The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Brazilian democracy should stand strong against an insurrection

Brazil's flag is reflected on a broken window at the presidential office in Brasilia on Monday. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)
3 min

If Sunday’s violent right-wing stampede in Brasilia were a movie, you would say it was almost a shot-by-shot remake of the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol in Washington. Once again, a mob, summoned to a nation’s capital via social media and inflamed by false claims of election fraud, could be seen smashing windows, invading government offices, assaulting journalists and, in at least one case, attacking a police officer. Though the human toll in death and injury was less than that of Jan. 6, the Brazilian rioters’ imitation — just over two years later, almost to the day — of the pro-Trump assault in D.C. provided ugly proof that the example set by the United States carries global impact.

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Vigorously and appropriately condemned by Brazil’s political leaders and democratic counterparts around the globe — led by President Biden — the attack on Brazil’s Congress, presidential office and Supreme Court failed to trigger a military coup, which bitter-end followers of defeated former president Jair Bolsonaro have been seeking since the new leftist president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, won a close election runoff in October. That’s the good news. More troubling was the apparent ease with which the mob acquired and boarded a fleet of buses and then descended on Brasilia’s government quarter all but unopposed by the police. Now, hundreds have been arrested and encampments where Brazilian election denialists were allowed to gather for weeks leading up to the attack have been dismantled. Yet the Brazilian Supreme Court seems justified in suspending Brasilia’s governor — a onetime Bolsonaro ally who nominally commands the relevant state police forces — pending investigation into his possible culpability.

Mr. Bolsonaro deserves much of the blame. To be sure, his violations of democratic norms were somewhat less flagrant than those of the former U.S. president. Whereas Donald Trump was still in office, and still in Washington, riling up the mob, on Jan. 6, and then failing or refusing to use his power to stem the violence, Mr. Bolsonaro had already been replaced by Mr. Lula on Jan. 1. He issued no overt call for protests on Sunday and had made statements against post-election violence. He was in Florida on Sunday, whence he denounced the assault. Nevertheless, Mr. Bolsonaro’s persistent stoking of election-fraud fears before the balloting process, and his refusal to explicitly concede defeat or to attend Mr. Lula’s inauguration delegitimized Brazil’s democracy and fed far-right conspiracy theories that ultimately exploded in Brasilia.

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Sunday’s events show that Brazil is deeply divided politically and that a far-right minority is willing to use violence. Mr. Lula had his hands full already with a Congress dominated by opposition parties. He should nevertheless follow through vigorously on his promise to investigate the incident and to bring all guilty parties to justice. In that respect, he can look to more positive U.S. examples: investigations by the Justice Department and the House Jan. 6 committee.

It is still too soon to tell whether Sunday’s attack marked the opening of a budding insurrection — or the final spasm of a failed one. The United States should support Mr. Lula’s efforts to ensure it is the latter.

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