Supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro attacked Brazil’s Congress on January 8 to protest the electoral win of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Paintings were stolen and damaged, glass windows and doors shattered, and investigators even found feces and urine spread around the presidential palace. 

The attack has been widely referred to as “Brazil’s January 6th.” Journalists and political analysts have repeatedly compared the events in Brazil to the US Capitol insurrection when Donald Trump voters stormed into the nation’s Congress in 2020.  

Let’s examine.  

Palácio do Supremo Tribunal Federal e destruido após atos terroristas no ultimo domingo [Photo: Fabio Rodrigues-Pozzebom/ Agência Brasil]

The motives

In Brazil and the US, the attacks were provoked by far-right citizens protesting the democratic loss of Bolsonaro and Trump respectively. 

Their arguments were very similar in nature: that elections had been “stolen”. In both cases, evidence has proven that such claims are false. 

A Monmouth poll reveals that 61% of Republicans still believe Biden did not legitimately and democratically win the 2020 elections. Trump supporters deny the candidate’s loss and argue that ballots in favor of the former President had been destroyed and not counted, while fake ballots were cast to secure Biden’s win.

For months before the elections, Bolsonaristas claimed that Brazil’s electronic voting machines were unreliable and vulnerable to hackers. Although an Estadão report revealed that there were no irregularities or instances of fraud in the 2022 election, Bolsonaristas protested the election results on the basis that electoral machines were hacked by the opposition to ensure Lula’s win.

Palácio do Supremo Tribunal Federal com vidros pichados, após atos terroristas no ultimo domingo [Photo: Fabio Rodrigues-Pozzebom/ Agência Brasil]

The aims 

While pursued differently, the goals of both attacks were ultimately the same: To remove the democratically elected head of state from presidency. 

Bolsonaro supporters called for a military intervention to remove Lula from the Presidential seat 7 days after the politician had been sworn in. 

During the January 8th attack, protesters were carrying “Intervenção Militar” banners, pleading for the army to get involved. Their requests were not met, as the military removed the Bolsonaristas themselves from the site.

In the US, the insurrection happened before Biden was confirmed as President. Trump supporters invaded the US Capitol during a joint session of Congress to stop the count of electoral college votes that would later legitimize Biden’s presidency.

In what way, if any, former Presidents were involved in the attacks? 

Prior to the electoral cycle, Bolsonaro began a campaign to incite mistrust in the electoral machines. The former President repeatedly stated that he did not trust Brazil’s electoral system and that the machines could be hacked by the opposition to secure Lula’s win. 

“I am not sure about the voting machines. I do not trust the voting machines, like a big part of the population,” stated Bolsonaro in an interview with Rádio Massa. However, research shows that 74% of Brazilians do trust the country’s electoral system.  

Moreover, Bolsonaro claimed that the other three countries which used electoral machines were Bangladesh, Buthan, and Venezuela. In reality, 46 countries use the same vote-counting method as Brazil. 

Apoiadores do presidente Jair Bolsonaro fazem ato em frente ao Palácio da Alvorada [ Photo: José Cruz/Agência Brasil}

Trump had a similar strategy: a stolen election misinformation campaign that threatened American democracy. The former American head of state created a conspiracy theory surrounding mail-in ballots, claiming that Democrats were using them to sway election results. In a press briefing on September 23, 2020, Trump said that mail-in ballots were “out of control” and that “the Democrats know it better than anybody else.”

Both defeated candidates attempted to change election outcomes by sparking anti-democracy campaigns and failed miserably. Instead, they triggered terrorist attacks that severely damaged national patrimony. 

The playbook

A day after the January 6th insurrection Bolsonaro announced that Brazil would have “bigger problems than the United States” if there were no printed ballots to audit the machine votes. 

Bolsonaro’s support and admiration for Trump may have foreshadowed his strategy to attack Brazil’s electoral system in hopes of changing the election outcomes. And, as every action has a reaction, Bolsonaristas reacted to the right-wing candidate’s defeat the same way Trump supporters did.

But, you may be asking, why would Bolsonaro and Bolsonaristas follow in Trump and Trump supporters’ footsteps if their plans failed miserably in 2020? 

Some Bolsonaristas believed they would have the support from the army when challenging election results, an actor that did not participate in Trump’s anti-democratic campaign. They trusted that the military would assist them in the invasion of the presidential palace on January 8th, which, thankfully, did not happen.

Bolsonaro’s long-standing history with the military may have given far-right citizens the false hope that the armed forces would attempt to overturn election results. Following Bolsonaro’s defeat, many Bolsonaristas camped outside the military headquarters, petitioning for a military coup. In Rio de Janeiro, Bolsonaro supporters even kneeled and prayed in front of Niterói’s army base. 

On her way to the police station after the attack on the presidential palace, an unidentified Bolsonarista recorded herself crying. “The military turned us [Invaders] in to the police. Up until an hour ago, we trusted the military, that it would protect us, and the military turned us in,” stated the woman. 

As for Bolsonaro himself, one could argue that he disregarded Trump’s failure to challenge the results since electoral circumstances were different in Brazil. Bolsonaro may have believed he had a higher chance of defying the results with the claim of the voting machines’ supposed vulnerability, in comparison to Trump’s stolen mail-in ballots argument. 

Response to the attack 

Brazilian journalist and researcher, Raphael Tsavkko Garcia, maintains that the pro-Bolsonaro attack was more dangerous than the January 6th insurrection due to the armed forces’ slow response to the attack. 

Images show some police officers escorting Bolsonaristas to the presidential palace and the Three Powers square. President Lula stated that the officers who “participated in the attack will not remain immune and will no longer participate in the corporation since they cannot be trusted by Brazilian society.” Moreover, Lula argues that the riot was facilitated by Bolsonaristas from within Brazil’s security system. 

Manifestantes invadem Congresso, STF e Palácio do Planalto.[Photo: Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil]

Anderson Torres, the pro-Bolsonaro Secretary of Public Security of the Federal District, is under investigation and has been arrested for his alleged involvement in the attack. Police officers found a draft decree on Torres’ house which outlined plans for an emergency intervention to remove Lula from power. 

“Everybody knows about his reputation of complicity with the [pro-Bolsonaro] manifestations. So, the intervention will take care of this,” said Lula. 

Torres claims that the document was taken “out of context” and denies collaboration with the January 8th terrorists. 

“In the US, despite some initial failings, security forces took action against the violent protesters without hesitation and there was never any suspicion that the military may actually be supportive of their demands for a coup against the newly elected president,” writes Garcia. 

Still, the financial losses caused by the attacks were similar. Brazil’s presidential palace was left in ruins, with a loss of R$9 million (U$ 1.764.705,88), while the U.S. Capitol invasion cost approximately U$1.5 million in damage.  The cost to democracy, however, is beyond measure and will linger forever.

Manifestantes invadem Congresso, STF e Palácio do Planalto. [Photo: Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil]

Before Bolsonaro commented on his defeat on national television, he consulted with the military on disputing Lula’s win based on the President’s former corruption allegations. However, the military did not endorse Bolsonaro’s suggestion, members of the armed forces told CNN

This reveals that the army is capable of behaving independently, as proven by the events on January 8th, when the military body acted on behalf of the nation’s security and did not support the coup. 

Brazil has a long way toward a fully healed democracy. Brazilian officials must go beyond condemning those involved in the attack and structurally tackle threats to democracy from within the system – as did the US government. Only by punishing those who were involved in the attack will Brazilian democracy recover. 

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