Latin America Advisor

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Does the Far-Right Threaten Brazil’s Democratic System?

Photo of riot in Brazil Thousands of supporters or former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro invaded the buildings housing the country’s Congress and Supreme Court, as well as the presidential palace last Sunday. // Photo: Agência Brasil.

Authorities have arrested some 1,500 people following Sunday’s riot in Brazil in which supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro broke into the buildings housing the country’s Congress and Supreme Court as well as the presidential palace. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva called the rioters “fanatic fascists” and vowed to punish anyone involved. Also, a Supreme Court justice has issued arrest warrants for two top officials responsible for security in Brasília. How well is Lula handling the aftermath of the riot, and how will it affect his government and agenda? How much of a threat do the far-right forces involved threaten Brazil’s democratic system, and what should be done to strengthen it? How much has the riot strengthened—or weakened—Bolsonaro and his political party?

Alfredo Attié, justice at the Supreme Court of São Paulo: “It was the Brazil of the past that invaded the government houses in Praça dos Três Poderes, not coincidentally, seven days after the inauguration of a president who has promised the recovery of the government’s commitment to the constitution, and who entered the presidential house at his inauguration alongside representatives of the diversity of the Brazilian people. This Brazil of the past intended to invade the country’s civic centers and corrupt its aesthetic identity, just as it had already illegitimately usurped the symbols of the nation—the flag, the yellow soccer jersey—as a reaction to the empowerment and election of diversity. One of the criminal invaders spoke of repossession, as if claiming that Brazil belonged to that invading and criminal minority. This call from the past reminds us that Brazil needs to settle accounts of its worst anti-political moments, in which forceful regimes tried to curb the expression of Brazilian diversity, currently symbolized by the election of President Lula da Silva. This is a question of justice: if we do not prosecute our past, and exemplarily punish the representatives of our colonial and slave-owning culture, to include the people and their diversity in the project and the symbols of Brazil, we will continue to relive that nightmare. Brazil, I think, will be reborn better only if it has the courage to defend its democracy and its rule of law in a firm way; punishing not only the invaders, but their leaders as well, those who cultivate a backward and anti-constitutional culture. Many of them occupy seats of power, precisely because, in the past, Brazil didn’t have the courage to confront its traumas and abandon its policies of amnesty, at the expense of the basic rights of its people.”

Cecília Godoy, analyst at FrontierView: “While last weekend’s social unrest certainly fuels short-term uncertainty about the stability of Brazil’s democracy, the swift and strong institutional condemnation—from all branches of government—and the country’s confirmed transition of power limited the volatility that Brazilian assets saw in the days immediately following the event. The parallels between what recently transpired in Brazil’s capital and the circumstances in Washington two years ago are undeniable. However, the denunciation of the events in Brasília by key domestic political figures (a trait that was arguably lacking in the U.S. context) signaled limited bureaucratic support for actions threatening the stability of Brazil’s democratic system. The overwhelming disapproval of the riots—by Brazilian citizens and institutions alike—will likely generate greater political capital for Brazil’s left in the short term, propelling the chances of a more leftist agenda than what would be expected in what is still a deeply divided Congress. However, even if the latest violent engagements undermine the credibility of Brazil’s far-right movement in the months to come, it will likely not be enough to permanently quell the strength of the country’s far-right faction. The events that transpired in Brasília are a strong reminder that Lula must navigate the next four years with a limited popular mandate in a deeply polarized country. If Lula’s economic and social promises do not succeed, his new government may face serious legitimacy difficulties not only among the far-right voters but also with a more centrist electorate.”

Gustavo Ribeiro, founder and editor-in-chief of The Brazilian Report: “Sunday’s events were the worst assault on Brazil’s democratic institutions since the country’s return to democracy in the 1980s, and they closely resembled scenes from the 2021 Capitol riot in the United States. They are just the latest installment of a crescendoing push to stir chaos in Brazil since Jair Bolsonaro lost the presidential election on Oct. 30, and show that President Lula’s pledge to unify the country will be an uphill battle. One poll shows that 40 percent of Brazilians still don’t believe Lula won more votes than Jair Bolsonaro, and that more than one-third of the electorate would support a ‘military intervention’ to overturn the election result. Interestingly, only 10 percent want Brazil to be under a dictatorship. At The Brazilian Report, we explored this paradox back in August. For far-right Brazilians, they believe they are defending democracy when they urge the military to forcefully remove Lula. Another poll, by Datafolha, brings more optimistic data, with 93 percent of respondents disapproving of the Brasília riots. But Datafolha’s methodology involves in-person interviews, which could have stopped many respondents from being candid. Moreover, the poll used the word ‘vandalism’ in its questionnaire, which embeds a negative view and could have affected the results. Combating political extremism in Brazil will require permanent action to stifle the articulation of groups organized to attack the democratic order. But doing so without overstepping the boundaries of the rule of law is paramount.” 

Beatrice Rangel, member of the Advisor board and director of AMLA Consulting in Miami Beach: “Brazil is the country that most closely resembles the United States. It truly is a federal state, it enjoys the benefits of a large market and, together with the United States, Chile, Costa Rica, Argentina and Uruguay, it leads Internet penetration in the hemisphere. But, alas, Brazil is also affected by the dark side of modernity, just as the United States is. In both countries, a significant segment of the population has fallen prey to the ubiquitous efficiency of social networks to disseminate information. Open access to any idea, thought or reaction warrants freedom for anyone to express him or herself and share that content with the whole world. But in the absence of corroboration, source checking and fact validation, lies and intentionally misleading information freely travel the world. This information sticks with people who lack educational depth or information training and guides their beliefs, their behavior and their group affiliations. It turns individuals into a herd. Once turned into a herd, they blindly follow a leader who repeats their mantra and gives them confidence in their social network-formed set of beliefs. And given that the call to action also comes through social networks, the epic dimension envelops reality, and all herd members march to fight a cause through any means. Both in the United States and Brazil, we have seen the dangerous consequences of unbridled development of social networks. And just as when the press was absorbed by corporations, today social media presents a real threat to democracy. Observing a similar challenge Walter Lippmann thought that the utmost priority should be given to the protection of the ‘news stream’ on which opinions were based. ‘The protection of sources of opinion,’ Lippmann insisted, ‘is the basic problem of democracy. Everything else depends on it.’ Maybe after Jan. 6, 2021 and Jan. 8, 2023, we should pay heed to Lippmann.”

Amanda Mattingly, managing director at ACM Global Intelligence: “The Jan. 8 riot will make issues of democracy and democratic governance rise to the top of President Lula’s agenda. The storming of the capitol by thousands of pro-Bolsonaro supporters indicates that the far-right remains a threat to democracy in Brazil. The conspicuous absence of a police and security presence in Brasília to stop the rioters also indicates that Bolsonaro maintains some level of support within the security services and military apparatus of the country. This will also be an issue for Lula’s administration to address, particularly as it seeks to reorganize the security forces. So far, Lula seems to be taking the right steps to condemn the violence and assault on democracy and to hold the perpetrators accountable. The swift condemnation of the attacks inside Brazil—and from the international community, including the U.S. government—has weakened Bolsonaro and his political brand for now. But moving forward, Lula’s administration needs to investigate those who organized and funded the riot and bring them to justice—if he wants to ensure that domestic terrorism on the right does not grow in Brazil. Lula will also need to address the issue of misinformation and rebuild trust in Brazil’s electoral system. Sadly, the Jan. 8 rioters took a page from the Jan. 6 playbook in the United States, along with the lies and misinformation about a stolen election, but hopefully, Brazil will be able to hold those at the top accountable—something that has so far eluded us here in the United States.”

Mariano Machado, principal analyst for the Americas at Verisk Maplecroft: “Even before the civil insurrection in Brasília, we had a gimlet-eyed view of the governance challenges ahead for Lula. The post-electoral hype outshone the realities of the country’s political fractures. Now, the storming of Brasília has pulled the democratic political arc out of its slumber. The immediate (domestic and global) hike in support for democratic institutions will provide a legitimacy boost, allowing Lula to fully use institutional powers to keep dissidence in check. His swift decision to intervene in the federal district exemplifies this–and is, above all, a signal to deter pro-Bolsonaro allies from tacitly or explicitly encouraging other disruptors across the country. Once the dust settles, the need to whip his own ‘rainbow’ coalition in line and deliver on the tsunami of promises made on the road back to the Planalto, will remain pending tasks. The events of Jan. 8 confirmed that business as usual will take place alongside novel challenges, including first, the disruptive capacity of the nativist movement nurtured by Bolsonaro and, second, the fact that the movement is no longer under Bolsonaro’s control – or indeed that of any single leader. On the first, incidents involving physical disruption could become the norm. Far-right radicals have already tried to block oil refineries and are believed to have damaged power transmission towers in multiple parts of the country. On the second, competition for leadership of the hydra-headed conservative movement will also weigh heavily on domestic politics. We expect these power disputes to shape Lula’s time in office.”

Lucas Fernandes, political analysis and sustainability coordinator at BMJ Consultores Associados: “While Lula focuses on forming a supra-ideological front in defense of democracy, his first ranks have maintained a close dialogue with the press and avoided premature attacks on Bolsonaro or the armed forces, which could trigger tensions or the perception of persecution. The government’s strategy of intervention in the public security of the federal district is well evaluated by the population and has been assertive in preventing new riots. The quick and consensual response of the three branches of government diminishes the risk of similar episodes in the short and medium terms. However, without exemplary punishment and actions to prevent extremist groups from reorganizing, anti-democratic discourse may continue to echo and erode the popular perception of democracy in the long term. So far, Bolsonaro has not been entirely isolated by right-wing politicians, who are mostly silent or continuing to point toward alleged abuses by police forces and the judiciary. Nonetheless, this scenario is expected to change if the former president faces prosecution or conviction. The emergence of a new conservative leaderships could potentially split the opposition votes, hitherto unified around Bolsonaro, between moderates and radicals and strengthen Lula’s successor in the 2026 presidential election. Public attention will be riveted on the invasions for some time as expectations are that a congressional inquiry committee will operate throughout the first half of the year. In the meantime, the government will not be able to avoid negotiating economic measures such as tax reform and the new fiscal framework. Depending on how the federal government handles the crisis, Lula might be able to increase his popularity and use this episode to advance his agenda.”

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