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Understanding Brazil's insurrection

Jan 15,2023 - Last updated at Jan 15,2023

By Thiago de Aragão and Otaviano Canuto

SÃO PAULO — The January 8 insurrection in Brazil’s capital was driven by a mix of factors. Participants’ delirium, passion, obstinacy and resentment, as well as their lack of education and political literacy, all played a part. While none of these factors justifies what happened, they can help us understand why it happened.

Like his role model, former US president Donald Trump, Brazil’s defeated president, Jair Bolsonaro, spun the narrative and created the conditions that led his followers to attack the seat of democratic governance. Well before losing his reelection bid in 2020, Trump had sowed doubts about the process, telling his supporters that fraud was likely. Bolsonaro followed suit, suggesting to his followers that if he lost the 2022 election, they should conclude that it was rigged against him.

In both cases, the incumbents had prepared the ground for challenging the election results and fomenting outrage among their supporters. And once they had indeed lost, their followers had a clear target. While Trump ultimately mobilised his supporters to challenge the vote-certification process in the US Senate, where vice president Mike Pence was the presiding officer, Bolsonaro focused on the issue of electronic voting machines, which are managed by the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) under the leadership of Justice Alexandre de Moraes.

Since Bolsonaro had no concrete evidence to show that the electronic voting machines were vulnerable, he relied on the old maxim: “If you can’t convince them, confuse them.” Many of his supporters already had their sights set on the TSE and de Moraes before the election. When Bolsonaro lost by only a narrow margin, even as his party performed well in the parliamentary election, the outcome seemed to corroborate his pre-election warnings about a looming communist coup (at least in the minds of his supporters).

Then, in the weeks following the election, false, distorted, and exaggerated reports of voting irregularities were pumped out to Bolsonaro’s base through social media and other channels. Consumed by their dissatisfaction, many began to imagine that the result could still be reversed.

The first step was to deny the legitimacy of the newly elected government, in order to justify suspending the usual rules. The events of January 8 followed from the participants’ collective belief, which followed from the signals they had received from the former president and his allies, that violence and other lawless behaviour were justified in confronting an even greater act of “illegality”.

While the full implications of January 8 remain to be seen, we can already trace some of the immediate effects. First, there is no denying that Bolsonarismo has shot itself in the foot. Even if the attacks on government buildings were spontaneous, they revealed a failure by Federal District Governor Ibaneis Rocha, a Bolsonaro ally, to provide basic public security. And if they were premeditated, they demonstrated an utter lack of maturity on the part of the planners.

Either way, Bolsonarismo’s image has been further tarnished. Any future peaceful demonstrations will be closely monitored, and more mainstream politicians who have previously aligned themselves with Bolsonaro presumably will not want to play a leading role in the official opposition. Does Bolsonaro want to lead the opposition to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva within Brazil’s political institutions, or does he want to lead an opposition movement in the streets?

He cannot have it both ways. To lead the formal opposition, Bolsonaro will have to condemn the insurrection unambiguously; but if he sides with the insurrectionists, he will strengthen Lula’s position vis-à-vis congress. After all, January 8 has brought together numerous government and opposition parliamentarians, and Lula will be looking to peel off support from center-right politicians who are questioning their ties to the former president.

Lula’s administration has promised a full investigation of the insurrection, including how it was funded and planned. Hundreds of participants have been arrested and will be prosecuted. One pressing question is how the informal street opposition will respond now that de Moraes has temporarily removed Rocha. Could Bolsonaro allies leading other states meet a similar fate?

Much will depend on what Lula, Minister of Defence José Múcio, and Minister of Justice Flávio Dino do in the coming days. If they indulge their sense of outrage, they will risk strengthening the street opposition. They must choose whether to focus on the acts that can be prosecuted under the law. Targeting their enemies more broadly would merely perpetuate the pattern of polarisation, further trivialising terms like “fascist” and “communist”. But if the government ensures accountability for criminal acts, it can reinforce the message that any attacks on democratic institutions, regardless of whether they come from the left or the right, will be met by swift enforcement of the rule of law.

More broadly, January 8 shows what can happen when democracy is understood merely as a process, rather than as a core value. With Bolsonarismo having discredited itself, Brazil’s democracy is not immediately at risk. But that could change quickly unless Brazilians develop a more mature appreciation of how and why the procedures of democracy work.


Thiago de Aragão, executive director of Public Affairs at Arko Advice, is a senior research associate at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. Otaviano Canuto, a former vice president and executive director of the World Bank and executive director of the International Monetary Fund, is a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a senior fellow at the Policy Centre for the New South. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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