Why Brazil’s Coup Was Doomed To Fail

What the Aftermath of January 8 Tells Us about Brazilian Democracy

By Bryan Pitts

Sunday, January 8, the world watched, horrified, as hordes of supporters of Brazil’s former president Jair Bolsonaro broke into Congress, the presidential palace, and the Supreme Court in Brasília. They sprayed graffiti, smashed priceless art and furniture, and assaulted janitors. Convinced against all evidence to the contrary that Bolsonaro’s October 30 runoff loss to former left-wing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was the product of fraud, they hoped to spark a military coup against Lula’s new government. The eerie similarities to the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump were immediately apparent and led to widespread coverage in U.S. and global media. 

Despite clear warnings that such an attack was imminent, security around the Praça dos Três Poderes, where all three branches of government are located, and the adjacent Esplanada dos Ministérios was lax. Early indications were that elements of the military police of the Federal District (commanded by the governor, through his secretary of security) may have been complicit with the rioters. As the scene played out on screens around the world, many wondered what all this meant for Brazil’s democratic institutions, which only emerged from military dictatorship a generation ago. Might the notoriously conservative military step in to support the bolsonaristas? How would Lula be able to govern after this, particularly with Brazil’s most right-wing Congress ever in power? And what effects would the insurrection have on the deep polarization that has dominated Brazilian politics since 2014?

On the one hand, the January 8 debacle threw into sharp relief the challenges confronting Brazilian democratic institutions. As was the case in the U.S after the Capitol insurrection, Brazilians are facing difficult questions about the continued viability of democracy when a significant portion of the population refuses to accept basic facts and the empirical evidence that undergirds them. In a recent poll, 25% of Brazilians self-identified as bolsonaristas, broadly similar to the 15% of Americans who identify as “MAGA Republicans.” And in the wake of the attack on the Praça dos Três Poderes, 18% of Brazilians expressed their support for the rioters; a year after January 6, 25% of Americans said they thought that the Trump supporters who had invaded the Capitol were defending democracy. 

Yet the aftermath of the January 8 riots has also revealed causes for optimism regarding the future of Brazilian democracy. In this sense, Brazil may be better off than the U.S., where, with the exception of the actions of a few renegades like Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney, politics post-January 6 have remained every bit as polarized as before, and the Republican Party has made no pretensions of even a show of national unity, instead doubling down on their opposition to the administration of President Joe Biden. 

The first encouraging sign in Brazil came the very day of the insurrection, when the military refused to intervene to support the bolsonaristas. Since at least 2014, far-right Brazilians have been calling on the military to carry out a coup to protect Brazil from the allegedly “communist” Lula and his Workers’ Party (PT), and in the weeks after the election, groups of Bolsonaro’s most zealous followers set up camp outside military installations around the country begging the Armed Forces to intervene. Their actions on January 8 were explicitly intended to spark a military intervention to topple Lula’s government. Yet no such intervention came. To be sure, there were signs that the Gabinete de Segurança Institucional (GSI) (Brazil’s equivalent of the Secret Service) had been complicit with the rioters, granting them entry to the presidential palace. Yet Lula acted swiftly to fire members of the GSI implicated with the attack, along with other members of the military who had been employed by the executive branch under Bolsonaro in various capacities. Most notably, on January 21, Lula fired the Army’s commander, replacing him with a general who had recently given a speech urging respect for the results of the election. So far, the military has accepted these moves by the commander-in-chief, and some observers have suggested that a window of opportunity has opened to curtail the military’s influence over politics. 

Perhaps more surprising to U.S. observers has been the extent to which the insurrection has united the Brazilian political class. Condemnation of the attacks was nearly universal and came from across the ideological spectrum, including from Bolsonaro’s vice president. Indeed,  fewer than 10 percent of legislators in the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of Congress) defended or minimized the attack on Brasília. Most dramatically, the day after the attack, all 27 of Brazil’s governors joined Lula, four Supreme Court justices, and numerous legislators to walk across the Praça dos Três Poderes from the presidential palace to the Supreme Court in a remarkable show of unity unthinkable in the U.S. 

Moreover, it is possible that the insurrection has placed Lula in a more favorable position as he seeks to implement his progressive agenda in a Congress. Although center-left or leftist parties hold only 17 of 81 Senate seats and 126 of 513 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, the parties that have agreed to participate in the governing coalition have a collective 46 Senate seats and 282 in the Chamber – comfortable majorities, if individual legislators remain in line with their parties’ position. Time will tell how much of his agenda Lula will be able to implement, but early signs are encouraging in a Congress branded “the most conservative in Brazil’s democratic history” as recently as October.

Thus, while the events of January 8, 2023 looked remarkably similar to those of January 6, 2021, the outcomes in Brazil so far have been strikingly different, both compared with the U.S. and with assumptions in the Global North about institutional instability in Latin America. This is, I believe, due to certain enduring characteristics of Brazilian political culture, as well as some recent changes. 

The refusal of the military to intervene politically or support the rioters en masse stems from a longstanding hesitancy to intervene politically without significant support from the civilian political class. Previous military interventions in 1930, 1945, 1954, 1961, and 1964 only occurred when the military was convinced that a large number of politicians would support the move; the most famous intervention of all, the coup of 1964, was a joint plot of the military and conservative politicians. Thus, as it became clear in November 2022 that the political class had accepted Lula, the military ignored right-wing calls to act. It is unlikely that a military coup to keep Bolsonaro in power was ever seriously considered.

Yet why did the political elite remain so unwilling to accept a break with legality, and why did they so quickly rally behind Lula? Part of the explanation is to be found in the changes the Brazilian political class experienced during the military dictatorship. As my just-published book (available for free download from University of California Press) explains in detail, between 1964 and 1985, one of the military’s top priorities was to forcibly reform what it saw as an irresponsible, selfish, and corrupt political class. Politicians so resented this encroachment on their presumed prerogatives that as the regime wore on, they became willing to accept ever-increasing levels of mass political participation and social mobilization as a way to escape from under the military’s thumb – and to keep from being caught under it ever again. The specter of military rule continues to haunt Brazil’s political class, so when far-right protesters attacked the heart of Brazilian democracy in hopes of sparking a military coup, there was little doubt whose side politicians would take. To be sure, the vast majority of the political class had supported the parliamentary coup that overthrew Dilma Rousseff in 2016, but that time offered at least a fig leaf of legality to hide behind; a military coup was further than the vast majority would go.

Lula’s favorable position in Congress also owes a great deal to particularities of Brazilian political culture, specifically the ideological flexibility of politicians and parties. The ease with which Brazilian politicians change ideological stripes and parties (there are currently 23 parties represented in the Chamber of Deputies) has long been cast by social scientists in the Global North as a weakness of Brazilian democracy. Yet it is precisely this flexibility that has enabled Lula to build a governing coalition. The greatest dichotomy in Brazilian politics is not between left and right or democratic and authoritarian, but between “situation” (situação) and “opposition” (oposição). Perhaps a fifth of politicians in Congress are ideologically committed to the Left; another fifth are devotees of right-wing ideology. But for the remaining 60 percent or so, being in the situation is always the goal, while being in the opposition is to be avoided at all costs. The situation brings with it the carrots of cabinet appointments and more federal funding for one’s home city and state; opposition means being left on the outside looking in. So as soon as it was clear Lula had won the October runoff, parties that only days before had supported Bolsonaro began preparing to shift their support to Lula, the new situation. A characteristic often characterized as Brazilian political culture’s greatest flaw can also been understood as a strength, for its is precisely politician’s lack of ideological commitments that enables skilled negotiators from either left or right to actually implement their legislative agenda, in marked contrast with the U.S. today, where ideological rigidity prevents either party from making the compromises necessary to govern.

Where Brazil goes from here is anyone’s guess. Lula’s honeymoon with centrist politicians and the media will certainly not last forever. But the greatest lesson of January 8 is not that Brazilian democracy is in crisis – it is that it remains strong and equipped to deal with the challenges of the years ahead.

By Bryan Pitts

Bryan Pitts is assistant director of the UCLA Latin American Institute. His book, Until the Storm Passes: Politicians, Democracy, and the Demise of Brazil's Military Dictatorship, was published in 2023 by University of California Press.