Skip to main content

Gregory Michener is an associate professor of government at Fundação Getulio Vargas’ Brazilian School of Public and Business Administration in Rio de Janeiro. This article represents the author’s position and not necessarily the institutional position of the FGV.

It’s easy to peg the recent destructive anti-government riots in Brazil as extremists driven by conspiracy theories and misinformation. While the protesters certainly acted on a years-long stream of lies and manipulation from former president Jair Bolsonaro and his allies, they also fit into a pattern of protests that have rocked Brasilia over the last decade. These protests reflect legitimate concerns about the direction the country is moving in.

The Brazilian government has experienced three violent protests within the last decade. First, in June, 2013, protests relating to cost-of-living concerns and government corruption, including the Mensalao scandal and 2014 World Cup-related expenditures, erupted among progressive teens and younger adults. Second, protests led mainly by leftist youths were co-ordinated in response to Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in September, 2016, occurring in the shadow of Petrobras corruption investigations. On Sunday, we witnessed a third wave of violent protests, this time on the far right. They included many older adults, principally followers of Brazil’s recently defeated president, Mr. Bolsonaro.

Three violent protests over a decade makes for a pattern. However, Sunday’s protests added several new and foreboding elements.

The first is the most obvious: extreme violence and depredations. Breaking into buildings sacred to Brazil’s democracy is clearly a worrying precedent. Although vandalism and violence have characterized previous protests, Sunday’s protests were far more egregious.

Second, protesters sought a military intervention to end democracy. There are two rationales behind these demands. On the one hand, Sunday’s protesters see the results of the October, 2022, presidential election as fraudulent, as a collusive arrangement between Brazil’s traditional political and economic elites. This argument is short on evidence and long on conspiracy theories. Nevertheless, more than 36 per cent of Brazilians support military intervention to annul the 2022 presidential election.

On the other hand, protesters seek a military intervention as a way out of Brazil’s impasse of a low growth, low quality, weak rule-of-law democracy.

Radical “Bolsonaristas” are not the only ones incensed by Brazil’s democratic performance. Brazil’s GDP grew by a meagre 0.3 per cent over the past decade and corruption has made a comeback. Following the reversal of sentences for politicians convicted of looting state-owned oil giant Petrobras during the 2000s and 2010s, political elites have put in place legal provisions that protect them from prosecution. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s administration heralds the return of many politicians implicated in the Petrobras scandal (Operation Car Wash). This includes the President himself.

In this context, Sunday’s protesters identify themselves with a “patriotic” movement. However, many are fanatics who conveniently ignore the fact that the Bolsonaro administration presided over the legal agenda that strengthened white collar impunity, effectively killing Petrobras corruption proceedings and approving laws that complicate corruption investigations and prosecutions.

A third difference between Sunday’s protests and those in 2013 and 2016 are the attacks on the Supreme Court. While Congress and the presidency have been targeted in the past, Sunday’s protests reserved special wrath for the third branch of government. The vandalism was deplorable. But Bolsonaristas are not alone in their anger toward the judiciary.

The Supreme Court is widely seen as being soft on corruption and increasingly hard on civil liberties. In 2018, the Supreme Court overturned a previous decision to mandate imprisonment for those found guilty after a first appeal. Now, the Brazilian judiciary’s dizzying number of opportunities to appeal (granted one can afford the legal costs) permit white collar criminals to remain free, forestalling punishment indefinitely via appeals – a clear incentive to corruption. Most recently, the Supreme Court voted to release the last imprisoned high-level politician convicted by judges associated with Operation Car Wash, former Rio de Janeiro governor Sergio Cabral.

With regards to civil liberties, the Superior Electoral Court (led by members of the Supreme Court) has conducted a zealous but ineffectual hunt for purveyors of “fake news” before, during and after the October, 2022, presidential election. These crackdowns have elicited accusations of censorship and a lack of due process. International media and scholars have alleged abuses to the due process of law, threats to free speech, and ideological bias. In effect, several justices from the Supreme and Electoral courts have gained such notoriety that they have become household names, a clear sign that the judiciary has become overly politicized.

Right now, the tendency in Brazil is to view Sunday’s protests as an extremist political movement, an execrable aberration that must be punished. But seen from the historical prism of Brazil’s record of democratic governance, these protests are neither anomalous nor will they be resolved by violator punishments alone. They form part of a pattern, which now includes protests by the left, the right, the young and the old, and are targeted towards all three branches of government. They call for rule-of-law reforms, for better government. The hope is that conciliation and recognition, rather than inquisition and neglect, allow such reforms to move forward.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe