January 10, 2023

Will Brazil have its own “January 6? The question has been posed repeatedly over the past year in speculation as to what might happen should Bolsonaro lose the October 2022 election. Brazil’s moment finally arrived: two days late and two dollars short.

On Sunday, a few thousand supporters of the ex-president, Jair Bolsonaro, stormed the Three Powers’ Plaza, invading the (mostly empty) buildings of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Presidential Palace in Brasília. A great deal of vandalism took place, but government is in summer recess and the recently inaugurated President Lula was also away, tending to floods in São Paulo state. Within some hours, the invaders had been cleared.

Was this a credible coup attempt? As shocking as the images of Bolsonaro supporters rampaging through the halls of power are, just as symbolically loaded is the sight of authoritarian militarists seizing the seat of power ­— and then having no idea of how to actually seize power. They shat the bed – almost literally.

There is something deeply adolescent about the whole affair. Sore losers who refuse to accept the election result and then protest by destroying daddy’s belongings. Even the invasion of the Three Powers had something of the teenage tryst to it: they managed to penetrate the sacred site of government but their performance was a mess.

At least since the events of 7 September 2021, when Bolsonaristas threatened to storm the Supreme Court on Brazil’s independence day (but caused chaos a day early leading forces to intervene), there has been widespread concern about a coup. As the October 2022 election drew nearer, these worries grew stronger — though perhaps in inverse proportion to such an event’s likely success. Jair Bolsonaro and his supporters, both institutional and grassroots, might desire a coup, but that doesn’t mean they would take the plunge – whatever they might claim about a “stolen election”.

In the event, a coup was not even attempted. What we got was a series of illegitimate, anti-democratic but ultimately blunt adventures. On election day, the federal highways police mounted a mass vote-suppression operation by detaining buses in Lula-favouring regions. For a few weeks after the election, Bolsonaro supporters, including truckers, blockaded highways while observers wondered which arm of the security forces would clear them away, given the highway police’s manifest sympathies. But cleared they were. The next phase saw encampments set up around army bases where Bolsonaristas would petition the armed forces to intervene. It was from one such encampment in Brasília that Sunday’s would-be putschists departed for the Three Powers’ Plaza.

None of these points on the way to Sunday’s events was threatening enough on its own. Had they taken place almost simultaneously around the election — or at least prior to the January 1 inauguration — they might have signalled not just serious intent but coordinative capacity.

But the Bolsonarista ultras lack leadership, while institutional support is more circumspect. The clearing of encampments before Sunday’s invasion, led to some pathetic scenes. These are the hardcore of Bolsonaro’s support, infused with messianic and apocalyptic ideas. For them, the Workers’ Party’s return to office is not a mere alternation of government, but a cataclysm. Their behaviour does not testify to a capacity for carefully balanced strategy or tactical nuance.

Bolsonaro-aligned military generals, mostly reservists, have a comfortable arrangement and lack sufficient pull among the active troops. That meant they were not willing to take the risks a coup would imply. Elsewhere in the state — police or politicians — a similar calculus obtained. And of course, Bolsonaro himself absconded to Florida before the inauguration and has now been taken ill. The only other relevant force are the businessmen who fund the operation — including the 100 buses that carried the rioters to the Three Powers. Drawn from agriculture or retail, they probably lack sufficient knowledge of political power and how the Brazilian state works to perform the necessary articulating function a coup would require.

As a consequence, all these intimations of a coup turned out piecemeal and reactive. There were more emotional outbursts than strategic manoeuvres.

Crucial, then, will be the new government’s reaction. In the US, where the Capitol is already absurdly sacralised, the Democrats’ response to January 6 was to mythologise it. For two years, the party and its media satellites have self-servingly turned the riot into a national trauma. And worse, used it as motive to launch a domestic war on terror.

What is the likelihood the Workers’ Party does the same? Lula’s campaign last year was explicitly constructed as a broad front to save democracy and return the country to a more orderly politics. Throughout, there was a hint of nostalgia for the consensus politics of the 2000s, when one’s bitter rivals supposedly still played by the rules of the game. The temptation to use January 8 as the basis to excise Bolsonarismo from the body politic will be strong. 

But as Bolsonaro’s narrow defeat showed, that is easier said than done. Moreover, the danger is that this gives the Bolsonaristas the narrative of victimhood they crave, while further empowering the judiciary.

We should be clear here: the vandals, hundreds of whom were arrested, should be punished in accordance with the law; the funders should be investigated and prosecuted; and institutional accomplices should be rooted out. Already, the Federal District’s security secretary, an ex-minister of Bolsonaro’s, has been sacked. The governor, himself a Bolsonaro ally, no doubt did so in a move to protect himself, but Governor Rocha has, in turn, been removed from his post for 90 days by the Supreme Court. Both were seemingly complicit in allowing the invasion to happen.

The risk, then, is that this becomes a judicial crusade rather than a political struggle. Lula’s justice minister, Flavio Dino of the centre-Left Socialist Party of Brazil, had already announced in his inauguration speech on January 2 that “terrorist acts, crimes against the democratic rule of law, incitement of animosity between the armed forces and constitutional powers and civil institutions are very serious political crimes… [and] will permanently be on the table of the Ministry of Justice and Public Security.” The fear is that a new anti-extremism law is brought in, a move that would parallel one of the final acts in the last Workers’ Party administration, when Dilma Rousseff signed in a widely criticised anti-terrorism law.

With these riots coming within a week of his inauguration, they may now prove a crucial pivoting point. Lula has, after all, pledged to reconstruct and transform Brazil. But is the aim to transform a rotten state whose constitutional settlement locks in oligarchy and military oversight just as much as it promises social rights? Or is it to defend the limited gains of the past?

Here we can glimpse the vice much of the Left has wedged itself into – not just in Brazil, but across Latin America and beyond. Continually on the defensive in the face of a rebellious and populist Right, the Left has abrogated itself the role of defender of civilisation. Suddenly, it finds itself not far removed from the concerns of the Tony Blair Institute, which has celebrated the decline in the number of “populist” leaders. A recent report commends a new wave of Latin American leaders for having “disavowed populist rhetoric and focused on progressive economic and social rights rather than the populist Left’s historic focus on industrial nationalisation”.

In Brazil, this was reflected in a Lula-led campaign that emphasised consensual deal-making and political nous over maximalist claims, and inclusion over polarisation. Meanwhile, if you squint hard enough, Bolsonarista rhetoric about how the state is not really impartial, and how the only true authority is the people, ends up sounding awfully Leftist, revolutionary even.

How to avoid cementing this political inversion of roles? After all, nothing good will come by allowing the Right to capture the spirit of revolt, given its declared anti-democratic and repressive goals.

But should Lula’s party follow the US Democrats’ lead in trying to make this early January insurrection into a national trauma, to be overcome through a defence of existing institutions, the only “transformation” the President will achieve is to definitively convert his side into the Party of Order.