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Rioters silhouetted against the smokey orange glow of flames

“Thus, Bolsonarismo is both old and new. It is a Pandora’s Box that will not very easily shut again.” I wrote this in November for Perspective, reflecting on the Brazilian presidential election.

Pandora’s Box has indeed blown its lid – rather rapidly and dramatically, in the shape of thousands of yellow-and-green-clad Bolsonaro supporters storming Brazil’s centre of government, just days after Lula was sworn in as the new President. The rioters lit fires, threw furniture, destroyed artefacts, ransacked offices. The details can be viewed all over the news and social media. But what does this mean, both for Brazil and the wider world?

In the election article, I looked at the deep historical roots underlying the recurrent waves of reactionary political backlash in Brazil. This was the sense in which Bolsonarismo was ‘old’, but it also has very up-to-date elements resonating with other countries.

While Bolsonaro’s shock-jock persona and right-populism recall Trump, Brazilian politics has many unique characteristics. However, here the resonances are irresistible: two years and two days after the January 6th Capitol Building attack, Bolsonaro’s supporters, too, have violently stormed the government in the name of restoring their hero to power.

Dr Chris Lyon - Teaching Fellow in Politics of Development, University of Birmingham

Followers of Brazilian politics are often frustrated by the tendency of US-centric media to analyse Bolsonaro as simply a ‘Brazilian Trump’. While Bolsonaro’s shock-jock persona and right-populism recall Trump, Brazilian politics has many unique characteristics. However, here the resonances are irresistible: two years and two days after the January 6th Capitol Building attack, Bolsonaro’s supporters, too, have violently stormed the government in the name of restoring their hero to power. Like Trump, Bolsonaro bears ultimate responsibility due to calculated efforts to erode confidence in democracy and fan conspiracy theories.

Do the similarities tell us something? Will we see, internationally, a spate of right-populists with a questionable commitment to democracy gaining power and then fanning insurrections when voted out?

Certainly, by most measures, democracy has waned, and autocracy waxed over the past decade. The sophisticated V-Dem dataset shows direction-of-travel data, whether countries are democratising or autocratising. From 2011 to 2021 the share of the world’s population living under autocracies rose from 49% to 70%. 2021 saw a record 33 countries experience an ‘autocratising’ trend. In 2021 and 2022, we saw unusually high numbers of successful and attempted coups.

V-Dem also notes the changing nature of autocratisation, which is very relevant here. The increase in ‘emboldened’ anti-democratic actors is likely related to the trends of both polarisation and misinformation. These – prominent features of Bolsonaro-era Brazil – lead sections of the public to bitterly demonise perceived opponents, believe conspiracy theories, such as ‘stolen elections’, and lose faith in democratic politics. This is fertile soil for the autocratisation of democracies. Is it beyond the realms of possibility that, say, the Meloni government in Italy or the Duda government in Poland could inspire similar outraged insurrections should they lose their next elections?

Some will decry this as alarmist, but Meloni’s party has fascist roots and heads a far-right coalition; Duda’s party has recently courted Viktor Orbán and Marine Le Pen. Germany reportedly foiled a far-right coup attempt in December 2022. South Korea’s Capitol was invaded in 2019. Moreover, a pressing question about both America’s January 6th and Brazil’s January 8th is how motley crowds were able to breach what one might have expected to be crack security operations guarding state citadels – states that seem very capable of rapid militarised responses when faced with BLM protests or unruly favelas.

The Brasília riot was relatively predictable given prior social media activity. The Brazilian military police essentially calmly escorted the protest on its 7km journey from an army barracks to Congress, and both military and police are widely considered to house considerable sympathy to Bolsonarismo. When the military police approached the rioters, many began cheering, thinking they had arrived to seal the coup d’état.

This signals the major implication for Brazil’s new government, which is the continued existence of a galvanised far-right movement. Bolsonaro himself, ensconced in a Florida mansion, will almost certainly now be off the scene, but the movement, and its larger periphery of quietly sympathetic citizens, is ripe for replacement figureheads. For a country whose military dictatorship only ended in 1985, a threat to democracy is extremely grave. The Lula government will also have to puzzle over the social and economic drivers of increased far-right traction. Apart from anything else, this event will certainly rob bandwidth from Lula’s desired legislative agenda of anti-poverty.

However, it probably also strengthens Lula. All three branches of government have been strongly united in their condemnation of the invasion. Lula was already cultivating a coalition with centre/centre-right support; the riot will increase his legitimacy. Regionally, the political atmosphere is supportive, with a putative new ‘Pink Tide’.

Additionally, the role of the USA is fascinating. The FBI played a supporting role in the illegitimate use of the ‘Lava Jato’ anti-corruption investigation to remove Lula from his frontrunner position in the 2018 elections and imprison him, paving the way for Bolsonaro. Trump was one of Bolsonaro’s few friends internationally. However, in an historical irony, given US involvement in many similar events, the Biden government was quick to denounce this particular Latin American right-wing coup attempt. Brazil has submitted an extradition request for Bolsonaro. He may be safe from prosecution for the insurrection, given his distance from the event, but corruption charges would be unsurprising.

For my own part, I feel relief that Brazil’s democracy seems to be weathering the storm, and I look forward to discussing this and other cases with International Development postgraduate students this semester.