SÃO PAULO, Brazil — As a shocked nation watched live on television and social media, thousands of radical supporters of a defeated president marched on the seat of the federal government, convinced that an election had been stolen. The mob ransacked the Congress, the Supreme Court and the presidential palace. It took authorities several hours to arrest hundreds of people and finally restore order.
Hopefully, that was the last act for the bolsonaristas, extremist supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro, who was once called the Trump of the Tropics. Yet, as with the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump, it is unclear if this is the end of a political movement or just the beginning of more division and chaos.
The new president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, already faced a difficult challenge to unite his divided country, even without a bombastic former president just offstage and many of his supporters now prone to violence. Bringing those responsible for the attack to justice is a vital place to start.
On Jan. 1, Mr. Lula was sworn in to his third term as president of Brazil in a ceremonial inauguration in the capital — but Mr. Bolsonaro didn’t attend. He was supposed to pass the presidential sash to Mr. Lula as a sign of a peaceful transition of power. Instead, he opted to spend the last days of his presidency and the first weeks of Mr. Lula’s administration in Orlando, Fla., at a house near Disney World.
Yet in the days since his defeat many of Mr. Bolsonaro’s supporters have camped outside military bases around the country, figuring that the former president would pull together a last-minute plan. “We don’t know the date, we don’t know what will happen, we don’t know where, we only trust our president,” one of the protesters told me.
In the end, nothing happened, so some members of the mob took matters into their own hands.
Over the last two years, Mr. Bolsonaro repeatedly made baseless claims that the electoral system could be manipulated. When Mr. Bolsonaro said there were only three alternatives for his future — prison, death or victory — he did not mention a fourth option: go eat fried chicken in the United States, which he was photographed doing in December. In the end, the necessary components for a successful insurrection just weren’t there. The defeated president had neither the institutional nor the public support he needed to jolt the military into taking his side.
For a start, he lacked allies. As soon as Mr. Bolsonaro’s electoral loss was announced, some of his political allies congratulated the new president-elect. Other Latin American presidents did the same. Joe Biden’s congratulations came late on election night and were heralded in the Brazilian media as important endorsements of the fairness of the electoral process.
Most importantly, Mr. Bolsonaro’s defeat provoked a much softer outcry among his voters than was feared — although it was still disruptive. Thousands of his supporters blocked roads and set vehicles on fire in an attempt to paralyze the country. Hundreds of others decided to place tents in front of army barracks across the country, pressuring for military intervention in the government. “S.O.S. armed forces,” they screamed, often alternating martial slogans with Holy Marys and the national anthem.
A few weeks later, all roads had been cleared. Some camps remained, including one in the Santana neighborhood of São Paulo, my hometown. On Christmas, I spent part of my afternoon talking to a dozen pro-Bolsonaro supporters camped there. They still believed that the elections had been rigged. The strongest evidence came in the form of a question: “If everybody is here, why has the minority won?”
They insisted to me that Mr. Lula wouldn’t be sworn in on Jan. 1. “We are certain that he won’t,” said a woman in her 70s. (The people I spoke to declined to give their names out of fear for their safety.) When I asked what might happen instead, the woman hinted at two possible outcomes: Either the military would be called to support a presidential coup — just as the bolsonaristaswanted — or the “good citizens” would take to the streets — also allegedly under Mr. Bolsonaro’s instructions — to ensure that he stayed in power.
Mr. Lula’s administration, a broad coalition of democratic forces, will lead the country to communism, the protesters told me. That’s why they called for military intervention while interpreting possible secret messages that the president has tapped to them in Morse code. (Yes, they’ve spent some time trying to decipher the drumming of Mr. Bolsonaro’s fingers on a desk during his last livestream.)
The truth is that Mr. Bolsonaro’s political capital has dwindled. When he left the country, his vice president, General Hamilton Mourão, told the nation: “The alternation of power in a democracy is healthy and must be preserved.” He also made a blunt reference to “leaders who were supposed to reassure and unite the nation around a project for the country” but who had instead fomented a climate of chaos and social collapse. Ouch. It appears that even the armed forces just want a calm transition to power so they can remain a privileged class without too many responsibilities.
Some of Mr. Bolsonaro’s former allies in Congress now support Mr. Lula, and the former president’s Digital Popularity Index, which is tracked by a consulting firm, has fallen more than half since its peak.
But hard-core bolsonaristas aren’t to go quietly. Only on Monday did they remove their tents from outside military barracks in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and other cities. In Brasília, authorities dismantled the camp and detained 1,200 people. The demonstrators have been waiting for more than two months for a miracle to happen. When it didn’t, they tried to take the government by force.
In response, Mr. Lula signed an emergency decree allowing the federal government to intervene and restore order to the capital. It will remain in effect until the end of the month. The federal district governor was temporarily removed from his post by a Supreme Court judge. A criminal investigation has been opened to identify the rioters and their financial sponsors. On Monday, a member of Congress asked the government to request Mr. Bolsonaro’s extradition.
Democracies need the rule of law to flourish. They also need a shared understanding that power must be transferred peacefully. Mr. Lula has his work cut out for him to hold his nation together. A good starting point will be to keep calm after these deplorable events and firmly follow the rites of justice to hold the culprits accountable.
For his part, Mr. Bolsonaro didn’t speak out in support of the rioters. But he didn’t ask them to go home, either, preferring to let them interpret his silence as they wish.
Vanessa Barbara is the editor of the literary website A Hortaliça, the author of two novels and two nonfiction books in Portuguese and a contributing Opinion writer.