So far, the investigations are advancing while the Brazilian Attorney General's Office collects evidence against the people under investigation. | Andre Borges, EFE
Is Democracy in Brazil at stake?
Following what some consider a coup attempt on January 8, Brazil’s federal powers are taking action against the far right. Will they be able to act decisively without undermining the institutions they defend?
Supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro spoiled the commencement of Luís Inácio Lula da Silva’s third presidential term. On January 8 in Brasilia, thousands of people invaded the buildings at the Square of the Three Powers to demand that the armed forces depose the newly inaugurated president, a direct affront to Brazilian democracy.
A few weeks have passed, and several questions remain in the air: what was the role of the Brasilia armed forces and District police in the invasion? What will the judicial process be like against Bolsonaro, who refuses to return from the United States? And perhaps one of the essential questions is, how will the federal powers act to track and prosecute criminals while strengthening democracy and the rule of law?
A new attack on democracy
As a macabre commemoration of the two years after the invasion of the United States Capitol by followers of former President Donald Trump, the world saw how a handful of guards failed to prevent thousands of protesters from entering Brazil’s federal buildings. The slogan was the same: the presidential elections were a fraud orchestrated by forces contrary to the clamor of millions of followers of the president in office.
Bolsonaro, like Trump at the time, fueled that discourse and encouraged the armed forces to support his supporters in deposing Lula and restoring his position as president. Although the capsize caused by the invasion was enormous, the invaders were expelled from the buildings, and more than 800 people have been detained.
According to Camila Asano, director of the NGO Conectas, what happened on January 8 was not a surprise. According to her, the coup attempt “is part of an anti-democratic process that began with the Bolsonaro government and whose main spokesperson was himself. We know that, since he took office, he positioned an anti-rights agenda, which is now reflected, for example, in the crisis that the Yanomami people are experiencing.”
Asano also said that the impulse against the rights of minorities encouraged radicalized groups, which, by the way, had easy access to weapons thanks to the reforms carried out by the government.
“During the four years of his presidency, continues Asano, Bolsonaro promoted fake news. An example was the misinformation and denial that he promoted during the pandemic, which ranked Brazil as the second country with the most deaths from Covid-19.”
Extensive disinformation campaigns peaked in the 2022 general election, when Bolsonaro did not want to acknowledge the results and made constant calls for Lula’s victory not to be recognized. However, on January 1, the transition of power took place without major trouble.
Since then, Bolsonaro has taken refuge in the United States, where he was on vacation, as the Federal Supreme Court (STF), headed by Minister Alexandre de Moraes, leads an investigation against him. For its part, the Government pointed that it will identify and prosecute the criminals; Lula has removed the leadership of all public media in the country; 13 soldiers from the Institutional Security Cabinet have been removed for their omission or collusion with the call for a coup of state, and the commander of the armed forces has been replaced.
The Judiciary in action
Until now, Minister Moraes looks over the cases of those detained in the protests and in the camp raised in front of the Army Headquarters in Brasilia. In addition, in a series of moves never seen before in Brazil, he removed the city’s governor, Ibaneis Rocha, for 90 days and ordered the arrest of Bolsonaro’s former justice minister, Anderson Torres, who served as security secretary for the capital.
So far, the investigations are advancing while the Brazilian Attorney General’s Office collects evidence against the people under investigation. The hypothesis that remains up to now is that Bolsonaro, supported by an entourage of followers in high public office, orchestrated an attempted coup. Since January 10, when Bolsonaro had his last appearance on social networks, nothing has been known about his future. The former president already has three other investigations against him, and it is uncertain if he will return to Brazil to face justice.
An all-powerful Minister?
Since the revolt, a controversy has risen against Moraes, Brazil’s most important political figure of this moment, as he works as the rapporteur of the investigations. The Minister of the STF —who is the president of the Superior Electoral Tribunal— has taken the reins of the fight against the far right. In 2019, Moraes led an investigation to dismantle fake news networks about the STF; in 2020, Moraes served as a speaker for the prosecution against the financing and organization of anti-democratic groups.
Moraes, therefore, has been a significant figure in Brazilian politics, especially since the general elections in October 2022. So, when the invasion took place on the Esplanade of the Ministries, the decisions he made were applauded by the Lula supporters, not without questions about whether such measures could then backfire.
Moraes’ actions have opened the discussion about how far one judge can go to limit the freedom of expression and the formation of powers that threaten democracy and the rule of law. A few days ago, various media outlets (O Globo, The New York Times, and journalist Glenn Greenwald) mentioned that Moraes took authoritarian measures with the excuse of protecting democracy.
For now, the decisions have been supported by the rest of the STF, which has ensured that the measures are not arbitrary and proceed in accordance with the rule of law. The challenge now is for public powers and institutions to manage to strengthen a democracy eaten away by extremism and authoritarianism.