What led up to the attack on Brazil’s government?

Members of social movements protest in defence of democracy in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Jan 9, 2023. PHOTO: AFP

BRASILIA – Thousands of supporters of Brazilian ex-president Jair Bolsonaro stormed Congress, the presidential palace and the top court in Brasilia on Sunday, in what some saw as an attempt to trigger a military coup.

Many Bolsonaro supporters have been pleading with the military to step in ever since President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won a tightly contested runoff election on Oct 30.

It was the worst attack on Brazil’s key institutions since the end of a military dictatorship and return to democracy in the 1980s and came after a bitter campaign that underscored the country’s deep divisions.

1. What made the election so dramatic?

It featured two larger-than-life figures representing opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Mr Lula, a leftist and former labour union leader, is revered by those who credit him with implementing policies that lifted millions out of poverty during his two terms in office from 2003-11, and reviled by others who see him as a symbol of corruption.

He was found guilty of money laundering and corruption in 2017 and sentenced to almost 10 years in prison.

A 77-year-old cancer survivor, Mr Lula was released in 2019 after the Supreme Court adopted a new policy on detention during appeals, and the Court annulled his conviction on procedural grounds in 2021.

Mr Bolsonaro, 67, is a former army captain who was stabbed while on the campaign trail in 2018 and has been hospitalised several times as a result of that attack.

His supporters consider him a guardian of traditional family values and an anti-corruption crusader, important campaign topics in a generally conservative nation.

The president’s opponents have labelled him a far-right authoritarian and accuse him of advancing sexism, racism and homophobia. 

2. What happened in the election?

Mr Lula narrowly defeated Mr Bolsonaro in the runoff, obtaining 51 per cent of the votes to 49 per cent of his rival.

Mr Lula took office on Jan 1 promising to unify a country whose divisions were if anything deepened by the campaign.

Bolsonaro supporters set fire to cars in the central region of Brasília on the day Mr Lula was certified and a bomb was found in a fuel truck in the vicinity of the city’s international airport in late December.

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3. Why did Mr Bolsonaro’s supporters want the military to intervene?

The election campaign in 2022 was marked by a huge volume of fake news and insinuations about the electoral authority by Mr Bolsonaro and his allies. The then president made unfounded charges about the security of the country’s long-established system of electronic ballots, raising doubts among his supporters as to the legitimacy of the results.

This led to clashes with the country’s courts.

After the runoff, Mr Bolsonaro waited two days before issuing an ambiguous statement and has never publicly acknowledged his defeat, even as his base held large protests and circulated conspiracy theories. 

4. What did his supporters do after the election?

In the days after the vote, trucks were used to block highways across the country before being removed at the order of the courts.

Then, crowds of supporters began to gather outside army headquarters across the country, waiting for a military intervention they believed Mr Bolsonaro – who always spoke fondly of Brazil’s last dictatorship – suggested between the lines of his speeches.

Hundreds of them continued to camp outside the bases even after Mr Lula took office.

5. What was the conflict between Mr Bolsonaro and the courts?

In recent years, Mr Bolsonaro and his allies have come under scrutiny by the Supreme Court as it launched investigations into so-called antidemocratic acts such as demonstrations calling for the closing of congress and the top court, as well as the spread of misinformation.

Several of his allies were arrested and some social media outlets backing him had their funding suspended for election misinformation and alleged attacks on democratic institutions. His camp’s anger against the courts was focused especially on Justice Alexandre de Moraes, who leads the electoral court that certified Mr Lula’s victory and has been accused of overreaching his authority.

6. What has Mr Bolsonaro done since the vote?

While he never filed a direct challenge to the election result, he did not quite accept it either. He made clear that he would not participate in the inauguration, spurning a post-dictatorship tradition in which the outgoing president hands the presidential sash of office to a successor.

Two days before the end of the year, Mr Bolsonaro left for the United States, settling in a condominium in Florida, leading Mr Lula’s supports to charge that he was seeking to escape from several investigations that had already begun against him.

7. What happened in Brasilia?

On Jan 8, thousands of rioters, many draped in Brazilian flags or wearing the yellow and green national jersey, stormed congress, the presidential palace and the supreme court, leaving a trail of destruction.

Journalists and police officers were attacked and historic buildings were vandalised.

Furniture was thrown through the windows of the palaces. In the supreme court, chairs of the justices were tossed about, while the door of the closet in which Judge Moraes’ robes were kept was torn off. Videos shared on the Internet showed the vandals carrying the piece of wood with the justice’s name as if it were a trophy. Works of art were torn or scratched, including the painting As mulatas, by the renowned 20th-century painter Di Cavalcanti. 

8. What was the reaction to the attack? 

After the rioters roamed freely for around three hours, members of the military police started clearing the buildings. It took another four hours for the area to become completely free of attackers.

Mr Lula, who was in Sao Paulo state to examine damage from heavy rains, gave an angry speech in which he declared an emergency intervention in the Federal District government. He vowed that those who participated in the riot or helped finance the event would be punished and denounced Mr Bolsanaro as its cause.

After the rioters were removed from the buildings, Mr Bolsonaro condemned what he called “depredations and invasions of public buildings”, but said the event was similar to “acts done by the left in 2013 and 2017”. In both those years, there were large but much less violent public protests.

Mr Bolsonaro repudiated Mr Lula’s charge of his involvement. At the same time, Judge Moraes suspended the governor of the Federal District, a Bolsonaro supporter, for 90 days and the next day ordered that the encampments in front of army headquarters be removed, a process that led to about 1,500 arrests. 

9. Who will investigate this?

A number of investigations began almost immediately and others are being discussed. The Federal District’s civil police were registering the hundreds of people arrested in the riot’s wake.

The federal police and the federal highway police are investigating the financing of the buses that took rioters from other states to Brasilia and are looking into who may have helped Mr Bolsonaro’s supporters camp in front of army headquarters for so long.

The Ministry of Justice created a specific e-mail account to receive information about those responsible for the chaos of Jan 8. There are also internal investigations by both the local and federal government to determine possible connivance of the security forces with the vandals. A congressional probe starting in February is under discussion. BLOOMBERG

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