Brazil: can the far-right genie be put back into the bottle?
A week after taking office, Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva faced a far-right insurrection by disgruntled followers of his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro. Although Bolsonaro didn’t personally direct the invasion of the headquarters of Brazil’s major federal institutions, he set the scene by consistently sowing disinformation, stoking doubts over the integrity of the election and demonising his opponents, making their rule illegitimate in the eyes of his supporters. The attacks indicated deep division on basic principles among Brazilians. Democratic consensus has been eroded and the out-of-control forces unleashed by Bolsonaro are likely to become a lasting presence in Brazil’s political life.
As he took office on 1 January, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva had plenty on his plate. Brazil was experiencing high and rising inflation, around 100 million Brazilians were living in poverty and deforestation was tearing through the Amazon rainforest.
Lula knew he’d have little wiggle room to tackle these and other pressing issues: he hadn’t won the October 2022 alone but as part of a broad coalition of centre-left, centrist and centre-right forces glued together by rejection of his far-right predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro. This would force him to seek internal consensus and moderate his leftist aspirations, potentially risking the loyalty of core followers. He would face resistance in Congress and from major Brazilian states governed by Bolsonaro supporters. To get anything done, he would need to negotiate with pro-Bolsonaro politicians.
But then the challenge went to a whole other level when exactly one week after his inauguration the new president faced a far-right insurrection.
On Sunday 8 January, tranquillity in the capital, Brasilia, was shattered when thousands of Bolsonaro supporters marched unimpeded for hours along major roads towards the sites of federal power, tore down fences under the passive gaze of the police and invaded and ransacked the buildings of the federal government, National Congress and Supreme Court.
In a national television message later that day, Lula blamed the unprecedented event on Bolsonaro ‘inciting his followers on social media’. He promised a thorough investigation to identify who was behind the protests and hold them to account alongside the police forces who failed to stop them, and in some cases even joined them.
Lula also ordered that the federal government take temporary direct control of security in the Federal District, home of Brasilia, taking it off the hands of the Federal District governor, a Bolsonaro supporter. Additionally, the Supreme Court suspended the governor for 90 days, banned buses and trucks transporting protesters from entering the Federal District until 31 January, ordered the seizure of buses that transported people on 8 January and demanded Facebook, TikTok and Twitter block at least 18 profiles of extremists linked to the riots.
An attack foretold
While the attack was unprecedented, it was far from unexpected. Bolsonaro had long sown baseless doubts over the security of Brazil’s electronic voting system – under which he won in 2018 – ahead of the likely loss of his re-election bid. In July 2022, as surveys forecast a landslide defeat, he took this tactic to a whole new level by gathering ambassadors in Brasilia to claim there would be fraud.
The electoral campaign was marked by polarisation, political violence and the spread of disinformation to make Bolsonaro supporters think a Lula win was unimaginable and could only result from fraud.
Bolsonaro was defeated by the narrowest of margins – less than two percentage points – in the 30 October runoff vote, and then disappeared from the public eye for almost two days, refusing to concede. But the heads of the country’s main institutions all quickly recognised Lula’s victory, as did major international leaders. On 1 November, after a confusing two-minute speech in which Bolsonaro avoided explicitly conceding or clearly instructing his supporters to back down, his chief-of-staff finally confirmed the start of the transition period.
But starting on election night, hardcore Bolsonaro supporters mobilised against the results, calling for a military coup. Truckers started hundreds of roadblocks in 22 states across Brazil, disrupting land and air traffic and causing shortages. The Supreme Court ordered the Federal Highway Police, an institution with close ties to Bolsonaro, to unblock roads by a strict deadline. In response to public pressure, Bolsonaro released a video calling on supporters to end roadblocks, but failed to recognise the electoral results and continued to claim the election had been ‘unjust’, further fuelling protests.
By the Supreme Court’s deadline two days later, around 200 – fewer than half – of roadblocks had been cleared. By then Bolsonaro supporters had set up protest camps outside army headquarters in Brasilia and in front of military barracks elsewhere.
This was accompanied by the spread of social media content attacking the electoral system and inciting violence. On 14 November a Supreme Court judge ordered that accounts be blocked of 43 people and companies suspected of financing demonstrations that challenged election results and called for a military coup, characterising these as ‘repeated abuse of the right of assembly’.
Although demonstrations and road blockades continued well into December, Lula’s victory was formally certified by the Electoral Court on 12 December and he took office on 1 January 2023. Bolsonaro wasn’t there: he’d just left the country, presumably to avoid personally handing over the symbols of power, and possibly also to elude criminal charges over the many corruption accusations weighing on him.
At the new government’s first cabinet meeting, Lula’s Defence Minister offered reassurance that the pro-Bolsonaro camps outside military barracks didn’t pose any danger. But as the riots unfolded, the Pact for Democracy, a civil society initiative, issued a statement pointing out how easily government headquarters had been invaded and criticising inaction by the Federal District’s Military Police in the face of events that had been ‘publicly announced in advance’.
Echoes from the USA
The Brazilian riots drew obvious parallels with the 6 January 2021 attack on the US Capitol but were even more extensive: Bolsonaro supporters invaded not only the legislative building, as their counterparts in the USA did, but also the premises of the federal government and Supreme Court. Unlike Trump supporters in the USA, they didn’t initially encounter any resistance: law enforcement officers known for their sympathy with Bolsonaro mostly turned a blind eye and some even joined in.
But in other respects, the US attacks could be viewed as more serious: in Brazil, they happened on a Sunday, meaning the buildings were empty, and the president whose electoral legitimacy the rioters questioned had already taken office. In comparison, the US attacks happened in mid-week, and specifically on the day Congress was about to meet to validate the electoral college votes and formalise Joe Biden’s victory. The 2,000-plus insurgents who invaded the Capitol Building in Washington, DC assaulted police officers and journalists, terrorised staff and searched for Democrat lawmakers and Trump’s own vice-president with the intention of causing them harm.
Seven people – four protesters and three police officers – died in connection with the US attack; fortunately, no one died in Brasilia. And while Trump supporters were free to go home and watch their actions on TV before being tracked down and arrested much later, the day of the attack on Brasilia ended with some 1,500 people being rounded up and escorted away in handcuffs.
Shortly before the Brazilian insurrection erupted, a US Congress committee had closed an 18-month investigation, concluding that then-president Trump had engaged in a ‘multi-part conspiracy’ to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and failed to act to stop his supporters attacking the Capitol – and even encouraged them.
In comparison, Bolsonaro’s role in the 8 January events still needs to be clarified. He wasn’t in Brazil when they happened: he was – and still is – in Florida, USA. His only response was a short Twitter thread in which he admitted his followers had crossed a line but denied any responsibility, insisting instead that his government had always respected the constitution. But he did play a similar role to Trump’s in stoking doubts over the integrity of the election and demonising his opponents, making Lula’s victory and rule illegitimate in the eyes of his supporters.
The attack made clear that the forces Bolsonaro conjured up and released have since gained a life of their own: they can rise up in his name even if not ordered to do so. A dangerous force has been unleashed beyond anyone’s control.
Democracy on the balance
If the attack was meant to weaken Lula’s government, its effect may have been the opposite. Brazilian politicians, party leaders, civil society and the media were near unanimous in condemning the events and calling for investigations. Condemnation also came around the world. The day after the riots, people mobilised in defence of democracy in several major Brazilian cities. They were accompanied from a distance by Brazilians abroad.
Many were quick to characterise the insurrection as an attempted coup, although fortunately it lacked some of the hallmarks of a coup – coordinated leadership and institutional support from a section of the elite. But there’s no question it was a violent attack on the legitimacy of democratic institutions.
This made some of the instant condemnation that came from Latin American leaders somewhat hypocritical: authoritarian presidents at war with their own domestic opposition repudiated the invasion as a ‘neofascist’ attack on a fellow leftist government rather than an attack on democracy.
Brazil’s democracy, the largest in the region, absolutely needs all the support it can get as it experiences the most severe process of erosion in decades. Support for democratic values has declined among a significant segment of the population who seem happy to question democratic processes if they don’t produce the winner they want and are highly vulnerable to narratives based on disinformation.
According to a survey carried out two days after the riots, only around 57 per cent of Brazilians believed Lula won more votes than Bolsonaro. Almost 40 per cent were convinced Bolsonaro had won, despite there being no evidence of fraud. Similarly, only 54 per cent categorically rejected the idea of a military intervention, while 37 per cent welcomed it. Only 53 per cent strongly rejected the insurrection, while 27 viewed it as partly justified and 10 per cent as fully justified.
The attack only confirmed how deeply split Brazil is. It also made clear that the forces Bolsonaro conjured up and released have since gained a life of their own: they can rise up in his name even if not ordered to do so. A dangerous force has been unleashed beyond anyone’s control. If there’s one thing the 8 January events made clear, it is that Brazil’s far right is here to stay.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
Brazilian legislative and judicial institutions must conduct thorough investigations into the attack and hold its organisers, funders and enablers accountable.
President Lula should work to bridge political divides and strengthen democratic consensus among Brazilians.
Civil society should redouble efforts to combat disinformation.
Cover photo by Carla Carniel/Reuters via Gallo Images