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Radio France Internationale
Radio France Internationale
Ed O'Brien

A month after election riots, deeply divided Brazil faces risk of more violence

A Brazilian flag is reflected on a broken window of the Supreme Court building in Brasilia on 10 January 2023, two days after thousands of supporters of Brazil's ex-president Jair Bolsonaro raided federal buildings. © AFP - CARL DE SOUZA

Almost a month on from the insurrection in Brasilia, questions linger about the loyalty of Brazil's security forces and the potential for more violence.

In scenes reminiscent of the storming of the United States Capitol, thousands of supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro ransacked Brazil's Congress, Supreme Court and presidential palace on 8 January.

Dressed in the yellow and green of the Brazilian flag, the rioters claimed the October elections won by Bolsonaro’s leftist rival, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, were rigged.

Outnumbered legislative police officers in Brasilia fired tear gas and stun grenades as they tried to stop rioters from breaking into the Senate, footage released by TV Senado shows.

But other images taken on the same day tell a different story. Lula, who was inaugurated at the start of the year, has said members of the military police and armed forces colluded with the rioters.

Militarised politics

Professor Marcio Moretto Ribeiro, an expert on polarisation at the University of São Paulo, questions whether all those responsible will face justice.

“This is the most delicate thing happening now. We need now, for example, for the laws to be enforced against those people who committed the crimes in the Three Powers Square. And it's not entirely clear [...] if it will happen because you need the support of the military sector, and it’s not so clear whether they are committed to democracy,” he says.

Bolsonaro, a former army captain who stacked his cabinet with military officers, has repeatedly questioned the integrity of Brazil’s voting system and refused to concede defeat in the October elections.

The country’s election monitoring authorities and the Defence Ministry found no evidence of fraud.

However, for months Bolsonaro’s supporters camped outside army bases, calling for the military to intervene.

Video footage from 8 January has shown some police officers passively watching the rioters and members of the security forces dismantling a protective blockade. General Júlio Cesar de Arruda, Brazil’s army chief at the time, reportedly blocked the arrests of insurrectionists.

A support of Brazil's former president Jair Bolsonaro prays in front of security forces in Brasilia. Antonio Cascio/REUTERS

Daniel Serra, who voted for Bolsonaro in the elections, says the riots were caused by a mistaken belief that the country could return to military rule.

“The former president, Jair Messias Bolsonaro, he kind of didn't pay attention to the people who were camped outside the barracks. And I think the people were creating things in their heads that didn't exist, that he could come and bring a military regime,” Serra says.

The unrest has divided Bolsonaro’s supporters. A poll by Atlas Intelligence conducted shortly after the riots showed an alarming 40 percent of Brazilians do not believe Lula won the election, but only 18 percent approved of the attacks.

Serra does not believe the election was rigged and is critical of the riots. “For me, as a Bolsonaro supporter, it didn't represent me because I found it very unethical. It’s also anti-democratic because it destroyed important bodies such as the National Congress and destroyed historical works inside,” he says.

“Don't generalise everyone who voted for Bolsonaro, just those extremists who did that in the centre of Brasilia,” he added.

Authorities detained over 2,000 people suspected of involvement in the insurrection and several officials have been removed from their posts or arrested.

Bolsonaro, who days before Lula took office flew to Florida in the US, where he has remained ever since, has been included in the Brazilian Supreme Court’s investigation into the riots.

'Belligerent opposition'

After several recent attacks and plots, Brazil may face a persistent threat of political violence.

“Apparently what January 8 indicates is that there seems to be a group of people in civil society who are willing to create opposition, which is a belligerent opposition, to take to the streets and to do eventually even violent protests for their agendas and I think that this will not be restricted to this election period,” Moretto Ribeiro says.

“I think this will also show up at other times when the Lula government tries to advance certain progressive agendas,” he warns.

At the Three Powers Square, where the three branches of government are located, security has been stepped up. Members of the elite National Security Force have been called in to patrol the area.

A general view shows the damage caused following the anti-democratic riots, outside the National Congress in Brasilia, Brazil, January 9, 2023. REUTERS - AMANDA PEROBELLI

There is evidence of the ferocity of the attacks here. The rioters smashed many of the windows of the Supreme Court. Security fencing outside the Planalto Palace, the office of the president, has been ripped up.

There are also signs that Brazil’s institutions are still calibrating their response to the unrest. On 25 January, Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes fined the Telegram messaging app for not suspending the account of a pro-Bolsonaro congressman, Nikolas Ferreira.

The following day, after facing criticism on freedom of speech grounds, the Supreme Court justice determined that Ferreira’s social media accounts should be reactivated, albeit with some restrictions on what he can post.

Lula’s government is having to walk a fine line between punishing those it deems responsible for stoking unrest and trying to keep a deeply divided country together.

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