Brazil riots: Why did anti-government protesters aligned to ex-leader Jair Bolsonaro storm Congress?

Just two months after Brazil elected a new president, supporters of the former far-right government stormed the country’s Congress building in capital Brasilia in what some politicians in the region have described as an attempted coup.

What happened in Brasilia at the weekend?

At least 300 people were arrested after thousands of ex-president Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters on Sunday stormed Congress, the Supreme Court and presidential palace, then trashed the nation’s highest seats of power.

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The protesters – wearing the green and yellow colours of the national flag – were seeking military intervention to either restore the far-right Bolsonaro to power or oust the newly inaugurated leftist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Security forces remove barricades outside Planalto Palace after supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who invaded the building, were subdued, in Brasilia this week. Picture: AFP via Getty Images

After breaking windows, overturning furniture and throwing computers to the ground, they punctured a massive Emiliano Di Cavalcanti painting in five places, overturned the U-shaped table at which Supreme Court justices convene, ripped a door off one justice’s office and vandalised an iconic statue outside the court, leaving the buildings’ interiors in states of ruin.

Who is the incoming president?

Mr Lula, co-founder of the Workers’ Party (PT), won 50.6 per cent of the vote in the second round run-off of the Brazilian elections against far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro. He took up office a week ago. The oldest holder of the position in history, Mr Lula is not new to the role – he served his first two terms as president from 2003 to 2010.

However, in 2018, when Mr Bolsonaro took power, Mr Lula was not able to stand against him – he was in prison. Mr Lula had served a 580-day prison term for a conviction of corruption relating to bribes he was accused of receiving from a building firm in return for contracts with Brazil's state oil company Petrobras. The first term of his presidency had already been plagued by other corruption scandals, including the Mensalão vote-buying scandal, which Mr Lula has always insisted he knew nothing about. The criminal investigation into the Petrobas affair, known as "Operation Car Wash", saw numerous politicians jailed.

In 2021, a Supreme Court ruling annulled his conviction and ended his ten-year sentence after it ruled the judge, Sérgio Moro, who was later named justice minister by Mr Lula, may have been partial in his decisions, passing on “advice, investigative leads, and inside information to the prosecutors” to prevent Mr Lula's Workers' Party from winning the 2018 elections.

He ran in the most recent election on an anti-corruption ticket, pledging to create new mechanisms to investigate anyone in his government accused of corruption and punish them if proven guilty.

Who is behind the riots?

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Brazilian authorities have said more than 100 buses arrived in Brasilia carrying rioters. They have said they know who hired the buses, which could give them information about who organised the riots.

It is understood that some of the protests have been living outside Brasilia in camps near to military bases since Mr Lula's election. Authorities said they used online chat messages in WhatsApp and Telegram to arrange their protests, using the code "Selma's Party" to describe the event.

Free buses and food were also advertised for those attending the protests, while supporters of Mr Bolsanaro asked protesters with knowledge of IT to "invade all government systems".

Mr Bolsonaro, who is believed to be in Florida, in the US, has insisted he has had nothing to do with the riots, despite claims he could have incited the movement.

His views – which have hit controversy on everything from Covid vaccines to homosexuality and women’s rights throughout his presidency – are right-wing, in deep contrast to those of Mr Lula.

Brazil is a deeply divided country, with a sharp contrast between those who support the right and left wing.

What have other world leaders said about the situation?

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In Latin America, many leaders are, like Mr Lula, left wing. Some have described the riots as an attempted coup d’etat – a bid to unseat the new president.

Mexico's president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador dubbed the riot a coup attempt by what he called “the conservatives of Brazil egged on by the leaders of oligarchic power”, while Chile's President Gabriel Boric said the events were “an unpresentable attack on the three powers of the Brazilian state”.

Meanwhile, Colombian president, Gustavo Petro, said the Organisation of American States "should apply the democratic charter", which are rules governing democracy in Latin America, also claiming that the riots were a coup.

Bolivia's President Luis Arce tweeted: “The fascists will always want to take by force what they did not achieve at the ballot box.”

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he condemned “any attempt to undermine the peaceful transfer of power and the democratic will of the people of Brazil”. He said Mr Lula and his government had the “full support” of the United Kingdom. “I look forward to building on our countries’ close ties in the years ahead,” he added.

Foreign secretary James Cleverly called the scenes “unjustifiable”.

US president Joe Biden also criticised the incidents, tweeting: “I condemn the assault on democracy and on the peaceful transfer of power in Brazil.”

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What is the security situation in Brasilia now?

The UK Government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office has advised British nationals to avoid political rallies and protests in Brasilia.

The organisation said: “On January 8, protesters stormed Brazil’s congressional buildings, Supreme Court and presidential palace in Brasilia. By order of a Federal Decree, the central government district has been closed for 24 hours while the National Guard restore order.

"There is an ongoing risk of further protests across the country. British Nationals in Brazil are encouraged to avoid political rallies and events where crowds have gathered to protest.”

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