On 30 October 2022, then president of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro lost a presidential run-off to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as ‘Lula’). This was the third time that Lula had been elected to the role.

Prior to the election, Jair Bolsonaro had spent months spreading false claims that the country’s electronic voting system was prone to fraud. Once the outcome of the election had been confirmed, supporters of Mr Bolsonaro escalated their protests. This included truckers blockading highways across Brazil and protesters camping in front of their local army barracks, where they called for the military to intervene to reverse the election results.

On 1 January 2023, Lula was sworn in as president. A week later, thousands of supporters of Jair Bolsonaro breached and vandalised the presidential office (the Planalto Palace), Congress and Supreme Court buildings to protest the election result and overturn the government. The country’s Justice Ministry reported that at least 1,500 people had been detained. Responding to the riots, President Lula da Silva promised to bring the rioters, whom he described as “terrorists”, to justice. On 22 January 2023, the president dismissed the chief of the army, General Júlio César de Arruda.

1. Similarities to the US Capitol attack in 2021

Many commentators compared the riots in Brazil by Bolsonaro’s supporters to the attack on the US Capitol building by supporters of former US President Donald Trump on 6 January 2021.

Speaking to Business Insider in January 2023, the co-founder of the Igarapé Institute thinktank in Brazil, Robert Muggah, said that the events were “an insurrection foretold” and “telegraphed in advance”. Describing the parallels between the protests in Brazil and the US Capitol attack as “anything but coincidence”, Mr Muggah stated that Mr Bolsonaro was a “fawning admirer” of Donald Trump. He warned that one of the “many lessons” emerging from the Brazilian protests was that “democracy can and should not be taken for granted”, and that “too often, democracies start unravelling when large segments of the population lose faith in institutions and mistrust elected authorities”.

Writing in the New York Times (£) in January 2023, Chris Cameron said that the similarities of the events in Brazil to those in the US were “self-evident” for several reasons:

  • Firstly, Mr Cameron stated that Bolsonaro sought to “undermine the results of an election that he lost” in “much the same manner” that Donald Trump did following his defeat in the 2020 presidential election.
  • Secondly, he noted that the efforts of Bolsonaro and his supporters had culminated in an attempt to overturn the results of Brazil’s elections and restore the former president to power.
  • Lastly, he said that in a “final echo” of the US Capitol attack and the reaction to it by Donald Trump, hours after the riots in Brazil began Mr Bolsonaro had posted a message on social media calling for peace. However, authorities had already announced that they had the situation under control.

Despite the similarities, Chris Cameron also outlined some differences between the two events. For example, he said the attack on the US Capitol happened before Joe Biden was sworn in as US president, whilst Lula da Silva had already been sworn in, and Mr Bolsonaro was not in the country when the riots took place (he remains in the US).

2. Brazil’s future direction

Commentators have speculated about what these events meant for the future of Brazil. This included whether Lula’s presidency had been weakened and whether Bolsonaro’s supporters had been emboldened by the riots.

In an article in The Conversation in January 2023, Deborah Barros Leal Farias, a senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales in Australia, stated that some early assessments could be drawn from the riots. For example, Ms Farias argued that da Silva seemed to have been “paradoxically strengthened” following the riots. She argued that this was because he was an “incredibly skilled politician” with an “ability to build political bridges”.

As an example of this, she noted that following a meeting attended by Lula, Brazil’s governors (including some “hardcore” Bolsonaro supporters) and some members of the Supreme Court and Congress, the attendees walked from the Planalto Palace to the Supreme Court so that they could witness the destruction. Although Ms Farias admitted that this could be seen as “just a photo-op”, she said that it was a “visible demonstration of institutional unity by members and leaders of the executive, legislative and judiciary powers and of the federation”.

She also argued that the riots had weakened supporters of Bolsonaro, “at least temporarily”. However, she stated that to dismiss or minimise their capacity to organise “other violent events in the future” would be “not just wrong but dangerous”.

Concluding, Ms Farias stated that it was not yet clear whether this was the “apex of violent attempts” to oust Lula, or the “beginning of what’s yet to come”.

Speaking to Time magazine about Brazil’s future, Christopher Sabatini, a senior research fellow on Latin America at Chatham House, said that the riots were a “bold-faced attempt” to “ask the military to intervene and to trash the institutions of democracy by doing so”.

Despite the riots being unsuccessful, Mr Sabatini argued that it was too soon to assess the damage, both physical and otherwise, to Brazilian democracy, particularly if security forces or federal authorities were “deemed to have aided or abetted the attack”. Concluding, he stated that Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters were going to “remain a presence or at least a shadow on Brazilian democracy” under President Lula’s term in office, and “probably indefinitely”.

Cover image by Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil on Wikimedia Commons.