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Unpacking the Brazilian Capital Riots and the Relentless Threat to National Democracy

12 Jan 2023
By Dr Flavia Bellieni Zimmermann
Damage caused by the attack that took place on Sunday 8 January in the Senate building in Brasilia. Source: Edilson Rodrigues/Agência Senado

On 8 January, Bolsonaristas rioted their way into the capital in breach of the democratic codes they seek to support. With the police missing in action, the new president has a tight rope to walk.

Last October, Brazilians voted back into office leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva from the Worker’s Party in the most polarised elections in Brazil’s political history. With political tensions soaring, there were reports of physical violence and even killings of political opponents. The day before the election’s second round, a Bolsonarista Congresswoman, Carla Zampelli, chased a Worker’s Party supporter down the street with a gun after the man had been heard crying out “Lula, tomorrow.” Lula’s victory was narrow: 51 percent, only two points ahead of his  far-right opponent, President Jair Bolsonaro, who had 49 percent of votes. Although Bolsonaro lost the election, he enjoys the support of over 58 million voters, the second-highest in Brazil’s history.

Bolsonaro raised concerns regarding Brazil’s electronic voting system while in office and was reluctant to concede defeat. There are countless parallels to be drawn between Bolsonaro’s post-election posturing and that of Donald Trump in the US. Nonetheless, Bolsonaro seems to have learned from Trump’s experience since the US Capitol invasion. Bolsonaro remained silent, for instance, about the election results until late December, when he conceded defeat and subsequently flew to Florida in the US. Although Brazil’s capital invasion took place on a Sunday when the buildings were empty, it had a broader outreach. Bolsonaristas invaded the headquarters of the Legislative and Executive offices and the Supreme Court, desecrating the heart of Brazil’s democracy. In the aftermath, Bolsonaro tweeted: “Peaceful demonstrations, in the form of law, are part of democracy. However, depredations and invasions of public buildings as occurred today, as well as those practiced by the left in 2013 and 2017, escape the rule.” How and when should the government draw a line on anti-democratic protests that promise to turn violent?

Life after the 2022 October elections

Bolsonaro supporters claim the elections were rigged, casting aspersions on Brazil’s electoral system and High Court Minister Alexandre de Moraes, the head of the Electoral Tribunal. They rejected election results and promoted road blockades throughout the country, leading to widespread chaos. There were concerns over the Federal Police’s lenience toward preventing such blockades, and roads were cleared only after High Court intervention. In subsequent weeks, thousands of Bolsonaristas set up camp in front of military headquarters placed throughout the country. Protesters asked for a new Institutional Act Number Five (AI-5), an executive order which previously wiped out Brazilians’ civil rights during the military dictatorship. In short, they demanded a federal intervention led by the military to keep Bolsonaro in power. For many, Lula’s arrest in 2018 is a non-starter, with far-right protesters calling him a “thief” (Lula ladrão). These protesters refuse to live under a Lula government, asking for his impeachment and subsequent arrest.

What strikes at the centre of Brazil’s ongoing political radicalisation is that these anti-democratic protests are supported by politicians and businessmen who have contributed with meals and infrastructure, thus allowing the protests to continue in perpetuity. Yet, none of them have been charged or held accountable by law enforcement agencies. With the politicisation of Brazil’s law enforcement agencies and parts of the military, there are growing concerns about their lenience towards Bolsonarista, anti-democratic protests, and their willingness to prevent violent acts such as the capital riots.

The danger of Brazil’s anti-democratic protests

In the lead-up to last Sunday’s riots, Brazil’s Intelligence Agency (ABIN) notified authorities of a violent protest brewing. Several buses with Bolsonaro supporters were arriving in the capital Brasília, and yet, there was no mobilisation by the Federal Police. Video footage shows protesters freely moving onto the roof of Congress without any police resistance. According to Minister for Defence José Múcio Monteiro, there was little risk from such protesters, including those camped in front of Brasilia’s military quarters. But, tactically, the lack of action facilitated their access to Brazil’s three powers’ headquarters.

These anti-democratic protests turned out to be one of the Brazil’s greatest political chimeras. Critically, it shows how quickly “pacific” anti-democratic acts can be transformed into widespread violence and chaos, endangering the Brazilian population and its democratic institutions.

In Brazil, there is an Orwellian narrative supporting the Bolsonaristas’ right to free speech and political organisation, since “pacific” manifestations should not be suppressed. Removing protesters who camp in front of military headquarters could be deemed “authoritarian” and “anti-democratic.” However, these are not quintessential democratic movements. Bolsonaro supporters protest against election results considered “rigged” in their view. On this basis, demands for a military coup d’état are seen as legitimate. Much evidence to the contrary shows that Brazil’s elections were fair and valid.

Can a third Lula administration succeed in such a polarised country?

Another leftist president who won through a narrow margin is Dilma Rousseff from the Worker’s Party – Lula’s political heir in the late 2000s. Unpopular leftist reforms coupled with Rousseff’s lack of personal charisma and her inability to navigate complex negotiations in Congress sealed her fate, leading eventually to impeachment. Rousseff is a former member of Brazil’s “urban guerrilla,” a group operating in opposition to Brazil’s military regime, and was brutally tortured. She therefore quite naturally ruffled feathers within elite military groups during the National Commission for Truth, an investigation on human rights violations during Brazil’s military dictatorship. Rousseff’s impeachment speaks volumes on the political fate of those in Brazil who attempt to hold powerful groups, and especially military elites, to account. These groups, to be sure, amplify the many challenges Lula will face during his administration in a deeply divided Brazil. The political maverick will need to recalibrate his administration to a more centrist approach to avoid widening political polarisation even further. This is the only hope to bring the country “together.” Radical views disseminated by Bolsonaristas will not vanish, since they represent nearly half of Brazil’s Congress.

Last weekend’s invasion of Brazil’s state headquarters demonstrates the far-right’s ability and strategy to destabilise law and order throughout the country. What is concerning about the capital invasion is the apathy shown by law enforcement agencies, and the lack of Federal Police action upon intelligence that a pro-Bolsonaro protest was being orchestrated. Although Lula declared a federal intervention in the state of Brasília – over 400 protesters have been arrested, and Brasília’s governor has been suspended from office – there are growing fears of fifth columnists within Brazil’s Federal Police and even the military. Minister for Justice Flavio Dino’s rhetoric is that rioters will be brought to justice. But the question is whether the masterminds behind the Brasília riots will also be held accountable, and if the Lula administration can deliver in a country where some are more equal than others. Brazil’s abyssal social inequalities, the elite groups which have historically placed themselves above the law, and the struggle to consolidate the rule of law in Brazil are force multipliers that will exacerbate the challenges Lula faces moving ahead.

Dr Flavia Bellieni Zimmermann is a Lecturer at the University of Western Australia, School of Social Sciences. She is a Brazilian political analyst and has written extensively in this field. Her research interests include Brazilian politics, society, and policy, Latin American politics, populism and nationalism, women in the global south, gender, and politics and religion.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.