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January’s uprising by Bolsonaro supporters still casts a shadow over the agenda of reform that Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva had planned

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Pro-democracy protesters carry a banner of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Sao Paulo on Jan. 9, a day after supporters of his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, invaded government buildings in Brasilia.NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP via Getty Images

One month into his third stint as President of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is facing the biggest challenge to his political career, one that could steer him away from his original plan to focus on fighting poverty and environmental degradation.

Not only is the Brazilian President dealing with the daunting task of uniting a politically polarized country, but the leftist leader is also up against the possibility of political sabotage – not just from supporters of his predecessor, right-wing former president Jair Bolsonaro, but also from within his own administration and military.

Those divisions were on display in last month’s attempted coup in Brasilia, in which thousands of Bolsonaro supporters stormed the National Congress, the Supreme Court and the presidential palace, looting and destroying property, as well as stealing secret documents from the Brazilian Intelligence Agency.

The rampage represented the biggest attack on Brazilian democracy in decades, and underscored deep divisions. The arrests of about 1,500 people on Jan. 8 have failed to deter pro-Bolsonaro protesters from threatening future blockades and other acts of sabotage on social media platforms.

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Bolsonaro supporters gather around the National Congress building in Brasilia on Jan. 8, where security forces confronted them with tear gas.Evaristo Sa/AFP via Getty Images; Adriano Machado/Reuters

The Brazilian insurrection drew shock and condemnation. But the risk of the rampage “has always been real,” according to Guilherme Casarões, professor of political science and international relations at Fundação Getúlio Vargas.

He was surprised that anyone would expect Bolsonaro supporters would be peaceful, given that many had camped around the army barracks and called for a military uprising since Mr. da Silva, who is commonly known as Lula, won the election in October, 2022 – a victory they claimed was “rigged” and “stolen.” The blocking of the roads after Mr. da Silva’s victory were already clear signs of the violent potential of this group, he added.

Government officials and the army did not stop them. Brazil’s Minister of Defence, José Múcio, had said days before the riots that the protests were democratic and that he himself had friends camping around military bases. (Mr. Mucio warned on Jan. 26 he would punish all those involved in the Jan. 8 insurrection.)

“If this continues, even with the consent of the armed forces, it is approving the view that the current government is illegitimate as if it were a normal part of the game. This will obviously encourage further political violence,” says Filipe Campante, Bloomberg distinguished associate professor at Johns Hopkins University.

The insurrection also raises questions over the loyalty of Brazil’s security forces. They did not remove protesters who camped for months outside army barracks. Investigations are under way into whether the police and the armed forces colluded with rioters. In a local television network interview earlier this month, Mr. da Silva said he believed security force members were complicit in letting anti-government rioters ransack the seat of power in Brasilia and vowed to track them down. He also accused his predecessor of planning the Jan. 8 riots.

Agassiz Almeida Filho, a constitutional lawyer, stated that “the acts amounted to an attempted coup d’état.” However, he notes that “it was not a viable attempt. There is no domestic or international climate for a potentially successful coup.”

Aftermath of Jan. 8: A Brazilian flag is reflected on a broken window at the Supreme Court; workers fish tear-gas canisters out of a pool; broken artworks lie on the floor inside the National Congress. Carl de Souza/AFP via Getty Images; Andressa Anholete/Getty Images

The challenges that the Brazilian President face go beyond the presence of deep political divisions and radicals in the streets seeking to destabilize and even overthrow the government. The country’s economy is in shambles not only as a result of the pandemic but also as a result of actions Mr. Bolsonaro took as president.

Historian Murilo Cleto says that Mr. Bolsonaro “left the state in tatters and emptied important social programs before leaving the presidency and that the main motto of Lula’s third mandate was to rebuild the country.”

Mr. Cleto adds that “there is a huge mass of insubordinates to the power of the presidency in civil society, in the political system, in the institutions and in the security forces. Finding the right dose to deal with this phenomenon is one of the greatest challenges of Brazilian democracy.”

One way to overcome divisions, experts say, is to get the economy back on track. However, philosopher and economist Joel Pinheiro da Fonseca notes that “Lula has a very difficult challenge to rebuild the Brazilian economy.”

Mr. Fonseca adds that several obstacles hinder economic growth, such as the tax burden, both in terms of cost and complexity, and also “the economic integration of Brazil with the rest of the world and the lack of international investments to grow.” The tension, he explains, “is exactly between the need, on the one hand, to invest to grow, and on the other hand, the lack of money to do so.”

And now, the coup attempt risks creating an image of political instability, “a situation where the usual rules don’t apply,” Mr. Fonseca notes.

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Mr. da Silva walks with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House on Feb. 10.Sarah Silbiger/Pool via REUTERS

Foreign policy is another area of great concern. From a country with a prominent role on the world stage, Brazil became a pariah under Mr. Bolsonaro. Felippe Ramos, a political analyst at the New School for Social Research, explains that “the international community was so eager of Brazil coming back to foreign policy as usual that Lula da Silva will have open doors wherever he goes.”

However, he says, “goodwill is not enough,” particularly with “the gap between the West and the East broadening with China, Russia, Turkey and India moving away, and reminding that Brazil is a founder of the BRICS.” Mr. da Silva will have to use all his expertise to be able to balance multiple interests and, Mr. Ramos says, that won’t be easy unless the President has full control of the country.

Mr. Ramos says that “coup mongers must be isolated as an extremist fringe. It must be clear for the armed forces that the costs of a military coup would be too high to bear, both domestically and internationally. Now it is a pivotal moment for Brazil in which institutional resolve and unity is critical to deter new insurgencies and terrorist acts.”

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