Home / Headline / How Brazil’s political unrest reached a violent crescendo months after a contentious election

How Brazil’s political unrest reached a violent crescendo months after a contentious election

Brazil is reeling after supporters of former president Jair Bolsonaro stormed its Congress, presidential palace and Supreme Court on Sunday, vandalizing the premises in rebuke of newly sworn-in President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Groundwork for attacks in Brasilia was laid long before the recent election, says political observer.

Protesters hold up a sign.

Brazil is reeling after supporters of former president Jair Bolsonaro stormed its Congress, presidential palace and Supreme Court on Sunday, vandalizing the premises in rebuke of newly sworn-in President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Lula, as he is commonly known, was inaugurated on Jan. 1 after defeating Bolsonaro in an election in October, one of the most important — and contentious — in the country’s democratic history.

Bolsonaro was a far-right politician, backed by Donald Trump, who promised economic growth and a crackdown on crime during his presidency and downplayed the COVID-19 pandemic. Lula, of the leftist Workers’ Party, is a longtime politician who presided over a period of economic growth and poverty reduction as president during the 2000s, before he was nearly ruined by corruption allegations.

The attacks on Brazil’s institutions came after months of escalating violence and organization by Bolsonaristas, and anti-democratic rhetoric from Bolsonaro himself — coupled with broader anti-Lula sentiment, experts say.

Bolsonaro repeatedly stirred distrust in voting system

After Lula’s narrow election win, Bolsonaro supporters began camping outside military bases to encourage a coup d’état, demanding that the country’s armed forces intervene and reinstate Bolsonaro as president.

The encampment in the country’s capital, Brasilia, included thousands of demonstrators at one point.

Starting at the end of October, Brazilian truckers blocked roads in support of Bolsonaro, and other backers called for military intervention. But a skeptical attitude towards Brazilian institutions from partisans of the far-right former president began long before Bolsonaro’s loss, observers said.

A man in a suit outdoors waves at someone outside of camera view.

“I think a lot of the groundwork was done prior to [the election] actually happening,” said Michelle Bonner, a professor of political science at the University of Victoria.

Bolsonaro stirred distrust in the country’s electronic voting machines during his presidency. In July 2021, the former president said that he may not accept a 2022 election result under the current voting system, claiming without evidence that it was vulnerable to fraud.

“If this method continues, they’re going to have problems,” Bolsonaro said during an interview, according to Reuters. “Because one side, which is our side, may not accept the result.”

He echoed those remarks during the month leading up to the election. The comments stood in stark contrast to criticisms made by Bolsonaro in 1993 — then a congressional lawmaker — that the paper voting system was flawed and should be digitized. The current machines came into use in 1996.

Over 1,500 arrested in Brazil after government buildings stormed

More than 1,500 people have been arrested in Brazil after government buildings in the country’s capital were stormed by supporters of far-right former president Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro has denied involvement in the violence, and remains in Florida.

Brazil’s voting authority has not found any evidence to suggest that the current system — while not leaving an auditable trail as paper voting does— is penetrable. But a month after his defeat, Bolsonaro called for most electronic ballots to be voided.

“Bolsonaro has legitimized an authoritarian discourse defending anti-democratic solutions for the country during the course of his term in office,” Lucio Renno, a professor of political science at the University of Brasilia in Brazil, told CBC News.

Bolsonaro also raised doubts in 2020 about the legitimacy of U.S. President Joe Biden’s electoral win over former president Donald Trump — just months before the January 6 insurgency occurred in Washington, D.C., an event that some say parallels Monday’s events in Brasilia.

History of Lula hostility

Before his most recent win, Lula — a working classtrade unionist—was a two-term president from 2003 to 2011 and a central figure in Brazilian politics. His career nearly ended in disgrace after corruption charges led to a long prison sentence in 2017.

But the charges were annulled in 2021, clearing the path for another presidential run.

A man clasps his hands.

“There has actually been a very, very long history of hostility toward Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva … that goes back all the way to the very first time that he ran for president back in 1989,” said Hendrik Kraay, a history professor at the University of Calgary.

Further instances of violence began as Lula’s path back to the presidency was legitimized by the country’s institutions. When the final votes were tabulated, Bolsonaro, without explicitly calling for a coup, offered no concession of his political loss.

On Dec. 12, after Lula’s victory was certified by Brazil’s electoral court, pro-Bolsonaro supporters attempted to invade federal police headquarters in Brasilia.

Brazilian police then arrested at least four people on Dec. 29 for an alleged coup attempt, the day before Bolsonaro flew to Florida to wait out the rest of his presidential mandate.

Supporters of outgoing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro ransacked the country’s capital buildings this week in a show of defiance against the country’s recent election results. New President Lula da Silva accused his predecessor for inciting the violence and vowed to punish those who took part. Journalist Gustavo Ribeiro has watched and reported for years on false claims from President Jair Bolsonaro that Brazil’s election system is faulty. He describes how Bolsonaro has created a deeply divided Brazil.

He was absent for Lula’s Jan. 1 inauguration, an event which includes the ceremonial passing of the presidential sash: a longstanding tradition of Brazil’s nearly 40-year-old democracy, designed to “legitimize the democratic process,” said Bonner.

It was yet another step that Bolsonaro took to fan the flames, “without actually explicitly telling his supporters to carry on this struggle,” she added.

Renno, at the University of Brasilia, called the violent protests “a very sad historical moment for Brazil.”

“It’s the first time that we have something of this magnitude by a politically organized movement invading public buildings and causing damage to public property, in an attempt to destabilize the democratic regime in the country,” he said.

Kraay, who researches the South American nation’s social, political and cultural history, said he isn’t pessimistic about the strength of Brazilian democracy.

“Yes, there is a strong anti-democratic group in Brazil, [an] anti-democratic faction on the right that has been seeking to disrupt the election,” he said.

“But the fact of the matter is, Brazilian institutions have actually survived that quite well.”


Jenna Benchetrit


Jenna Benchetrit is a web journalist for CBC News. Based in Toronto and born in Montreal, she holds a master’s degree in journalism from Ryerson University. Reach her at jenna.benchetrit@cbc.ca or on Twitter @jennabenchetrit.

With files from the Associated Press and Reuters

Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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