Robert Muggah is a co-founder of the Igarapé Institute and the SecDev Group, a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Cities of Tomorrow, and an adviser to the Global Risks Report.
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 corners of social media for months, and they predictably intensified after Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva defeated Jair Bolsonaro in the presidential election in October, and had skyrocketed in recent weeks. Now, the same buildings that were the sites of Lula’s jubilant inauguration just a few days earlier have now been ransacked.
Like most of the insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, many of the Brazilian militants who targeted the National Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Presidential Palace – the tres poderes, or three powers – were menacing amateurs. Many 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” is not surprising. For years, Mr. 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, which has undermined the foundations of democracy itself. During Mr. Bolsonaro’s four years in office, he and his allies challenged the integrity of the electoral process and peddled spurious claims of rigged elections. Rather than participating in Lula’s inauguration – in keeping with democratic tradition – he decamped to Florida and declined to publicly concede the election. (Mr. Bolsonaro, who faced more than 150 impeachment requests as president, has denied any involvement in his supporters’ behaviour.)
The parallels between the Brazilian and American insurrections are also not an accident. Mr. Bolsonaro is a fervent admirer of former U.S. 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 Mr. Trump and his aides in November, Mr. Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo, circulated a video of Mr. Bannon spewing conspiracy theories about Lula’s supposed use of voting machines to steal the election. Eduardo Bolsonaro also previously claimed that, had the Jan. 6 protesters been more organized, 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.”
Some of Mr. Bolsonaro’s most devout followers have set up physical encampments in the capital, Brasília, organized protests, encouraged truckers to set up blockades, and called for a military intervention to prevent Lula from assuming power – an endgame the Bolsonaros have regularly hinted at. When the expected coup failed to materialize, the supporters took matters into their own hands.
The insurrection was swiftly shut down after Lula declared a federal emergency; more than 1,000 rioters have been arrested. Yet, as in the U.S., millions of Brazilians were stunned to see their capital so easily overrun, their government institutions so easily breached. 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 the potentially complicit state police. Within hours, the Attorney-General’s office called for the arrest of Brasília’s public security secretary (who was previously Mr. Bolsonaro’s justice minister), and the Supreme Court removed the Governor of Brasília for 90 days, pending a full investigation.
This 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 polarization could deepen in an already bitterly divided country. Many militant demonstrators and right-wing sympathizers will feel emboldened, and some of those who were carted away to jail will be held up as martyrs.
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 Mr. Bolsonaro or view Lula and his Workers’ Party with lingering suspicion over the corruption scandals that engulfed Lula’s previous presidency. While this weekend’s scenes may repulse most Brazilians, mishandling the fallout could deepen anti-democratic sentiments and spark dangerous mistrust in institutions.
As in the U.S., rounding up the insurrectionists is the easy part. Healing the divisions that motivated them will be far more difficult.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.