URI professor discusses Jan. 6-style unrest in Brazil

‘All eyes are on military leaders right now,’ says political scientist Ashlea Rundlett as Brazil navigates a fragile moment for its democratic institutions

KINGSTON, R.I. – Jan. 13, 2023 – On Jan. 9, supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro flooded into the country’s capital city of Brasilia, vandalizing buildings that house presidential offices, Congress, and federal courts.

The assault came in the wake of claims by Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist who lost his reelection bid to Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, that the nation’s election was rigged. The mob, many draped in Brazilian flags and other patriotic paraphernalia, set fires, destroyed barricades, and assaulted security officers en route to a brief occupation of government buildings. 

The incident bore an eerie resemblance to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, where rioters fueled by largely evidence-free claims of a stolen election tried to stop the peaceful transition of power. 

Ashlea Rundlett, an assistant professor of political science at URI and an expert in Brazilian politics, says that while the unrest is a worrying sign for the health of Brazilian democracy, there are reasons to believe democratic institutions in the country will be able to weather the storm.

Rundlett discussed the situation in Brazil in an interview. 

Could you start with a little background on Bolsonaro and his time in office?

Jair Bolsonaro is a far right-wing populist who enacted numerous controversial policy changes during his four years in the presidency, including cutting tariffs on luxury goods, accelerating the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, and stripping protections of indigenous lands in favor of mining and logging industries. Prior to and during his presidency, Bolsonaro also made countless offensive statements regarding Black Brazilians, women, LGBTQ, and Indigenous peoples.

One of the more important things to know about Bolsonaro in the context of the 2023 riots is that he was a relatively low-ranking military officer in the 1970s and 1980s during Brazil’s military dictatorship. As a politician, he consistently espoused nostalgic sentiment toward the dictatorship, sometimes overtly suggesting that Brazil would be better off if it were no longer a democracy. As president, Bolsonaro also gave the military more political power than it had since Brazil transitioned to a democracy in 1985.

In the lead up to the 2022 election, Bolsonaro continued to sow seeds of distrust in Brazil’s democratic institutions and he cast doubt on the legitimacy of the 2022 presidential election. After he lost the runoff on Oct. 30, Bolsonaro falsely claimed that the election was stolen without providing any evidence.

What’s your sense of what the protesters/rioters were hoping to achieve?

In short, they’re hoping for a military coup. In the weeks leading up to the riots, large groups of protestors formed encampments in front of the army’s headquarters calling for a military coup that would prevent the incoming president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, from taking office. After those individuals joined the groups that were already on the Capitol grounds, I’d say that the rioters were hoping to cause enough of a disruption that the military felt the need to intervene. They’re also demonstrating the degree of support that the military would have among the general population should the military step in.

Were there formal activist groups involved in organizing the protests, or was this more of a grassroots effort?

My impression is that it’s somewhere in between. To my knowledge, there were no organized groups hosting these protests like we saw with the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers in the United States on Jan. 6. However, these protests haven’t been entirely a grassroots effort. First, these riots were part of a larger set of protests and disruptions that have been going on in Brazil since Bolsonaro lost the election in October. Starting in November, truckers organized to block roads and cause large economic disruptions across Brazil. Second, there’s evidence that businessmen and leaders are financing these protests, even bussing in protestors from neighboring states.

It’s hard not to draw comparisons between these protests and those in the U.S. on Jan. 6, 2021. How closely do you think Bolsonaro supporters followed what happened in the U.S. and to what extent do you think they took inspiration from it?

You’re right that the connection between Brazil’s riots and the Jan. 6 insurrection are undeniable. Both involved the storming of capitol buildings, and both were fueled by the outgoing president’s baseless claims of electoral fraud. It’s hard to think that the protestors were not inspired by Jan. 6 protestors when many of their protest signs were written in English, as if to speak to their American counterparts.

There are some differences worth pointing out, however. I think most importantly, the storming of the capitol buildings in Brazil was not a direct attempt to interfere with a democratic process. Lula had already taken office a week prior, and [Brazil’s] Congress was not in session. The Jan. 6 insurrection, on the other hand, was an attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 election, thereby preventing the legitimately elected president from taking office.

Second, the involvement of the outgoing president was a bit different. Bolsonaro was not in Brazil at the time of the riots, as he had traveled to Florida just before Lula’s inauguration. Trump, on the other hand, was in Washington and had just spoken to the insurrectionists prior to their storming of the capitol, telling them to “fight like hell.”

I could get into other differences, but those are probably the two most important.

What do you think happens next? Is Brazilian democracy in peril?

All eyes are on military leaders right now. Bolsonaro gave the military a central role in his administration and military leaders appear to remain loyal to him even after Bolsonaro’s defeat. There is a growing concern that the military did not discourage the protestors outside of the army’s headquarters, nor did they directly address the calls for a military coup. Even if the military does not step in, which becomes less likely as time goes on, supporters of Bolsonaro and general anti-democratic sentiment aren’t going anywhere.  

On the other hand, Brazil’s democratic institutions are surviving a hard test. Hundreds of people were arrested in the aftermath of the riots, Congress is about to return from recess and potentially begin an investigation, Lula already met with his cabinet, and the leaders of the three branches of government released a joint statement condemning the riots as terrorist acts.

Additionally, tens of thousands of Brazilians have taken part in pro-democracy rallies across the country. These are all good signs for Brazilian democracy, but we have to wait and see what the long-term effects of these riots will be for Brazil’s democratic institutions.