Brazilian democracy will emerge stronger from this day of infamy
Lula and his government must take a hard line against the Bolsonaristas’ coup plotters and their financial backers
Yesterday’s violent assault on Brazil’s government headquarters by thousands of Jair Bolsonaro supporters will go down in the country’s history as a day of infamy.
The attack, called by groups of radical Bolsonaristas (backers of the ousted president) via Telegram and other social networks, reveals a shocking failure in the state’s intelligence system.
This week, the government will face more challenges. Many of the participants in the assault returned to their long-standing protest camp in front of the Brazilian army’s headquarters, where soldiers prevented the police from intervening. Elsewhere in the country, roadblocks have reappeared, and some groups on social media have called for fuel refineries to be blockaded too. Powerful outside political forces are also agitating on behalf of the mob.
“Lula has stolen the elections... Brazilians know it....,” wrote Steve Bannon on the social network Gettr on Sunday, expressing his satisfaction at the success of the Trumpist strategy of delegitimising the election results to the point of provoking a violent insurrection.
Dozens of buses from different parts of the country convened in the Brazilian capital on Sunday morning. They gathered at the camp that has been set up for two months in front of the army’s HQ, then marched to Three Powers Square, where Congress, the Supreme Court and the Palácio do Planalto, the presidential offices, are all located. The eight-kilometre march would not have been possible without the acquiescence of the security forces of the Federal District (DF) of Brasilia.
Thousands of assailants, some displaying banners demanding that the army intervene to remove the recently inaugurated President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, stormed the headquarters of the three branches of power. Their reception by security forces was timid. Clearly under-strength, they were completely overwhelmed; some security personnel were also seen talking to and taking pictures with the rioters.
Secretary of public security Fernando de Sousa Oliveira and DF governor Ibaneis Rocha, both recognised Bolsonaristas, have already been singled out allegedly as accomplices to the events.
The similarities with the invasion of the US Capitol by Trump supporters two years ago are clear – although on this occasion there was no president cheering on the rioters, nor, since it was a Sunday, were there any public representatives in session or working in the buildings.
‘Lula has stolen the elections... Brazilians know it,’ wrote Steve Bannon on social media on Sunday
Ex-president Bolsonaro (who is currently out of the country, in Florida), made a statement on Twitter only when it was evident that the assailants had not got the army support they claimed. Bolsonaro said it is legitimate to demonstrate but not to vandalise public buildings. He did not condemn his supporters’ actions.
By then, President Lula (who was not in the capital but on an official trip to Sao Paulo state) had decreed that the federal authorities will take over security of Brasilia until the end of January. He declared that the assailants – whom he described as “fascists” – and their financiers would be identified, arrested and brought to justice.
He also said that Bolsonaro, who, following Trump's example, has not yet acknowledged his defeat at the polls, is ultimately responsible for Sunday’s events.
Finally, late in the afternoon, the Bolsonaristas were evicted by federal security forces, who detained more than 400 activists and re-established control of the buildings. President Lula returned to the capital and inspected the damage to the national heritage caused by the vandalism, described by many as terrorist acts.
Rallies after election result
Indignation among political and public opinion is widespread, and many are asking how such a disaster could have occurred. Bolsonaro supporters have been very active since the close election results were announced at the end of October, first with aggressive blockades of highways across the country, followed by rallies and encampments beside army barracks across the country and demands for military intervention.
Apparent dissension within Lula’s new government – a plurality of forces and sensibilities brought together by their rejection of the far-right authoritarianism of Bolsonaro – on how to respond to such actions led to inaction. No one dared to forcibly dissolve the protests.
The main justification was that these are peaceful rallies, protected by the right to protest and freedom of expression. Bolsonaro himself used this argument in his first public appearance two days after his electoral defeat. Others point out that the demonstrators are openly calling for a coup d'état – which is illegal and intolerable under the Brazilian constitution. Following Sunday’s events, this critical situation has now become untenable.
Tense days, and problems, ahead
The outrage provoked by the resounding security failure will probably result in the hard line of Minister of Justice Flávio Dino prevailing. The police will be ordered to disband these groups, and to do so in agreement with the army. The next few days in Brazil are likely to be very tense.
A successful resolution depends greatly on the answers that can be given to the multiple unknowns that still surround the events of Three Powers Square.
The first will be to determine the responsibilities of the DF authorities. The second will be to identify the failures of intelligence, both military and civilian, which meant that they were apparently unable to alert the government to what was being planned. The third is to determine an effective strategy for breaking up the persistent rallies and preventing new ones from forming.
This grotesque attempt at a Trumpist-style coup calls into question Lula's narrative of promoting conciliation and unity
The fourth – and most difficult – problem will be how to effectively combat these radical Bolsonarista groups, which are very numerous, without provoking a violent reaction that would destabilise the country and jeopardise the viability of the new government.
On the one hand, it is possible that Sunday’s execrable spectacle will make many sympathisers of radical Bolsonarismo realise its true violent and neo-fascist nature, and its consequences – and they will moderate or withdraw support for these groups. Some prominent far-right activists have already tried to pre-empt this by accusing infiltrated leftist elements of having provoked the assault to discredit the movement.
On the other hand, this grotesque attempt at a Trumpist-style coup calls into question Lula's initial narrative of promoting conciliation and unity, in order to move the country forward and overcome the existing extreme polarisation. This must be the moment to end tolerance towards any coup supporters, who are both very active and well-financed by powerful businessmen and evangelist pastors. It will be necessary to pursue them judicially, with all that the rule of law allows – even demanding Bolsonaro's extradition from the US, if necessary.
The difficulty of governing Brazil, inherited from his predecessor Bolsonaro, a highly toxic political extremist, depends to a large extent on the success of Lula and his team in managing this new reality. The enormous illusion of change, restoration and a return to social and climate justice and democratic normality, which was visualised barely more than a week ago at Lula's inauguration, is now at stake in the resolution of this profound crisis.
As the infamous events of Sunday show, Lula's commitment to achieving national reconciliation will be a titanic task, but Brazilian democracy will undoubtedly (though not without enormous difficulties) emerge strengthened from this day of infamy. The vast majority of the Brazilian people, and the bulk of the international community, are on the new president’s side.
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