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Bolsonaro supporters storm Brazil’s Congress

The demonstrators are calling for the military to overthrow President Lula, who was sworn into office one week ago. Police managed to retake control of the capital, while the president accused his predecessor of instigating the riots

Bolsonaro supporters in Brasília on Sunday.
Naiara Galarraga Gortázar

Thousands of supporters of former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro stormed Congress, the Supreme Court and the presidential palace on Sunday, demanding a military intervention to overthrow President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was sworn into office one week ago. The demonstrators climbed over police barriers and reached the top of the roof of Congress, breaking the glass in its windows.

The Three Powers Plaza, where the Congress, Supreme Court and presidential palace are located, had been cordoned off, but the pro-coup protesters were able to get past the security barricade. Images on social media and local television show the protesters inside the three buildings. The protesters threatened police with sticks and reached the floor of the Panalto Palace, where presidents have their offices.

The pro-coup protesters reached the heart of power in Brasília from the army headquarters, where they have been camped out since Bolsonaro lost the election two months ago. By Sunday 5pm (local time), police had regained control of the Supreme Court headquarters, but protesters remained in the chamber of Congress and Planalto Palace, the official workplace of the president of Brazil.

Supporters of Brazil's former president Jair Bolsonaro, storm the Planalto Palace in Brasília, Brazil, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023.
Supporters of Brazil's former president Jair Bolsonaro, storm the Planalto Palace in Brasília, Brazil, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023.Eraldo Peres (AP)

The extremists, most of whom were wearing yellow and green T-shirts – the colors of the Brazilian flag that have come to symbolize the Bolsonaro government – refuse to accept the far-right leader’s defeat in last October’s elections.

The assault on Brazil’s centers of power poses a serious challenge to the new leftist president, who is popularly known as Lula. Since winning the election, Lula’s biggest issue has been finding a way to manage the protests calling for his ouster. While Justice Minister Flavio Dino has always been in favor of using force to disperse the protesters in Brasília, Defense Minister José Múcio was in favor of avoiding confrontation at all costs.

Lula was scheduled this afternoon to visit Araraquara, an inland city in the state of São Paulo, which has been affected by the heavy rains of the last few days. The president – who previously held office from 2003 until 2010 – has held an emergency virtual meeting with his ministers of Justice, Defense and Institutional Relations to analyze the assault on the government headquarters in Brasília. He warned that the “the fascist vandals will be identified and punished.”

Lula has complained that the Military Police of Brasília have not been able to guarantee the rule of law or protect government institutions. The 77-year-old president has also accused his predecessor, Bolsonaro, of “instigating the invasion of the three [branches of government]” and of “fleeing” to the US so as not to place the presidential sash on him.

After 9pm on Sunday night, former president Bolsonaro, 67, reacted via several tweets. “Peaceful demonstrations, in accordance with the law, are part of democracy. However, the depredations and invasions of public buildings – such as those that occurred today, as well as those practiced by the left in 2013 and 2017 – are beyond the rule of law,” the hard-right leader stated, two hours after the police managed to put an end to the assault.

The former president was referring to popular protests staged by supporters of Lula’s Workers’ Party, when rioters paraded on the roof of Congress and looted private businesses. They were seeking a reduction of public transportation fares in 2013 and were opposing a reform to labor laws in 2017.

Bolsonaro added that, during his four-year tenure, he respected the law and repudiated what he describes as “accusations, without evidence” against him “by the current chief executive of Brazil.” This is the first time that he has acknowledged Lula as the head of state since he was defeated in the runoff of October’s presidential elections.

Bolsonaro-allied governors also condemned the attack. And the Liberal Party (PL) – Bolsonaro’s party – has tried to distance the former president from the invasion.

“This movement in Brasília is a shame for all of us and it does not represent our party, it does not represent Bolsonaro,” PL leader Valdemar Costa Neto declared in a video message.

Before condemning the assault, however, Neto had praised other violent protests staged across Brazil. This change in rhetoric is similar to what has been practiced by Bolsonaro in recent months – it appears to be an attempt to walk a fine line that appeases the hard right, without landing any conservative politicians in legal trouble. Bolsonaro-aligned parties control a slim majority in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, making legal sanctions unlikely.

“This absurd attempt to impose their will by force will not prevail,” said Justice Minister Flavio Dino on his Twitter account. “The government of the Federal District has ensured there will be reinforcements. And the forces at our disposal are at work.”

The assault in Brasília recalls the assault on the US Capitol two years ago. In this case, however, Brazil’s Congress was not in session when it was stormed by protesters. The new session of Congress will convene in February. Bolsonaro is currently in the Orlando, Florida in the United States. He traveled to the US city last week in order to avoid Lula’s inauguration, where, according to protocol, he would have had to place the presidential sash on the new leader.

Security forces retake control of Brazil's Supreme Court.
Security forces retake control of Brazil's Supreme Court.LECO VIANA / ZUMA PRESS / CONTACTOPHOTO (LECO VIANA / ZUMA PRESS / CONTAC)

It so happens that the man responsible for state security in the Federal District, where Brasília is located, is Anderson Torres, who was Bolsonaro’s justice minister. According to local media, Torres is currently on a trip to the United States.

For the past two months, thousands of Bolsonaro supporters have been camped out in front of the army headquarters, in Brasília, and in other cities in Brazil. They believe Bolsonaro was the rightful winner of the election, which was the closest in Brazil’s history. Lula won with 50.9% of the votes against Bolsonaro’s 49.1%, a difference of two million votes.

The protest camps across the country have been slowly dwindling, but are still standing in the main cities. On Friday, authorities managed to dismantle the first protest camp, which was set up in Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais, which is Brazil’s third most populated state.

Pedro Abramovay – the director of Latin America for the Open Society Foundations – told EL PAÍS by telephone that he considers the assault on Brazil’s capital to be “an attempted coup: a violent attempt to overthrow a democratically-elected government.”

Abramovay sees parallels between the mob in Brasília and the January 6 Capitol attack. He also doesn’t find it to be a coincidence that Bolsonaro happens to be in Florida at this time, after refusing to attend Lula’s inauguration. “Brazil needs to make it clear that there is a difference between the right to peaceful protest and this violent attempt to undermine democracy,” he said.

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