The unrest in Brazil on Sunday was reminiscent of the January 6 attack: demonstrators stormed government buildings in the capital. Outnumbered police officers fired pepper spray and tear gas canisters. The protesters held out tenaciously for hours, lashing out at what they mistakenly believed to be a stolen election.
The comparison is inevitable and, in a way, useful in understanding what has happened in the two most populous democracies in the western hemisphere. But there are major differences between the January 6 attack and the unrest in Brazil. In today’s newsletter, I want to help you understand both the similarities and the differences.
The similarity between the January 6 attack and the unrest in Brazil is clear: in both cases, a right-wing leader – Donald Trump in the US, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil – has for months hinted that an election would be rigged if it was an upcoming one would lose election. Then, when they lost, their supporters took ownership of the claims and violently attempted to overturn the voting results.
“There is no question that Bolsonaro is above everything,” said my colleague Jack Nicas, the Times’ Brazil bureau chief. “In a way, it’s similar to what Trump did.”
Both uprisings demonstrated how political leaders can manipulate their supporters to threaten democracy, often for personal gain. Indeed, many of their supporters believed they were acting to defend democracy, when in fact they were working against it.
The events also show the fragility of democracy. As I wrote earlier in this newsletter, the world has been in a democratic recession for years: the proportion of the world’s population living in truly free democracies has declined. The January 6 riots and in Brazil fit into this broader trend.
Still, there are stark contrasts between the riots in Brazil and the January 6 attack. Unlike Trump, Bolsonaro largely gave up on his cheating allegations after losing a runoff election; He facilitated a peaceful transition to the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was inaugurated on January 1st. Bolsonaro has also criticized the violence, condemned the unrest and called a recent foiled bomb attack by one of his supporters an “act of terrorism”. ”
Contrary to American lawmakers on Jan. 6, Brazil’s Congress was not in session during Sunday’s unrest. Unlike Trump supporters, who had tried to disrupt Congress’ confirmation of President Biden’s election, Brazilians vandalized and looted mostly empty buildings without an official process intervening.
“It was an expression of frustration and outrage,” said Jennifer McCoy, a political scientist at Georgia State University. “But with no way of stopping anything because the initiation has already taken place.”
Overall, the circumstances of Brazil’s unrest make it look more like a tantrum than a January 6th-style attack. wrote my colleague Max Fisher.
So why has Bolsonaro retracted his allegations of voter fraud? He may have realized that he lacked the institutional support to carry out a coup. The Brazilian military has resisted calls from its supporters to intervene on its behalf. The army even helped eliminate the rioters.
Another possible explanation: although Bolsonaro lost, his party won seats in the legislature. This gives Bolsonaro, whose three sons are also elected officials, a personal reason not to doubt the election result.
It also makes the voter fraud claims harder to buy. Why would Bolsonaro’s opponents rig the presidential election but not do the same for the legislature? A similar question might be asked for the 2020 US election, when the Democrats won the presidency but lost seats in the House of Representatives and narrowly captured the Senate in subsequent runoffs.
As was the case immediately after the January 6 riots, it is unclear what will happen next in Brazil.
Brazilian authorities have made efforts to clear up protesters, including at a tent city in Brasília. More than 1,200 people have been arrested for questioning, a police spokesman said yesterday, as officials investigate how security forces failed to protect the government.
But such investigations could lead to further backlash if Bolsonaro supporters feel the government is conspiring against them. A Supreme Court judge suspended Ibaneis Rocha, the governor of the Federal District (where Brasília’s capital is located), while investigations into security flaws continue. This act – the suspension of a democratically elected leader by an unelected official – immediately raised further questions about the workings of Brazilian democracy.
The uncertainty touches on one of the biggest differences between the Jan. 6 attack and the weekend’s unrest: Brazil’s 38-year-old democracy is much younger and less established than America’s. It has worked up serious corruption scandals, including one that temporarily jailed Lula, who also previously served as president. With such shaky foundations, Brazil may be more vulnerable to anti-democratic forces.
More on Brazil
What drove the attacks in Brazil? Mass madness rooted in years of conspiracy theories about rigged elections, writes Jack Nicas of The Times.
Brazil’s heads of state condemned the unrest as “terrorism” and met at the Presidential Palace.
As with January 6, we don’t know if the riots in Brazil mark the end of a political movement or the beginning, writes Vanessa Barbara in Times Opinion.
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