The only loser of the Bolsonaristas’ attempted coup is Bolsonaro himself

Amid great uncertainty about Lula’s ability to govern, the recent chaos in Brazil’s capital could see supporters of democracy rally to the president

January 10, 2023
Not as planned: Bolsonaristas storming government buildings in Brasília on 8th January. Image: Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo
Not as planned: Bolsonaristas storming government buildings in Brasília on 8th January. Image: Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo

Many supporters and allies of Brazil’s incumbent president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or Lula as he is commonly known, were anxious even before the third inauguration of his long political career on 1st January. Already, thousands of supporters of Jair Bolsonaro—the former president who Lula defeated in a tense second-round vote last October—had been seen standing outside military barracks across the country, pleading for a coup to reinstate the far-right leader. There has been growing concern that some in Brazil’s military police—who are considered to be broadly sympathetic to Bolsonaro and his politics—might be open to that idea.

In the end, the leftist 77-year-old Lula received his presidential sash without much drama, albeit from “representatives of the Brazilian people” rather than his predecessor, as is tradition—Bolsonaro had fled to the United States only days before. Even so, Lula struggled to assemble a viable administration in the first week of the year, as many of the moderates who helped him to regain the presidency began wondering whether they really wanted to govern with such a divisive figure. Instability seemed the likely order of the day for Lula’s third term.

But that all changed on Sunday 8th, when Bolsonaristas took Brazil’s capital Brasília by storm and destroyed large parts of congress, the presidential palace and the Supreme Court. Police were filmed standing by as violent protesters broke through barriers to reach the Praça dos Três Poderes, where all three of the country’s branches of power sit, before going on to shatter windows, break chairs and tables and vandalise national treasures, such as paintings and antiques donated by foreign dignitaries.

Yet those hoping that these were the first signs of a Bolsonaro coup were soon disappointed. By Monday evening Lula’s renewed strength and Bolsonaro’s growing troubles were evident when 27 state governors—including many who campaigned for the far-right leader—joined the president in a long walk to the supreme court building in a show of support for democracy. Hours earlier, those same governors had been at the presidential palace helping the new leftist administration craft a response to the crisis. Among them was São Paulo’s Tarcisio de Freitas, a former minister in Bolsonaro’s government.

“They want a coup, and there will not be one,” an angry Lula told the governors. “They need to learn that democracy is the most complicated thing for us to have, because we have to bear with the others, it demands us to live with people we don’t like.” A round of applause followed, even among the president’s adversaries.

The speaker of the lower house of congress, Arthur Lira, also a staunch supporter of Bolsonaro, condemned the attacks and publicly pushed for Lula to lead. Supreme Court justices who were once hesitant to remove protesters from outside military barracks in December ruled hours after the insurrection that police should dismantle any camps with pro-coup activists and, if needed, arrest them. More than 1,500 Bolsonaristas have since been detained, and their financiers—who paid for coaches to help protesters reach the capital—are expected to follow. Bolsonaro himself is also under huge pressure from the authorities; he may even face jail time if he returns from the US, where he is said to be in hospital with abdominal pain (he was stabbed during his 2018 presidential campaign).

Carlos Melo, a political science professor at the Insper University in São Paulo, says Brazil’s version of the US Capitol Hill insurrection in 2021 was much more violent, though less deadly, and may further isolate a leader who is no longer in office and will have trouble regrouping to challenge Lula’s new administration.

“Bolsonaro is the biggest loser of this all, his allies now have a reason to support Lula in congress and at a local level,” Melo says. “Lula started this administration with little political capital, in trouble to put a working administration together, but now anyone going against him could be seen as pro-Bolsonaro. And anyone who reads politics in Brazil can see that Bolsonaro and his allies will be further isolated. Many of them will end in jail.”

Another element of Bolsonaro’s isolation is in what used to be his fortress: Federal District governor Ibaneis Rocha, the boss of police in Brasília, has been suspended from his job for 90 days. The federal government is now policing the streets of the capital directly, while a series of internal proceedings against rebellious police officers is expected to kick off within days.

Political consultant Thomas Traumann sees the incident as Lula’s “greatest opportunity to expand his power and corner Bolsonarismo against a wall.”

“The protests in Brasília tried to undermine Lula’s governability, but in practice they undermined Bolsonaro’s credibility as an opposition leader,” Traumann says. “If Lula uses this opportunity well, he can broaden his alliance in congress and earn the honeymoon phrase typical of a new government, which seemed impossible a week ago.”