The similarities with the January 6 insurrection in Washington are striking. A far-right mob of protesters storms Congress after refusing to accept defeat in a presidential election. The extremists ransack landmark buildings before being evicted by security forces. A far-right icon is blamed for inciting the riot.
The differences between Sunday’s events in Brasília and those in the US capital almost exactly two years earlier were also striking. Unlike Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro had already left the presidency (albeit without explicitly conceding defeat) and was last seen abroad in Florida. There was also no serious attempt following last October’s Brazilian election to overturn the victory of the veteran leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, which was accepted by Bolsonaro’s key political allies without question. Unlike Trump, Bolsonaro gave no public support to the insurrection, though the Brazilian only distanced himself from it after it had failed.
That is not to underplay the dangers that still lie ahead. Sunday’s troubles in Brasília were in some respects more serious than those in Washington. The mob stormed the congress, the presidential palace and the supreme court — a trio of Modernist architectural masterpieces grouped around a square in the heart of the 1950s capital.
Some police were seen filming selfies with the protesters rather than stopping them from occupying the seat of government. The insurrection grew out of weeks of protests by extremist Bolsonaro supporters camped outside military bases calling for a coup. The loyalties of the Brasília governor, a Bolsonaro ally, and some of the capital’s police, have been questioned.
But, as on several previous occasions during Bolsonaro’s chaotic four years in power when Brazil’s young democracy was put to the test, key institutions stood firm and the rule of law was upheld. Lula responded with measured anger. He ordered federal forces to take control of the capital’s security and called for the rioters to be punished in accordance with the law. The supreme court suspended the Brasília governor from his post and ordered the protest camps to be cleared.
Brazil’s generals, who ruled the country for 21 years until 1985, have remained loyal to the constitution. The swift international condemnation of Sunday’s failed insurrection should leave them in no doubt about the strength of support for Lula’s fledgling administration.
Lula won a reputation in his first two terms as a skilled negotiator and pragmatist, able to fight poverty while maintaining economic growth. He now wants to repeat the trick in much tougher economic and political circumstances. The weekend’s storming of Congress underlined how much harder the job will be. The new president needs to resist narrow dogma, govern for the broad majority of Brazilians and try to bring together a deeply divided nation.
Bolsonaro should condemn Sunday’s rioters in much stronger terms than he has done so far, and make clear that he will only pursue power via the ballot box. Brazil’s burgeoning conservative movement must be a democratic one.
Sunday’s spectacle in Brazil demonstrates the enduring threat to democracy from far-right extremism. Bolsonaro and Trump were close allies and among the very few people to express public support for the Brasília rioters was the former US president’s onetime ideologue, Steve Bannon. As in the US, social media platforms were an important vehicle for extremists to spread lies about stolen elections and organise an illegal assault on congress as the prelude to a broader insurrection. Two of its leaders may have lost power but the global far right is far from dead.