In an incident unprecedented in Brazil’s modern history, thousands of supporters of far-right former President Jair Bolsonaro stormed Congress and other government buildings in the capital Brasília on January 8. Speaking before arriving in the capital, left-wing Brazilian President Lula—who previously led the country from 2003 to 2010—said "There’s no precedent for this in the history of our country," referring to the scenes in the capital. He described the violence as "the acts of fascist vandals." Some Brazilian officials view the rioting and chaos as a "coup," as in the words of Minister of Justice Flávio Dino.
For many observers, the unrest in Brazil was not surprising. Narratives have spread and built on social media over the past months that the presidential elections held last October, in which Lula defeated his rival Bolsonaro, were rigged. Some political figures fueled these narratives, and they inspired radical voters to commit violence and rioting that threaten the stability of Brazil and its democratic institutions.
Several factors explain Bolsonaro’s supporters’ rioting and fomenting chaos in Brazil, including:
1. Refusal to acknowledge Lula’s legitimacy: Not a week had passed since Lula was sworn in as the new president of Brazil—the third time he holds the country’s highest office—before Bolsonaro’s supporters staged riots in the capital. This reflects the deep refusal by supporters of the former president to admit his defeat, especially since he was defeated by Lula by an extremely narrow margin. They view Lula as a corrupt leftist politician who should go back to the prison he was held in for corruption convictions before they were annulled in 2021.
Bolsonaro was, in the eyes of his supporters, a "savior" defending the values they cherish: "God, homeland, family." They had great hopes for Lula’s defeat in the presidential elections, and when that did not happen they resorted to protests and aggressive campaigns. With the former Brazilian president in Florida, in the United States, his supporters became "more radical" because they do not trust official media.
2. Bolsonaro’s polarizing rhetoric: One of the main causes of the chaos in Brazil is, in fact, Bolsonaro’s divisive and anti-democratic rhetoric. He has repeatedly called into question, without evidence, the integrity of Brazil’s electoral system. He also defended the closure of the Congress and attacked the Supreme Court—two of the institutions targeted by the demonstrators. Bolsonaro refused to openly admit defeat in the elections and congratulate his successor. He also did not take part in Lula’s inauguration on January 1, abandoning his official duty of passing the presidential sash to his successor. It was no surprise, then, that Lula accused Bolsonaro of encouraging rioters through social media, saying: "Everybody knows there are various speeches of the ex-president encouraging this." For his part, Bolsonaro condemned the riots, rejecting the Brazilian president’s accusations that he played a role in fomenting unrest. He wrote on Twitter that "depredations and invasions of public buildings, as occurred today" were outside the law.
3. Negative role of some of the former president’s allies: Over the past weeks, demonstrators have occupied streets and blocked some highways, possibly with the support and funding of some of Bolsonaro’s allies, such as major landowners and business groups that helped pay to transport thousands of Bolsonaro’s supporters to the capital Brasília. The military also has a role. Some prominent military figures have long supported Bolsonaro’s far-right agenda, and recently even openly supported many demonstrations in support of the former president. The military’s continued support for Bolsonaro’s agenda helped legitimize the adoption of such views among members of the Military Police, who were tasked with monitoring the demonstrations in Brasília.
The riots in Brazil hold important implications:
1. Drawing inspiration from the model of Trump supporters in the US: What took place in Brazil on 8 January 2023 was a repetition of the scene of supporters of former US President Donald Trump storming the Capitol building in Washington, DC on 6 January 2021 in an attempt to prevent the certification of the 2020 elections and the victory of President Joe Biden.
In fact, there were real fears that the storming of the US Capitol would be repeated in Brazil, whether because of criticism of the electoral system by the former president, nicknamed the "Tropical Trump," or as a result of violent protests by his supporters who were camping outside military bases and calling on the armed forces to take control of the country and stop Lula’s inauguration. At the same time, Donald Trump’s allies, such as former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, encouraged the unrest in Brazil. He promoted baseless rumors of election fraud on his podcast and on social media for weeks before the elections, and continued his rhetoric even as footage emerged of widespread destruction in Brazil. On social media site Gettr, he wrote that "Lula stole the elections…Brazilians know that."
2. The strength of extremist groups’ influence: The attacks on some Brazilian state institutions show that extremist groups are well connected with each other and have strong capabilities and capacities. This enabled them to take this step, perhaps with the hidden support of some police forces. Pictures and videos circulating show that while the extremists were storming Congress and destroying some of its contents, the police were waiting outside without taking any measure to confront the rioters.
Some preliminary indications point to the possible involvement of the security forces and some of Bolsonaro’s allies in the riots. This prompted the Brazilian president to dismiss the Minister of Public Security, as well as to suspend the governor of Brasília (Bolsonaro’s ally) for 90 days because of his silence about the people’s actions and his slowness in moving to control the situation and deter the demonstrators. Lula accused the security forces of "incompetence, bad faith, or malice" for failing to stop the demonstrators, and said that the "lack of security" allowed Bolsonaro’s "fascist" supporters to breach the barricades set up by the armed forces outside the Congress building, Supreme Court, and Planalto Presidential Palace.
3. Worsening political division: Brazil is in a state of deep political and ideological polarization, and the recent riots were just one of its many manifestations. They are a dramatic sign of how ready some Brazilians are to attack the democratic institutions they say no longer represent them.
This deep division between Brazilian voters was apparent in the recent presidential elections, between those who elected Lula (50.9%) and those who voted for his rival Bolsonaro (49.1%). More dangerous is that the state of division has begun to translate into violence that could threaten the political stability of the largest country in Latin America. The Brazilian Military Police previously arrested a man carrying a knife and fireworks near the Congress just before Lula’s inauguration. And the previous week, authorities arrested a Bolsonaro supporter who planted explosives in a fuel truck near an airport in the capital on Christmas Eve. The man said he hoped to "sow chaos" before Lula’s inauguration.
The riots in Brazil have a number of possible repercussions:
1. Testing the strength of Brazilian institutions: The ability to address the expected fallout of the riots will be a true test of the strength of Brazilian state institutions, given the pivotal role played by the Federal Supreme Court led by Alexandre de Moraes. Moraes took a decisive position rejecting the riots, demanding the armed forces dismantle all camps of Bolsonaro’s supporters in all parts of the country within 24 hours. He also demanded that the police arrest and imprison any protestors still remaining in the camps, and threatened to hold the leaders of the armed forces, the police, and the Minister of Justice responsible before the court if they failed to do so. However, fears remain about the possibility of a military coup in Brazil, which has a long history of the armed forces not accepting civilian rule.
2. Damaging Brazil’s economy and international standing: The unrest in Brazil is likely to harm its already dire economic situation. The deliberate vandalism in Brasília increases the likelihood of the flight of foreign investment, as evidenced by a fall in Brazilian stocks following the riots. It will also potentially impact Lula’s ability to advance his governmental agenda. The unrest paints an extremely poor picture of the country’s situation abroad, and may limit the possibility of Brazil regaining its international and regional standing, which declined over the past four years. Lula will have to sort out the deteriorating domestic situation first.
3. Bolsonaro’s uncertain future: The continuation of the riots and their repercussions could damage Bolsonaro’s standing, with Democratic voices in the US Congress calling on Joe Biden’s administration to remove him from American soil and deport him to Brazil because he "inspired domestic terrorism" and faces "corruption" investigations. But he will remain a strong presence in the political scene. This depends on how loyal his "liberal-conservative" party continues to be, which received the largest number of seats in the upper and lower houses in the last elections. Valdemar Costa Neto, the head of the right-wing Liberal Party, has condemned the "depredation of the National Congress," saying: "Disorder has never been part of the principles of our nation. I want to say to you that we strongly condemn this type of attitude. And that the law must be fulfilled, strengthening our democracy."
In conclusion, it can be said that 8 January 2023 will remain a turning point in Brazil’s history. It represents a serious threat to the country’s stability and democratic system, amid declining trust in democratic institutions through attacks by the former president and corruption scandals. The security forces succeeded in retaking the capital and arresting at least 400 of the former president’s supporters. But the state of division Brazil suffers from is likely to worsen as Lula and Bolsonaro swap accusations over who is responsible for these events. Some demonstrators insist on standing their ground, which could lead to confrontations with the security forces. Brazilian officials will have to confront powerful groups within the military and police forces that support Bolsonaro and mobilize the support of democratic forces to defend the country’s national institutions.