BRASILIA – Brazil was reeling on Monday after hundreds of supporters of the country’s former leader, Jair Bolsonaro stormed the seats of power in the capital Brasilia, trashing offices – drawing condemnation from the government and the international community.
More than a thousand people have been arrested, with Brazilian Justice Minister Flavio Dino saying there had been ‘about 1,500’ arrests in Brasilia since the Sunday riots.
The breaches came a week after the inauguration of Lula da Silva, who returned to power after a 12-year lull following a victory over Bolsonaro in a run-off election on October 30.
The attack bore similarities to the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol in Washington DC, when supporters of ex-US President Donald Trump – a close ally of Bolsonaro – stormed Congress in an effort to prevent the certification of his election defeat.
The Events in Brasilia
Footage on Sunday showed massive crowds in Brasília walking up a ramp to the congressional building, where they had reached the Green Room, located outside the lower House of Congress’ chamber, according to Interim Senate President Veneziano Vital do Rogo.
Other outlets showed Bolsonaro supporters entering the Supreme Court and the presidential palace as anti-riot police and the Brazilian Armed Forces intervened.
The floor of the Congress building was flooded after the sprinkler system activated when protesters attempted to set fire to the carpet. Other videos showed protesters inside the building taking gifts received from international delegations and destroying artwork.
Brazil’s Presidential Communications Minister Paulo Pimenta described how there was blood, faeces and urine found in the palace rooms.
“Onlookers said they seemed beside themselves with hate, like a horde of zombies. They were running down hallways, smashing things, urinating, defecating in the corridors and in the rooms on one destruction spree,” he noted.
By Sunday evening, several hours after the breaches, the three buildings had been cleared of protesters, with at least 400 arrests, according to the Federal District Gov. Ibaneis Rocha.
Those arrested; “will pay for the crimes committed.” Rocha tweeted, adding that they were; “working to identify all the others who participated in these terrorist acts this afternoon.”
Hours later, however, the Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes suspended Rocha from his post for 90 days.
A number of hard-core supporters of ex-President Jair Bolsonaro have been making their resentment of Lula clear since he won the October election, and those grievances had intensified in recent weeks, culminating into Sunday’s storming of Brazil’s democratic institutions.
Spurred by unfounded claims of election fraud, supporters draped in Brazil’s national colours and wearing the shirt of the national football team – both of which became central motifs of Bolsonaro’s campaigns – spilled into major government buildings, smashing windows and using furniture to form barricades against security forces.
But the Sunday events did not emerge from nowhere.
Bolsonaro supporters had camped out in the capital since his election defeat. Justice Minister Dino had authorised the armed forces to set up the barriers and guard the congressional building Saturday due to their continued presence.
The supporters had previously clashed with security forces in Brasilia on December 12 after a group attempted to rush the federal police headquarters, according a statement from the federal police at the time.
A number of camps filled by supporters of the ex-president had also appeared outside Brazilian military bases, with some calling for a coup by the armed forces reminiscent of the two-decade military regime that ruled Brazil from 1964.
Dino said on Twitter on Christmas Day that those camps had become; “incubators for terrorists,” after a man was arrested for attempting to set off a bomb in protest against Brazil’s election results.
Of those arrested so far in connection with the riots, 209 people were arrested on Sunday and “about 1,200” were arrested on Monday in the protestors’ encampment area, Dino told reporters on Monday.
Bolsonaro’s Role in the Riots
In the months leading up to his election defeat Bolsonaro repeatedly sowed doubt about the legitimacy of the vote, without citing any evidence for his various claims. His effort to suggest that any loss was the result of fraud was immediately likened to his ally Donald Trump, who employed similar tactics during the 2020 US Presidential election.
After a narrow loss in the final round, Bolsonaro stepped up those complaints – but struggled to gain any vindication from Brazil’s regulators and institutions.
The head of Brazil’s electoral court on Wednesday rejected Bolsonaro’s petition to annul ballots, calling the outgoing President’s allegation that some voting machines had malfunctioned “ludicrous and illicit” and “ostensibly conspiratorial toward the democratic rule of law.”
And Brazil’s Ministry of Defence found no evidence of fraud or inconsistency in the electoral process in a report published in November.
Bolsonaro nonetheless refused to explicitly concede defeat in the vote, while also insisting he would comply with Brazil’s constitution during the handover of power to Lula. Ultimately, he fled the country on the eve of Lula’s inauguration, and has been staying in Florida-US since then.
Bolsonaro, however denounced Sunday’s actions in a tweet, while equivocating their historic nature and attempting to draw comparisons with previous actions of ‘the left.’
The ex-leader said that although peaceful and lawful demonstrations were part of democracy, ‘depredations and invasions of public buildings as occurred today, as well as those practiced by the left in 2013 and 2017, escape the rule.’
Despite his efforts to separate himself from Sunday’s protests, experts say Bolsonaro’s months-long campaign to sow doubt over the election laid the groundwork and ultimately encouraged his supporters to launch Sunday’s protest.
Did January 6 inspire Brazil the Riots?
Sunday’s events immediately drew comparisons to the storming of the US Capitol building by supporters of Trump, almost two years ago to the day.
And like that event, the riot followed months of incendiary remarks from Bolsonaro about the legitimacy of Brazil’s elections and of Lula’s electoral victory. The two ex-leaders employed eerily similar playbooks before, during and after their electoral defeats, leading to concerns in each country about how robustly their electoral processes and democratic institutions would hold up.
Bolsonaro would complain about supposed “fake news” about his presidency, insist that polling showing him behind Lula was rigged or untrustworthy, and claim that voting machines used on polling day were not fit – all of which were also espoused by Trump.
Whereas Trump spoke directly to his supporters hours before the Washington DC insurrection, and then remained in his residence as it unfolded, Bolsonaro was not physically in Brazil during Sunday’s riot.
In both cases, the riots drew global condemnation and failed to impact the results of the election – in Brasilia, Lula had already taken office and there was no process for protesters to disrupt.
“I condemn the assault on democracy and on the peaceful transfer of power in Brazil,” US President Joe Biden wrote on Twitter. “Brazil’s democratic institutions have our full support and the will of the Brazilian people must not be undermined.”
Pimenta, Brazil’s presidential communications minister, said the ‘episode that occurred in Brazil is more serious than what happened at the Capitol,’ because protesters had stormed the home of all three branches of power.
He called the attacks an attempted coup.
“In our view, what happened here was not an act against the Executive Branch. It was an attack on democracy, on the Constitution. It was an attempted coup d’état, which failed to materialise,” Pimenta said.
In a news conference, Lula da Silva described events in the capital Brasilia as ‘barbaric’ and said ‘a lack of security’ had allowed Bolsonaro’s ‘fascist’ supporters to breach barriers set up by the military outside the congressional building, the Supreme Court and the Planalto Presidential Palace.
“These people are everything that is abominable in politics,” he said, adding; “all the people who did this will be found and punished.”
Commanders from the military, police and the defence minister would be held accountable in court if the camps were not dismantled, Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes said, adding that all highways must be cleared on Monday.
Brazil’s Attorney General’s office – MP said it was investigating all involved in the breaches.
“The Attorney General of the Republic, Augusto Aras, monitors and follows with concern the acts of vandalism to public buildings that occur in Brasília this Sunday,” the MPF said, in a statement.
Aras has also ‘requested the Attorney General’s Office in the Federal District – PRDF to immediately open a criminal investigation procedure aimed at holding those involved accountable.’