Updated: Sep 13
By Anaïs Penin
On 8 January 2023, Brazil witnessed the worst attack on state institutions since its return to democracy in the 1980s. Following Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s victory in the Brazilian presidential elections, thousands of supporters of the former far-right president Jair Bolsonaro attacked places of power in Brazil because the election would be stolen and rigged. This event looks suspiciously like the US Capitol riots of 2021 and reflects the flaws in Brazilian democracy and the anger of some Brazilians towards the results of the elections.
In Brasilia, Sunday 8 January during the evening, thousands of far-right supporters from the former far-right Brazilian president Jair Bolzonaro stormed the main buildings of the federal government’s three branches: the Congress, the Presidential Palace, and the Federal Supreme Court. In total, more than 1500 people were arrested.
What some call a "coup attempt" unfortunately did not succeed for Bolzonaro's supporters, as they only managed to convince a minority of the institutional forces to support them. Unlike Trump two years ago (during the riots in Washington D.C.), Jair Bolsonaro was not present at the scene of violence in Brazil. He was in Florida, and reportedly checked into a Florida hospital with abdominal pain the day after the riot, on Monday.
It is not known whether the rioters were in communication with Bolsonaro. Were they in contact before he went to Florida, during the violence? After the events, an investigation was opened to determine who was responsible for the violence against Brazilian institutions and democracy.
Who is Responsible?
These events led to the questioning of the actions of the Brazilian police and other institutional bodies. Indeed, the law enforcement agencies did not seem to fight eagerly against rioters during the rampages, and even though the plan of the attacks was announced on messaging apps earlier in the week, no security measures have been reinforced to counter the supporters of the former leader. This raises the thought that the institutions might have been corrupted to put Bolsonaro back in power.
One can also wonder if Bolsonaro had (like Donald Trump 2 years ago) allies working in the legal field to help him carry out a coup and circumvent the law. Regarding this point, 5 days after the riot, a draft decree was found during a search at the home of former Brazilian Justice Minister Anderson Torres who worked for Bolsonaro, a document that could have allowed Lula's election to be annulled as a matter of urgency if he won against the far right candidate.
It is a very compromising document for the ex-president and the former minister, who is now the subject of an arrest warrant in his name for being in possible connection with the riots against some Brazilian national institutions. Another judge also included the right-wing former president on January 13 in the investigation.
How are the Riots in Brazil Related to Those in the US on 6 January 2021?
Many parallels have been drawn between the Capitol Hill riots and those in Brazil, first in the behaviour of Bolsonaro and Trump supporters, but also between the two former heads of state. Like Trump two years ago, Bolsonaro kept saying that if he lost, it was because the elections were rigged. Like the former US president, he also refused to attend Lula's inauguration ceremony. This suspicious connection with 6 January 2021 raises the question of what role, if any, the Americans might have played in the 8 January riots in Brasilia.
Tom Shannon, a former U.S. ambassador to Brazil said that the insurrectionists clearly had studied the 6 January events and tried to copy them without only relying on a mob, but also by having institutional support (which Trump did not do). Furthermore, some of the people who were involved in the events of January 6th 2021 in the United States also supported the actions of the rioters in Brazil.
As in the capitol riot, some supporters of the former president are defending themselves by blaming outside agitators or supporters of Lula for the apparent storming of government offices. These two events, which go against democratic principles, could represent a danger for other democracies worldwide, as they could inspire other leaders or ex-leaders.
What does that mean for democracy?
Two years after the assault on the capitol in the United States on January 6, 2021, which has clearly put American democracy to the test, the Brazilian riots seem to be a clear attack on Brazilian democracy. It is an attempted coup announced long ago and it has been supported by individuals from the police, politicians and entrepreneurs supporting Bolsonaro. They tried to restore their former president to power by force, regardless of the opinion of most voters who decided to elect Lula.
We can now wonder if Brazil will be strong enough to pass the democratic stress test. The day after the events, the current president accompanied by supreme court judges, ministers, and governors gathered in order to understand the riots and defend the democracy and the Brazilian rule of law that seem to have been attacked.
The stakes on Lula's shoulders are high, and the president seems to be taking a historic place in the defence and preservation of Brazilian democracy. Many Brazilians do not trust the election system, which may be related to the fact that Bolsonaro has repeatedly tried to convince the population that elections can be rigged in recent months.
The riots reflect the problems of stability in Brazilian society and test not only democracy in Brazil but democracy worldwide. The event shows once again the influence that the United States can have on other countries, and the relationship between Trump and Bolsonaro, both of whom are extreme right-wingers. President Lula has a big burden on his shoulders, and we are waiting to see how he will restore the confidence of his people and secure Brazilian democracy.
Sources: Washington Post, Le Monde, The Guardian, Le Figaro
Written by Anaïs Penin