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Democracy in Brazil, under attack

Memories of the US Capitol siege were invoked as Brazil's democratic institutions got stormed by protesters but there is more to the story.


Protesters stormed through the Three Powers Square on the evening of 8th January 2023.


Democracy in Brazil has been put to test as supporters of the former President Jair Bolsonaro launched an outright attack on the premier institutions of the country. Just a week into the official inauguration of the new President Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva, the country’s Congress, Presidential Palace and the Supreme Court were stormed indiscriminately by protesters on the Praça dos Três Poderes, or Three Powers Square which houses the three institutional buildings in the capital city Brasilia. The protesters had been gathering in the military headquarters for weeks before finally marching to the heart of Brasilia. The whole world has their eyes set on the situation in Brazil which is largely defined as ‘under control’ if news sources are to be believed even though about 400 people were arrested by Sunday evening and more than 1000 people are detained now.


An abominable act


The current President of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva has released a strong statement calling the attack an “abominable act” as it is seen as a direct attack on the democracy of Brazil. The question still remains as to why the protesters directed their attention towards these institutions. The Congress of Brazil, the Supreme Court and the Presidential Palace are not just symbolic buildings but they directly house the three main branches of Brazilian democracy. These branches were under attack on Thursday as the whole world closely watched.


The supporters of Jair Bolsonaro were vehemently protesting the results of the election that ousted their leader and swung in favour of the Workers’ Party leader Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva. Bolsonaro supporters have strongly objected to the results and are hoping to overthrow the newly elected government. It has to be noted that Lula Da Silva’s history of serving 580 days in prison for corruption back in 2017 has also fuelled this fire against his electoral victory. Needless to say that the fact that he won with a very close margin provided the supporters of Bolsonaro a bigger push to counter Da Silva.


A security breach


Considering the situation in the past few months since the general elections in Brazil in October 2022, there has been considerable tension in the country, and what has been described as adeeply divided” Brazil. The extent of polarisation amongst the supporters and opposers of Bolsonaro was very evident in the instances of clashes and radical violence erupting on the streets of Brazil. The constant reports of such violence over the last few months and the fact that the protesters have been stationed so close to the site of attack since the last few weeks leads one to wonder about the lapses in security that must have existed for a large chunk of people to storm into the centre of the country’s democratic institutions.


This fact was further reiterated by the President in his statement which categorically suggested a ‘security breach’. The result of this was the invoking of the Federal Security Intervention which is a decree by the president of Brazil that puts the police and all the matters of public safety directly under his control. To put it in context, there could be a state of emergency declared in the country till the end of January. This puts the law and order situation in the control of the central government. The Supreme Court of Brazil has also taken action against the governor of Brasilia, Ibaneis Rocha by removing him from power for a month over his accountability for the lack of security control over the capital city.


Memories of the US Capitol siege


Many commentators have said that the incident in Brazil invokes the images of the January 6th 2021 protests when thousands of Donald Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol building.


While a lot of parallels can be drawn between the two instances, a question still remains about whether this analysis is just a reductionist comparison or a part of a larger trend. What happened two years ago in the US does in fact have a lot of similarities to what has happened now in Brazil. In both the cases the protesters were instigated by the belief that the election results were rigged and fuelled further by their radical opposition to the winning party.


However, there is a need to contextualise what is happening in Brazil and what it would mean for the country in the long run. While the world is thinking back to the US Capitol siege, for many Brazilians the current protests are invoking the images of the year 2013 wherein the protests of the political left against the economic policies brought the country to a halt. It also has to be noted that the 6th January Capitol storm happened right as the power transition was still in the process while that has not been the case in Brazil. It has been a week since President Lula Da Silva has officially taken oath as the new custodian of the country’s democratic ideals.


Condemnation from the world


As the events in Brazil unfolded, the major leaders across the globe came together to condemn the attack which is considered to be a direct attack on the Democratic foundations of Brazil.


President Lula Da Silva himself declared in a joint statement with the heads of the Congress of Brazil and the Supreme Court to call the current attack as a full blown ‘terrorist attack’ on Brazil's democratic institutions. The US President Joe Biden, UK’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other significant leaders of the democratic world came together to condemn the attacks on Brazil and called for the peaceful transition of power.


Amidst all of this, what has been interesting to note is the fact that Jair Bolsonaro himself has spoken against the “depredations and invasions of public buildings”. It seems that as Bolsonaro has left the country, he has also left the accountability for the situation behind him for sowing the seeds of this disaster over the last few months.


A larger trend?


We may analyse the situation in different ways but what remains constant is the reality that over the last years there has been a larger trend of storming the government institutions in order for the protesters to make a ‘strong impact’. While we consider the protests against election results in the United States two years back or in Brazil right now, the modus operandi of the radical protesters seems to directly target the institutions that would create a strong ripple wave across the country.


One could also consider the protests that took place in Sri Lanka against the policies of the Rajapaksha government that led to its ultimate ouster. The protesters also took to storming the Presidential Palace in order to demand attention to their cause. What cannot be ignored however is that attacking democratic institutions has become the larger symbol to draw the much needed attention, whatever the cause of the protests may be. In Brazil or the US it was deemed as targeting democracy itself while in Sri Lanka storming the Presidential Palace became the only tool at hand to save this democracy.


What it means for Brazil


The lack of security control and the protests over the last few months have culminated into the disaster of the present. This attack on the premier democratic institutions not only reveals the extent of political polarisation and radicalisation in the political landscape of Brazil but also the fact that there is a systemic failure on the part of the security infrastructure. The former President Bolsonaro’s family is said to have ties with the Brazilian militias, armed gangs and the police. This makes it easier for the supporters of Bolsonaro to trickle through the gaps that exist and that is exactly what happened in the capital of Brazil on Sunday, 8th January 2023.


The radical approach of the pro-Bolsonaro section of Brazil as well as the lapses that exist in the security infrastructure of the country pose the two most significant challenges to the new government of President Lula Da Silva.


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