Since Brazil’s presidential election last October great leniency has been extended to those supporters of far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro who have mobilised behind an effort to void his defeat to leftist rival Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. This has resulted in a campaign of low-intensity criminality by a radical fringe that culminated in Sunday’s riot in the capital Brasília during which a mob invaded and vandalised the presidential palace, congress and the supreme court.
Though the images shocked and embarrassed Brazilians, the country’s democratic institutions were never in danger. The riot only served to highlight how poorly led the would-be coup leaders were. Lula had been sworn in the previous weekend and the country’s political class has already reorientated itself around the wily veteran. Sunday was little more than an impotent show of rage by the defeated faction whose hopes of provoking the armed forces into intervening against Lula proved delusional.
But they were nevertheless breaking the law as part of their campaign to overturn the result of a free election just because Bolsonaro lost. The defence of Brazilian democracy would be best served by subjecting those who took part in Sunday’s riot to the full rigours of the law, as belatedly appears set to happen.
Authorities have also vowed to identify and prosecute the movement’s political leadership and financial backers. Democrats everywhere must hope this happens. The efforts by some leaders from Bolsonaro’s movement to downplay Sunday’s incidents show the risks of such anti-democratic behaviour becoming normalised on the political right. A rigorous prosecutorial offensive against those plotting, no matter how ineptly, against the world’s fifth-largest democracy is overdue.
Lula will also need to accelerate the clear-out under way in the federal government of Bolsonarista elements with little commitment to democratic norms. He must also confront the threats caused by the evident sympathy within state police forces for the far-right agenda of his predecessor. And perhaps most importantly of all, he must ensure the military returns to its designated institutional role by reversing its growing involvement in politics over the last decade, which reached dangerous proportions during Bolsonaro’s four years in office, when he openly groomed it for a role in his extra-constitutional plotting.
Then there is the problem of Bolsonaro himself, currently in what increasingly looks like self-imposed exile in the US. As in the past, he kept his criticism of his supporters’ illegal actions on Sunday to the bare minimum and still refuses to acknowledge his defeat in October. Even after Sunday’s failure the far-right’s electoral denialism could yet make life difficult for Lula.