What Does Brazil’s Jan. 8 Insurrection Mean for the Country’s Democratic Future?
Getting to the bottom of the attacks is only the first step in rebuilding institutional trust
On Jan. 8, only a week after the inauguration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as the new president of Brazil, thousands of supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s prior president, marched in the country’s capital, Brasilia, to register their disapproval of last October’s election results. Either through an incredible security blunder or deliberate negligence, as some in the federal administration allege, the police allowed thousands of demonstrators who had openly stated their desire to overturn the election and restore Bolsonaro to power to march toward the seat of Brazil’s national government.
The sparse police force guarding the main entrances of the National Congress building was defeated in seconds. Demonstrators quickly took over the congressional chambers, the building’s surroundings and even its roof. At the same time, another group of protesters ran to take over the neighboring buildings, once again meeting little resistance from the police. As a stunned country watched, vandals looted the treasured Brazilian landmarks of the Three Powers Plaza: the Presidential Palace, the Supreme Court, and the Federal Congress. Brazilians were left to wonder exactly who the demonstrators were, how they managed to enter those buildings so easily; and what these attacks meant for the future of the country’s democracy.
Stimulants of the Masses
Jair Bolsonaro was the first Brazilian president to lose a bid for reelection since a 1997 amendment to the Brazilian Constitution first allowed mayors, governors and the president to serve more than one term. On October 30, Lula, as da Silva is known, beat Bolsonaro by a narrow margin (50.9% to 49.1%) and was elected president of Brazil for the third time, more than a decade since he’d last held that office.
During the first few days following the election, Bolsonaro remained silent. Yet many of his allies disputed the election results; his party even questioned the results in court, leading the Superior Electoral Court to fine the party about $5 million for filing a lawsuit in bad faith.
The grounds for accusations of fraud were prepared years before any votes were cast in 2022. During his term as president from 2019 to 2023, Bolsonaro often claimed that the Brazilian presidential election results in 2014 and 2018—including the election he won—were fraudulent. In 2021, when the Electoral Justice Comptroller's office ordered the then-president to produce proof to back up his statements, his administration's lawyers argued that he was only exercising his personal right to free speech. He had no intention of proving his claims.
Indeed, since the elections, Bolsonaro has largely remained silent, avoiding public declarations that could legitimate Lula’s election. And while he has occasionally condemned his supporters’ violence, confrontations with authorities and depredations of public property, he has largely signaled empathy for their protests against the election result. He did not take part in Lula’s inauguration—giving Lula a magnificent photo-opportunity to receive the presidential sash from “representatives of the Brazilian people,” instead of Bolsonaro—and he didn’t record his administration’s farewell message, which was delivered instead by Vice President Hamilton Mourão on the last day of their term.
Bolsonaro’s implicit message of support for the protests got through. For the two months following the October 2022 election, including Christmas and the heavy summer rains, hundreds of self-declared patriots remained camped in tents outside Armed Forces barracks in dozens of Brazilian states, hoping and appealing for a revolution that would never come.
These protesters were not young. Less than 30% of the vandals arrested after Jan. 8 were under 30 years old. As reports on the fake news making the rounds at the bolsonaristas’ campsites show, the protesters didn’t set out to become martyrs. They didn’t expect resistance from the authorities. They really thought that something was about to happen—that it was just a matter of time before Bolsonaro and his allies would set things in motion.
What kept them committed through those long days of protest were alleged secret clues that only a few could decipher indicating that a military intervention—in the election results, against the Supreme Court or against Congress, depending on the day—was about to start. The supposed clues were everywhere—speeches in Parliament, social media posts, even in Bolsonaro’s frequent silence—and the search “gamified” the bolsonaristas’ movement. Once identified, the clues spread rapidly. A supposed 72-hour deadline until the “action” would begin became a social network meme just after the election, and it continues to appear on Twitter even now. The protestors’ alleged ability to read signals between the lines had clear parallels with the engagement model of the QAnon movement in the United States.
In the end, all of this engagement ended in pointless personal tragedy. Brazil’s three most important buildings were invaded by a few thousand clueless, middle-aged people who cried as they were informed that invading and looting a presidential palace is, actually, a criminal offense.
Moreover, they had achieved none of their goals. On the contrary. Former president Bolsonaro, who flew to Florida a few days before the end of his term, remained there—out of the country, out of power and still without a date to return to Brazil. Moreover, every political opponent of Lula’s new administration must now clearly distance himself or herself from the Jan. 8 protesters. Indeed, for members of the parliamentary opposition—many of them elected by people who, like the demonstrators, wore green and yellow shirts and supported Bolsonaro—this task will be difficult.
Conspiracy or Mass Delusion?
How did this sad situation—harmful to Brazilian democracy, damaging even to the perpetrators—come to pass? The police massively underestimated the level of threat posed by the thousands of bolsonaristas who marched toward the complex, leaving even such institutions as the Supreme Court, which bolsonaristas had previously threatened on various occasions, vulnerable to an attack.
Lula, his team and members of the Supreme Court believe that there was more to these security failures than just miscalculation and underestimation; they suspect deliberate mismanagement. After the attacks began on Jan. 8, Lula’s administration issued a decree taking over Brasilia's public security authority—a clear demonstration of mistrust of the Federal District police leaders originally responsible for guarding the plaza that day. Later, in an unprecedented decision, Alexandre de Moraes, a justice at Brazil’s Supreme Court, suspended for 90 days the powers of Ibaneis Rocha, governor of the Federal District, for mismanagement of the district’s public safety. This decision was later confirmed by a majority vote of the entire court.
Brazil's Federal Police and the police of the Federal District are still investigating the possibility of collusion between members of the military and the police force to facilitate the access of the right-wing vandals to the buildings. The military is under suspicion for several reasons. Bolsonaro has a personal connection with the Army: He used to be an Army captain before entering politics in 1988, and a record number of members of the military, active and retired, worked in his administration—the most since the end of Brazil's military dictatorship in 1985. Moreover, the Military Justice Prosecutor's office is currently investigating the possible participation of active members of the forces in the Three Powers Plaza attacks. Indeed, on Jan. 21, Lula fired the Army's commander, who had occupied the post for only three weeks, in an effort to restore his administration’s trust in the Armed Forces’ leadership.
Were the attacks premeditated—part of a sequence of organized actions? The case that they were was strengthened by the recent discovery of a draft of a presidential decree at the residence of Anderson Torres, Bolsonaro's former minister of justice, declaring a “state of defense” at the Superior Electoral Court and likely aiming at a military intervention to reverse Bolsonaro's defeat. Torres was also the public security secretary of the Federal District, directly responsible for the defense of the buildings that were attacked on Jan. 8; he was on holiday in Florida at the time. Torres has since been arrested by order of the Brazilian Supreme Court.
Bolsonaro denies any participation in planning or executing the attacks. He also denied any knowledge of the draft decree found at Torres' home. According to Bolsonaro's defense team, the document is “apocryphal.” But there are still investigations underway to determine how much the former president might have been involved in organized efforts to overturn the election—if he was involved in them at all. Though he remained in office for two months following the election, he largely stayed silent during that time.
Yet he also avoided discouraging his supporters, who were still openly calling for a change in the election's results. And only three days after the Jan. 8 attacks, Bolsonaro reposted a video published by a supporter that argued Lula was not elected by the people, but rather by the Brazilian Supreme Court and the Superior Electoral Court. Bolsonaro deleted the post minutes after its publication.
Investigations led by Brazil's Federal Police are now focused on the financing of the Jan. 8 actions, as well as the camps the bolsonaristas established in dozens of locations around the country and the transportation of Jan. 8 demonstrators to Brasília. The Federal Police are also looking into the possible participation of public servants in facilitating the rioters’ access to government buildings that day and in helping many of them escape.
The Challenge for Brazilian Democracy: Jan. 8 and Beyond
The possibility that Bolsonaro might lead a successful coup d’état with the support of military and civil leaders is unlikely. This does not mean that Bolsonaro will not contest the election results … or that he won’t incite his remaining supporters to take to the streets to protest the voting machines, the Brazilian Supreme Court or the media. These protests could evolve into physical attacks on institutions, such as Congress or the Supreme Court, much in the style of Trump’s supporters on Jan. 6.
Sadly, this has come to pass. There are other links to Jan. 6 as well. In 2021, Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo, reportedly conferred with advisers to former U.S. President Donald Trump, including firebrand Steve Bannon, about Brazil’s supposedly fraud-prone voting system. The draft decree in Torres’ possession is also reminiscent of an executive order drafted by the Trump administration after the 2020 election to have the National Guard seize U.S. voting machines.
Yet whatever the similarities in Bolsonaro’s and Trump’s strategies, the Jan. 6 uprising in the U.S. is unlikely to have inspired the Jan. 8 bolsonaristas. These are older Brazilians who don’t really follow the international political news circuit, and while some left-leaning politicians and analysts did mention the possibility of a Jan. 6-style assault following the 2022 election, these occasional discussions weren’t likely to draw the attention of Bolsonaro’s hard-core followers either.
What of Bolsonaro himself? Particularly after the disastrous Jan. 8 uprising, Bolsonaro remains unlikely to mount a successful threat to Brazilian democracy. Even at the peak of his popularity, Bolsonaro never had enough support in society to successfully remain in power after an electoral defeat.
So even if the investigations prove that high-ranking members of Bolsonaro's government conspired with members of the armed forces or the police to facilitate the Jan. 8 attacks or to overturn the election, there would still be a case that Brazil’s democratic foundations are relatively strong. Despite the violent attacks on the buildings that host the country's democratic institutions, the institutions themselves were never seriously in danger. Despite the rioters’ hopes and dreams, none of them has been celebrated as a freedom fighter, and no politician or organization is openly supporting them and their actions. Nor did the army mobilize in force to help them on Jan. 8. One by one, the reactionaries who made an attempt on Brazil's democracy are being arrested and prosecuted. Any new illegitimate regime would have struggled to find support nationally or internationally.
Journalists have reported that the president of Bolsonaro’s own party believes that Bolsonaro is finished politically. Yet it is probably too early to assess if the former president’s silence or his stay in the U.S. while his supporters “fight for democracy” in Brazil will hurt his stand as a viable contender for Lula’s succession in 2026. He nearly won the election last October, after all, and more than 58 million Brazilians voted for him.
But Bolsonaro is also unlikely to help repair the damage he and his supporters have caused. Brazil must rebuild its political arena without him.
Despite the government’s reasonably competent response to the riot since Jan. 8, citizens’ trust in the country’s democratic institutions, while never stellar, is lower than, say, the 1990s. Even apart from the scandal of Jan. 8, Brazil’s presidents, congressional leaders and members of the judiciary have all overstepped their proper bounds in recent years. Since the 2016 impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s protégé and successor, a small band of congressional leaders have become more prominent in the allocation and execution of budgetary resources, assuming powers that belong to the executive branch. Lula has spoken about returning powers to the presidency, and this issue will heat up during the debate over next year’s budget.
An even more serious debate must be had regarding the increasingly powerful role of the Brazilian Supreme Court in politics and society. Led by Justice de Moraes, a former executive branch justice minister, the Supreme Court has made exceptional use of its power, censuring social-media content, banning people from social networks, and arresting individuals—all in defense of “democracy.” Some of these actions may have been necessary, but no matter how well-intentioned any individual justice might be, no one’s power, including de Moraes’, should prevail unchecked, nor should any institution’s.
Brazil will also need to debate the role of active members of the armed forces and the military police in political activity, which in my view should be zero. No active member of the military should be permitted to occupy political posts. Restrictions on military members’ political actions should also be enacted to avoid cases like the 2021 strike and riots of the military police in Ceará. Otherwise, the military will be able to influence how society should be organized and how civilians should behave, think and vote. This would be exactly the opposite of what should happen: In a free society, the military should remain subject to civilian control.
Leading the reconstruction of a completely healthy and stable democratic environment will in itself be a challenge for Lula in the next four years—a challenge that will put his famous political abilities to the test. He will not be able to do it alone. Indeed, political normality must be restored to Brazil by the efforts of every one of its leaders and citizens who believes that looting, vandalism and military coups are entirely out of place in a democracy.