Lula Has the Upper Hand After Last Sunday’s Riot of Bolsonaro Supporters

Bolsonaro supporters’ January 8 riot has left the Brazilian right divided over how to respond to the antidemocratic attacks. And that’s put Lula in a stronger position to shore up Brazil’s democracy.

Brazil's president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva at a meeting with governors at Planalto Palace in Brasilia on January 9, 2023. (Mateus Bonomi / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The trashing of Brazilian government buildings by reactionary zealots on January 8 looks to be a political disaster for the country’s right wing. It is still early, but one indication that the coup attempt will not ultimately boost the anti-Lula opposition, as some have worried, is the lack of a coordinated response among those who supported former president Jair Bolsonaro in the recent election.

The disorganized medley of talking points on the Right suggests that it has no unified reaction to what happened. As a result, Lula — and Brazilian democracy — could actually emerge from this ordeal in a stronger position.

Aside from absurd conspiracy theories that hardly merit a rebuttal (like the notion that the outburst was instigated by left-wing infiltrators), there are three types of reactions that have emerged on the Right:

The riots were an attack on democracy.

Fortunately, the Left was not alone in rushing to defend Brazil’s democratic order. Even before the damage was totally accounted for in Brasília, erstwhile Bolsonaro allies like the governor of Goiás, a state bordering the federal district, stepped in to help the federal government by setting up roadblocks and sending police forces to the capital. “We have to be intransigent in defending our democracy,” the conservative governor, Ronaldo Caiado, said. “Democracy cannot be put to the test with each election result, by those dissatisfied with the results of the polls. I have won and lost elections and I have never, under any circumstances, considered the possibility of questioning any result.”

Other executives associated with Bolsonaro — like former infrastructure minister and now governor of São Paulo Tarcísio de Freitas and Jorginho Mello of Santa Catarina, a Bolsonaro stronghold — initially stated they would not attend an emergency meeting of governors that Lula convened on Monday but quickly changed their minds. State leaders by and large stood behind the federal government in taking the threat of antidemocratic insurrection seriously.

The political calculation of these politicians could change, of course. But so far, in the critical aftermath of Sunday’s devastation, conservative governors have held the democratic line.

Arresting rioters on the spot was an act of tyranny.

Right-wing legislators have been more likely to criticize what they see as the federal government’s overreach. Bolsonaro’s former vice president, General Hamilton Mourão, now a senator for the state of Rio Grande do Sul, denounced the “Marxist-Leninist” Lula administration for the “indiscriminate detention of over 1,200 people.” Although he quickly disavowed the riots, Mourão went on to characterize the government’s response as “amateurish, inhumane and illegal.” He even positioned his own ideological cohort as champions of the incarcerated, tweeting that “Brazil and the detainees expect swift actions from our parliamentarians in office and from real entities linked to Human Rights.”

Such posturing is flatly absurd given that the president Mourão served for four years celebrated torturers acting on behalf of the state and gave police forces more power to kill with impunity. The political logic is nonetheless clear.

Indeed, because many of those arrested in Brasília have apparently been allowed to keep their cell phones, footage of their detainment has circulated freely. These Potemkin political prisoners tearfully decry their circumstances, characterizing their imprisonment as a totalitarian abuse. Some bolsonarista legislators have visited the hundreds of people arrested as if they were refugees caught in a tragic predicament through no fault of their own.

Notably, it is lawmakers who are advancing the argument that the federal government is overstepping its authority by cracking down on the foot soldiers of authoritarianism. They do not have to make the practical decisions that executives do in this instance —  for example, deploying police forces to quell potential future riots.

And needless to say, their indignation at prison conditions in Brazil does not extend beyond the former president’s most deluded core of support — voters these legislators will want to appeal to in future political campaigns.

Actually, the riots were Lula’s fault.

Another humorous right-wing argument is that the Lula administration was to blame for the riots. Citing supposed reports that federal authorities had been warned about potential disorder in the nation’s capital, one young right-wing congressman even suggested bringing impeachment proceedings against Lula for allowing the insurrection to happen. Another called for the arrest of Lula’s justice minister, Flávio Dino, for dereliction of duty. Senator Marcos do Val tweeted that Dino “went to the window” of his office, saw the riots unfolding, and failed to act. “I have already started to find evidence that President Lula was also aware of what was going to happen and did nothing,” he added.

Anecdotally, this argument has begun making the rounds among ordinary Bolsonaro supporters. Noting that the federal government moved quickly to temporarily remove the governor of the federal district when it became clear he was not able to ensure security, a Bolsonaro voter I know (my cousin) said the same should apply across the board — including the president himself.

The problem with this notion is that the government of the Federal District — not the federal government — is legally tasked with security in Brasília. Federal District governor Ibaneis Rocha, a Bolsonaro backer, reportedly guaranteed Justice Minister Dino that his police could keep the capital safe. Was the Lula administration supposed to order a federal intervention of the Federal District before a riot happened? It’s not hard to imagine how bolsonarista congressman would have characterized a preemptive federal intervention of the sort — dictatorship, bolivarianism, autocracy!

The search for culprits beyond the obvious malefactors — Rocha and his chief of security, Anderson Torres, who is facing an arrest order — reflects a shameless attempt to shift blame for January 8 from Bolsonaro and his supporters to Lula. Nobody outside the far-right bubble seems to be buying it.

These arguments are not mutually exclusive. Do Val, for example, visited detained rioters and made the fantastical argument that Lula was culpable for the events that landed them in prison. Analyzed individually, however, they betray political insecurity and seem to indicate that the Brazilian right has not settled on a particular response to what happened.

Meanwhile, Lula has been quick to note the significance of the insurrection: it was an attack on democracy and, by extension, on the sociopolitical and economic agenda that prevailed at the polls last October. In his address to the nation shortly after the riots, Lula asserted that the insurrection was almost certainly paid for in part by actors linked to deforestation in the Amazon. The ability to fight climate change, in other words, came under attack on January 8. Back in Brasília the day after the riots, Lula insisted that democracy was the only way of tackling the country’s profound inequality. The ability to guarantee every Brazilian has enough to eat, in other words, came under attack on January 8.

Linking the antidemocratic challenge of the far right to a rapacious neoliberal economic agenda and the further immiseration of poor and working-class Brazilians already featured prominently in Lula’s rhetoric since the campaign. We should expect him to continue hammering this point home.

In the age of Bolsonaro, Lula has pitched himself as the sober defender of democracy against the former president’s far-right extremism. Even more so now, that is his charge. Embracing that mantle imbues him with political legitimacy and moral clarity. By contrast, it is not clear where the Right goes from here. Can we expect more of the tired anti-left bromides Lula overcame at the polls last year? Or will a novel reactionary narrative emerge from the divergent responses to the events of January 8? Polls indicate that the vast majority of Brazilians strongly disapprove of the attacks perpetrated by Bolsonaro supporters last Sunday. The Right isn’t going anywhere, but in this new political reality they’ll need to get their stories straight.