Author : Hari Seshasayee

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jan 11, 2023

Will Lula’s term as the president be peppered with riots similar to the recent 8 January attack?

The beginning of the end of Bolsonarismo

Brazil has been the cynosure of all eyes for the first two Sundays of 2023. The inauguration of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on 1 January, which saw 65 foreign delegations including heads of government and foreign ministers, made the front page of many international newspapers. It heralded a new era of inclusivity and sustainability and brought Brazil front-and-center at the global stage.

On 8 January, in a bitter twist of irony, a mob of 4,000 rioters invaded Brazil’s Praça dos Três Poderes (Three Powers Plaza, home to Brazil’s executive, legislature, and judiciary), with most people draping themselves in the Brazilian flag inscribed with the motto “Ordem e Progresso” (Order and Progress). The attackers, zealots of far-right ex-president Jair Bolsonaro, smashed windows and furniture, tore portraits, damaged historic pieces of art, stole weapons, and even paraded around a replica of Brazil’s constitution. Order was soon restored by Brazil’s military and security personnel, with more than 400 people arrested by the same evening.

The attackers, zealots of far-right ex-president Jair Bolsonaro, smashed windows and furniture, tore portraits, damaged historic pieces of art, stole weapons, and even paraded around a replica of Brazil’s constitution.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, three specific issues merit attention.

First and foremost, the invasion marks the beginning of the end of Bolsonarismo. Although Bolsonaro was tucked away in a quaint suburb of Florida in the United States (US), most hold the ex-president responsible for stoking tensions and spreading the ‘big lie,’ much like his idol Donald Trump, that the previous elections were fraudulent. Despite being democratically elected in 2018, Bolsonaro often mocked the very idea of democracy, instead glorifying Brazil’s military dictators of yore. The next embarrassment for Bolsonaro may come in the form of legal tussles to possibly extradite him from theUS, or arrest him upon his return to Brazil.

Yet, this does not signal the end of the public opposition to Lula. We may likely see more mobs during the remainder of Lula’s term, but they will be helmed by the ‘beef, bible, and bullets’ conservative movement, with chants of Bolsonaro mellowing down over time.

Second, the invasion of the Three Powers Plaza is despicable, but it was ultimately anticlimactic and never posed a serious threat to the current government. As Chilean political scientist Patricio Navia puts it, it was little more than “attempted murder with a toy gun.”

The invasion of the Three Powers Plaza is despicable, but it was ultimately anticlimactic and never posed a serious threat to the current government.

Finally, we must acknowledge the rather measured stance and the response of the Lula government to what many have termed the worst incident since Brazil’s return to democracy in 1985. The 4,000-strong mob was allowed to gather in front of the Three Powers Plaza only because the Lula government believed in their citizens’ right to protest. Even after the apparent protest became a ravenous mob, Brazil’s security personnel quelled the riot with restraint, bringing meaning to the hundreds of Brazilian flags in the area inscribed with the motto “Order and Progress.” Although some were injured, not a single Brazilian died during or in the aftermath of the attack. This contrasts with neighbouring Peru where recent protests have seen 45 deaths or even the US Capitol attack in 2021 that saw five deaths.

January 6 in the US vs January 8 in Brasilia

Many observers have likened the invasion of the Three Powers Plaza in Brasilia on 8 January to the January 6 attack on US Capitol. There are some marked similarities between both events, owing primarily to the fact that Bolsonaro revered Trump and his policies and tactics. Former US Ambassador to Brazil Thomas Shannon remarked that “Bolsonaro and his team have looked very closely at what happened on 6 January  trying to understand why it was that a sitting president failed in his effort to overturn election results.” It is hardly a coincidence that Bolsonaro was in Florida – shortly after a New Year’s Eve vacation at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago – while the attack took place. In the aftermath of the attack, Brazil’s longest-serving foreign minister Celso Amorim quipped, “Just as Bolsonaro is a cheap imitation of Trump, this was a cheap imitation of the Capitol .” 

Issues January 8 Praça dos Três Poderes attack in Brasilia January 6 US Capitol attack in Washington DC
Similarities
Political ideology The attackers in Brasilia and Washington DC were both instigated by far-right presidents who refused to concede their loss after free-and-fair, democratic elections, alleging fraud without providing any evidence
Vandalism Severe damage to public property, including buildings, artworks and offices
Armed threats Armed threats were found but thwarted in both instances, with two pipe bombs found in Washington DC and five abandoned grenades found in Brasilia
Complicity of security personnel Security personnel, supposedly loyal to Trump in DC and Bolsonaro in Brasilia, were found to be complicit at both events, allowing rioters to run amok
Differences
Context A week after the new president was sworn in, while former president Bolsonaro was in Florida Before newly-elected president Joe Biden’s inauguration, while Trump was still president and in Washington DC
Timing Took place on a holiday (Sunday), while Lula was in another city, Sao Paulo Took place during a joint session of Congress counting electoral college votes
Arrests More than 400 people have been arrested in the immediate aftermath of the event About a dozen insurrectionists were arrested in the immediate aftermath of the event
Deaths 5 deaths during the attack 0 deaths during the attack

While there are similarities between both attacks, there are also important differences. Perhaps most important is the context and timing. The attack on the US Capitol was intended to prevent president-elect Joe Biden from taking office, and took place on a working day, putting in danger the lives of hundreds of elected representatives sheltered inside the congress. The attack in Brasilia took place a week after the new president’s inauguration, on a holiday when offices were mostly deserted.

As a result, the attack in Brasilia was repudiated by practically every head of government across the world, including the US, the United Kingdom, the European Union, India, Russia, and Latin American leaders, all of whom publicly expressed support to Lula—even the far-right government in Italy and right-wing newspapers in Germany denounced the attack in Brasilia. Just hours after the attack, Brazil’s executive, legislature and judiciary made a joint statement displaying their unity against ‘terrorist acts,’ calling for the ‘defence of peace and democracy.’

Aftermath

The attack of the Three Powers Plaza is unlikely to be the last such challenge for the Lula government. Already, some important measures have been implemented to prevent future attacks: more than 1,500 people have been arrested just a day after the attack, and there are increasing calls to ensure that the maximum legal punishment is imposed on the rioters. The Supreme Court has already ordered the temporary removal of the governor of Brasilia, and the Lula government is putting pressure on security personnel who have been viewed as complicit in allowing the rioters to infiltrate and damage public property.

Just hours after the attack, Brazil’s executive, legislature and judiciary made a joint statement displaying their unity against ‘terrorist acts,’ calling for the ‘defence of peace and democracy.’

In the aftermath of the attack, it may be useful to follow two specific developments that are bound to evolve in the coming months.

First, the attack puts Lula and his Minister of Defense José Múcio on the back foot. Will the far-right attempt more such attacks in the future, or even possibly covert ones targeting government officials? Most importantly, Lula and Múcio will have to use a mix of carrots and sticks to bring all security personnel into their fold.

Finally, as the saying goes, in the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity. As Brazilian journalist Thomas Traumann notes, “if Lula uses this opportunity well, he can broaden his alliance in Congress and earn the honeymoon phase typical of a new government, which seemed impossible a week ago.”

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