Harsh V Pant

After a bitter campaign and closer-than-anticipated election results two months back, it had seemed that things were calming down in Brazil.

When Luiz Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva was sworn in as the new president for his third term earlier this month, he had pledged to “rebuild” Brazil “with the people”.

While talking of “hope and reconstruction”, he had suggested that “the great edifice of rights, sovereignty, and development that this nation built has been systematically demolished in recent years”.

He also indirectly took on his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, when he said that “we do not carry any spirit of revenge against those who tried to subjugate the nation to their personal and ideological designs, but we will guarantee the rule of law”, underlining that “those who erred will answer for their errors”. Though there were concerns about violence from the supporters of Bolsonaro, nothing had happened then.

But it turned out to be the proverbial calm before the storm, one that has once again showcased the vulnerabilities of Brazil’s fragile democratic institutions.

One week after the swearing-in of Lula, thousands of Bolsonaro supporters, donning shirts in the bright yellow and green of Brazil’s flag, came together in Brasilia to storm the symbols of Brazilian democracy—the country’s congress, the Supreme Court, and the presidential palace.

The situation became so serious that the government had to order the closure of the Brasilia centre for 24 hours, and the national guard had to be deployed under the emergency powers of the President to restore normalcy. Lula has accused the security forces of “incompetence, bad faith, or malice” for failing to rein in the demonstrators before they could access congress. Several senior public officials, including Brasília’s former public security chief Anderson Torres, have been arrested as the nation reels from claims and counterclaims.

The bitter election of October 2022 was the precursor to this crisis, as the polarised country never really managed to resolve the political tensions simmering beneath the surface.

Though Lula defeated Bolsonaro, it was a fairly close election, with Lula securing 50.8% of the vote compared with 49.2% for his opponent. This was Brazil’s most polarising election, and Bolsonaro never formally conceded his defeat. He had also in the past raised doubts about the voting system. Many of his supporters have not reconciled with his defeat, and they believe that the system has been rigged.

It is simplistic to view the divide in Brazil as one between the left and the right. The fundamental fault line today seems to be one where almost half the country remains unimpressed with Lula’s victory and believes that the democratic institutions of Brazil no longer represent them. It is enmeshed with a broader cultural divide, where many of Bolsonaro’s supporters credit him for upholding values like “God, fatherland, family”.

The leadership has only aggravated this divide. Though Bolsonaro condemned the rioting and denied responsibility for encouraging the demonstrators on Twitter, it took him six hours to come out in the open. Lula, for his part, accused Bolsonaro by suggesting that “everybody knows there are various speeches of the ex-president encouraging this”.

This division was manifest in the way the election campaign had shaped up last year. The closer-than-expected election result further cemented this belief in many sections that Lula’s victory was somehow a sham and that everything must be done to stem this tide.

The situation is eerily reminiscent of what happened in the U.S. two years ago with some Trump supporters also playing a role in spreading disinformation and further aggravating the crisis in Brazil. This is a moment of reckoning for Brazil’s democracy. Institutions are inherently fragile and need constant vigilance. Political democracy is the hardest institutional framework to sustain precisely because it needs an emotional connect. Autocracies are disconnected from humans and so a mechanized bureaucracy is often enough to manage them.

The Communist Party of China is one such bureaucracy that has become ever more efficient over the decades and so many in the chaotic democratic world often find the efficiency of that system appealing. But democracy and its institutions are hard work. They need to be nurtured with the very human values of trust, faith, and responsibility.

After this week’s violence, it is easy to suggest that Brazil needs to come together but it is much more difficult to ascertain how that might be possible given the underlying fault lines. While the insurrectionists will certainly have to be brought to justice, Lula will need something more substantive to reach out to the wider support base of Bolsonaro that is almost half the nation. The majority of them may be repulsed by the shenanigans of the rioters on display this week but they are unlikely to see Lula as a savior any time soon.

Soon after his victory, Lula had promised to bring the country together by underlining that he would “govern for 215 million Brazilians, and not just for those who voted for me,” and that “there are not two Brazils…we are one country, one people, one great nation.” As this week has shown, it is easier said than done. Brazilians are not only politically polarized, there is a fundamental societal polarization that is being reflected in the policy. So Lula’s task is much tougher, almost building a nation anew.

These developments should also make other democracies not take their successes for granted. Sustaining democracy and faith in democratic institutions is an everyday task and arduous one at that. But without that kind of investment, there will always be a danger of a Brazil-like situation emerging sooner than expected.

The article was first published by BQPrime as The Tragedy Of Brazil And A Warning For Other Democracies on January 13, 2023.

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Editor and Authors

  • IMPRI

    IMPRI, a startup research think tank, is a platform for pro-active, independent, non-partisan and policy-based research. It contributes to debates and deliberations for action-based solutions to a host of strategic issues. IMPRI is committed to democracy, mobilization and community building.

  • Harsh V Pant

    Professor of International Relations at King’s College London and Director of Research at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi.

  • Samriddhi