Brasília, hinting at prior allegations that Brazil’s top election body had been biased against his campaign.

“Peaceful protests are always welcome but our methods can’t be those of the left, which have always harmed the population,” he added.

While the president did not explicitly concede defeat or mention Lula, his chief of staff, Ciro Nogueira, immediately confirmed that Bolsonaro had authorized him to begin the transition process with Lula’s team, which takes office on January 1.

“As president of the republic and a citizen, I will continue to fulfill all the commandments of our constitution,” Bolsonaro said.

In a further departure from tradition, the former army captain has not called to congratulate Lula, who narrowly won the run-off election with 50.9 per cent of the vote to Bolsonaro’s 49.1 per cent.

The remarks from Bolsonaro ended two days of silence following the vote, which had left Brazilians and investors on tenthooks about what the mercurial incumbent might do next.

But it remained unclear whether Bolsonaro’s supporters would halt their protests. Calls for more demonstrations on Wednesday were circulating on social media groups sympathetic to the president.

While the capital Brasília remained calm on Tuesday, governors of five states, including the three most populous — São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais — ordered military police to reopen highways blocked by the activists amid accusations that highway police had failed to clear the roads.

For months ahead of the election, Bolsonaro worked to sow doubt about the integrity of the race, claiming Brazil’s electronic voting system was prone to fraud.

Brazil’s top electoral official, Alexandre de Moraes threatened to fine and imprison the head of the highway police if he failed to ensure the roads were cleared, and slammed the demonstrators as an “illegal movement” and a “risk to national security”.

Bolsonaro said that Sunday’s result showed that “the right has truly emerged in our country. Our strong representation in Congress shows the strength of our values: God, country, family and freedom.”

“Bolsonaro is well positioned to be the leader of the opposition, maybe even to try a comeback in four years. But for that to happen, he needs to move on,” said Eduardo Mello, a professor of politics at the Getulio Vargas Foundation.

Ignoring the protests and Bolsonaro’s refusal to recognize his victory, Lula has already taken the mantle of president-elect, receiving congratulatory calls from world leaders and meeting politicians to discuss his cabinet choices and early government priorities.

A former president who served two terms between 2003 and 2010, the 77-year-old will govern a sharply divided nation. Millions of Brazilians remain angry about the corruption scandals that tarnished consecutive administrations of his Workers’ party (PT). Lula himself spent almost two years in prison for graft before his convictions were annulled.

Much of the focus is on who Lula will choose as his ministers. Investors are hoping he will signal his commitment to fiscal rectitude and economic orthodoxy by appointing a finance minister who enjoys the confidence of markets, though Lula has insisted he will pick a politician rather than a technocrat.

In contention for the role are PT loyalists such as Fernando Haddad, who on Sunday lost the São Paulo gubernatorial election to the pro-Bolsonaro Tarcísio de Freitas, and Alexandre Padilha, a former health minister.

“In his victory speech, Lula said all the right things with his ‘we want to govern for everyone’ approach. But economies the main signal will be his choice of finance minister,” said Marcos Casarin, chief Latin America economist at Oxford Economics.

The president-elect is expected to expand the total number of ministries from 23 to 34, giving him more scope to reward his coalition partners with government jobs.

Video: Brazil: a nation divided | FT Movie