The storming of Brazil’s democratic institutions this weekend was no spontaneous ‘accident’.
Conspiratorial plots and appeals for a military coup have been circulating on far-right social media for months, and they predictably intensified after Luiz In?cio Lula da Silva defeated Jair Bolsonaro in the presidential election last October. They skyrocketed in the days before last weekend’s protests rocked Latin America’s largest country.
Most of the militants who targeted the National Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Presidential Palace simultaneously were menacing amateurs. Like most of the insurrectionists who stormed the US Capitol two years ago, they used the occasion to trash offices and take selfies – including with several police officers who seemed loath to intervene.
But make no mistake: this violent assault constitutes the most significant threat to Latin America’s largest democracy since the 1964 coup that ushered in two decades of military dictatorship.
Far-right protesters’ belief that the 2022 election was somehow “stolen” from Bolsonaro is not surprising. For years, Bolsonaro, his sons, and a clutch of advisers, influencers and political operatives known as the ‘hate cabinet’ have spoon-fed their supporters a steady diet of disinformation and misinformation.
The goal was always to undermine the foundations of democracy itself.
During Bolsonaro’s four years in office, he and his allies challenged the integrity of the electoral process and peddled spurious claims of rigged elections and malfunctioning electronic voting machines.
Bolsonaro then lit the fuse for the attack and fled the scene of the crime. Rather than participating in Lula’s inauguration – in keeping with the country’s democratic tradition – he decamped to a rented house in Orlando, Florida. He has denied any involvement in his supporters’ behaviour.
The parallels between Brazil’s violent protests and the January 6, 2021, insurrection in the United States are also not an accident. Bolsonaro is a fervent admirer of former US President Donald Trump, and he has been advised by former Trump aides such as Steve Bannon and Jason Miller, including in the weeks following his election loss.
After meeting with Trump and his aides in November, Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo, circulated a video of Bannon spewing conspiracy theories about Lula’s supposed use of voting machines to steal the election.
Following the January 6 insurrection in the US, Eduardo Bolsonaro claimed that, had the protesters been more organised, they “would have the firepower to assure nobody (among the rioters) would die, kill all the cops inside – or the congressmen they hate so much”. Bannon has since enlisted Eduardo Bolsonaro to serve as the South American emissary for his own global populist campaign, The Movement.
Like Trump in 2020, Bolsonaro refused to concede the election. Instead, he and his sons vigorously contested the validity of the process, tried to overturn the results in the courts, challenged the legitimacy of the incoming president, and urged their supporters to take to the streets.
Some of Bolsonaro’s most devout followers heeded the call, setting up physical encampments in the capital, Bras?lia, organising protests, encouraging truckers to set-up blockades, and spreading social-media messages advocating a military intervention to prevent Lula from assuming power – an endgame the Bolsonaro family regularly hinted at in the past.
When the expected coup failed to materialise, Bolsonaro’s most devout supporters took matters into their own hands.
The insurrection was swiftly shut down after Lula decreed a federal emergency. Over 1,000 rioters have been arrested. Yet, as in the US after January 6, millions of Brazilians were stunned to see their capital so easily overrun. The country’s top government bodies were breached in minutes, and while there is plenty of blame to go around, most of the attention has focused on the capital district’s governor, his head of public security and complicit state police.
Within hours, the Attorney General’s office called for the arrest of Bras?lia’s public security secretary – who was previously Bolsonaro’s justice minister – and the Supreme Court removed the governor of Bras?lia for 90 days, pending a full investigation. Lula, his minister of public security and justice, and the Supreme Court have vowed to prosecute all those involved.
The restoration of order does not mean that Brazilian democracy is safe. While the insurrection may unify parts of society against the radical fringe, social-media activity already suggests that polarisation could deepen in an already bitterly divided country. Many militant demonstrators and right-wing sympathisers will feel emboldened by their assault. Some of those who were carted away to jail will be held up as martyrs and heroic defenders of liberty and freedom. By labelling them “terrorists” and “fascists”, the government and the mainstream media risk alienating millions of Bolsonaro’s more moderate supporters.
Democracy can never be taken for granted. The same buildings, which house the so-called ‘ tres poderes’ (three powers), that were ransacked on the weekend were the sites of a jubilant inauguration event just a few days earlier.
Democracies start unravelling when large segments of the population lose faith in institutions and mistrust elected authorities and public servants. And as we have seen in Brazil and many other democracies around the world, social media tends to accelerate this process, especially when it is fuelled by elected leaders who are themselves hostile to democracy, as was the case with both Trump and Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro left office facing over 152 impeachment requests, many of them for abuse of elected office.
The Lula administration now faces a massive challenge. Investigating the violent protests and restoring faith in democratic institutions will dominate the domestic agenda, diverting attention from efforts to address urgent social, economic, and environmental issues.
Just under half of Brazil’s voters still either support Bolsonaro or view Lula and his Workers’ Party with lingering suspicion over the corruption scandals of his previous presidency from 2003 to 2010.
While the weekend’s scenes of vandalism may repulse most Brazilians, mishandling the fallout could deepen anti-democratic sentiments.
As in the United States, rounding up and jailing the insurrectionists is the easy part. Healing the divisions that motivated them will be far more difficult.
Robert Muggah, a co-founder of the Igarap? Institute and the SecDev Group, is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Cities of Tomorrow and an adviser to the Global Risks Report. (C) Project Syndicate 2023 www.project-syndicate.org