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10 January

The attack on Brazil’s Congress had the aesthetics of a coup, without the danger

Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters are not the only threat to Brazilian democracy.

By Oliver Basciano

The images that spread across the TV networks and social media on Sunday 8 January seemed to confirm the worst fears, that a coup could really happen in Brazil.

Thousands of supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s far-right former president, broke through a security cordon around the country’s seat of government in Brasília; an army in yellow and green footballs shirts marching up the elegant ramp of the parliament building and swarming through the Oscar Niemeyer-designed modernist complex, first into Congress and getting as far as the Supreme Court and the presidential palace, smashing and looting art and furniture along the way. 

Yet while the scene was dramatic, this was a cosplay coup. The invaders were eight days too late: Bolsonaro’s successor, the returning president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was in São Paulo at the time of the attack, was sworn into power a week ago. While Bolsonaro maintained 48 per cent of the votes in the second round of October’s presidential election, his most militant base of supporters is diminishing. The attack on Congress will be the limit for many. Analysis of 2.2 million social media posts by Quaest as the attack unfolded showed only 8 per cent felt “happy” about it, with the vast majority oscillating between feelings of sadness, fear, disgust and rage. Assessing the shift in support, politicians across the spectrum quickly condemned the invasion. Even Bolsonaro, currently holed up in the suburban Florida home of a mixed martial arts fighter, distanced himself from his own devoted fan base on social media.

Though the storming of Congress very much looked like a coup attempt, it lacked the wider support or political traction it would need to pose a real danger. The American media, in particular, has been quick to note how similar Sunday’s events were to the anniversary of the 6 January 2021 attack on the US Capitol by Donald Trump’s fanatical supporters. Yet it might be just as well to recall that Sunday was the last day before many of the invaders would have to return to work after the Christmas holidays (though 1,200 arrests are reported to have been made, so one imagines there were some awkward calls to employers this week). And while the rioters on 6 January had a specific goal — to stop the 2020 presidential election results from being certified — Brazil’s vandals were invading mostly empty buildings. In one video posted to social media, among the police tear gas and vandalism, a man could be seen selling candy floss — an indication perhaps that this was as much a party as a protest for the group that has been holding vigil outside the buildings for months now. 

Which is not to say that Brazil’s democracy has never been in danger, but the fact that the protesters have so little support is a testament to the backroom manoeuvring Lula conducted throughout his election campaign; the TV debates and samba rallies hiding the real work of shoring up tactical support across a grand political, judicial and military coalition stretching way beyond his usual left-wing base. There will always be outliers – the soldiers in the jungle who never believe the war is over – and in a video statement on Sunday evening, visibly angry, Lula raised the possibility that the invasion was funded by agriculture business interests, and accused the governor of the Federal District in Brasília, Ibaneis Rocha, and the recently fired secretary of security, Anderson Torres, of colluding in the disruption. 

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It is difficult to say how true Lula’s claims are but, before the glass and broken furniture had even been cleared away, a judge on the Supreme Court, Alexandre de Moraes, suspended Rocha from office for 90 days citing the local government’s “wilful connivance” in the attack. Many on the left rejoiced, but this dramatic intervention into the powers of an elected official raises fresh concerns. In 2019 the Supreme Court awarded its 11 individual members power to instigate investigations and prosecutions as well as judge cases; De Moraes, meanwhile, has been slowly building his own political stock over the past year, from ordering raids against businessmen who spoke favourably of a dictatorship, to sanctioning the arrest of people spreading pro-Bolsonaro fake news. On Sunday night he ordered social media giants to block a list of accounts that promoted the violence, threatening Twitter, Facebook and TikTok with 100,000 reais (£15,600) fines for failing to comply.

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As alarming as the pictures of violence and destruction were, the buildings will be repaired and paintings restored. The events of 8 January hide a much duller but more insidious danger in which Lula’s debt to a powerful judiciary is building by the day. With De Moraes and his colleagues’ unilateral act over political officials, and with a president acutely aware of his political reliance on the court, the people in black robes are as much an anti-democratic threat as the mob on the parliament ramp. 

[See also: Ten crucial questions about the world in 2023]

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