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Brazil protests: Why are Lula and Bolsonaro’s supporters protesting?

Members of social movements protest in defence of democracy in São Paulo, Brazil. (AFP via Getty Images)
Members of social movements protest in defence of democracy in São Paulo, Brazil. (AFP via Getty Images)

Rioting took place in the Brazilian capital on Sunday a week after President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was sworn into office.

Supporters of former right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro are protesting against left-wing leader Lula da Silva’s victory, as he returns to office for his third term.

The riots have been condemned by international leaders, including US president Joe Biden, who said: “I condemn the assault on democracy and on the peaceful transfer of power in Brazil. Brazil’s democratic institutions have our full support and the will of the Brazilian people must not be undermined. I look forward to continuing to work with Lula.”

UK prime minister Rishi Sunak said: “I condemn any attempt to undermine the peaceful transfer of power and the democratic will of the people of Brazil. President Lula and his government has the United Kingdom’s full support, and I look forward to building on our countries’ close ties in the years ahead.”

So what happened in Brazil and why are people protesting?

What happened in Brazil on Sunday?

Supporters of Bolsonaro clash with riot police at Planalto Presidential Palace (AFP via Getty Images)
Supporters of Bolsonaro clash with riot police at Planalto Presidential Palace (AFP via Getty Images)

A week after Lula was sworn in as president, on Sunday January 8, supporters of Jair Bolsonaro stormed Congress, the presidential palace and the Supreme Court in Brazil’s capital city, Brasilia.

Around 1,500 people have been arrested in relation to the riots, which Lula described as “terrorist acts”.

The presidential palace’s windows were broken and the pavement outside was damaged, as reported by the BBC. Works of art in the Congress building were also damaged.

The riot has been compared to the January 6 riots of 2021, when supporters of Donald Trump stormed the US capitol to protest against President Joe Biden winning the election.

Ibaneis Rocha, the Brasilia governor, has been removed from his post for 90 days for failing to prevent the riot, while the security secretary of Brasilia, Anderson Torres, was dismissed too.

Petrobras, a state-owned oil company that has been at the center of corruption scandals, increased security following threats from Mr Bolsonaro’s supporters on social media.

Mr Bolsonaro challenged the election result and some people are protesting against his defeat. He went to the US following the election to avoid handing the presidential sash to Lula.

His supporters had been camping outside army headquarters for weeks, calling for military intervention. Others are protesting because they want Lula sent back to prison, after his conviction for corruption was annulled.

On Sunday, Lula said in a Twitter post: “They took advantage of the silence on Sunday, when we are still setting up the government, to do what they did. And you know that there are several speeches by the former president encouraging this. And this is also his responsibility and the parties that supported him.”

However, Mr Bolsonaro has condemned the riots and denied responsibility for encouraging them in a Twitter post.

Why are left-wing groups in Brazil protesting?

Members of social movements protest in defense of democracy in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (AFP via Getty Images)
Members of social movements protest in defense of democracy in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (AFP via Getty Images)

On Monday, in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, pro-democracy supporters protested against the rioters, chanting “no amnesty”.

Left-wing leaders and groups are demanding that the people who enabled the riots are held accountable, while authorities are investigating whether the federal district’s police failed to halt the rioters on Sunday.

The left-wing protests are also a general call for democracy in the face of Brazil’s right-wing groups, who may continue protesting against Lula’s leadership.

Who is Lula?

Lula will serve as Brazil’s president for a third term (AFP via Getty Images)
Lula will serve as Brazil’s president for a third term (AFP via Getty Images)

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, is the president of Brazil and was sworn into office on January 1, 2023. The left-wing leader previously served as the country’s president from 2003 until 2010.

Following the military coup of 1964, and the recession that followed, Lula worked at a metalworks, and joined a metalworkers’ union. In 1972 he began working for the union full-time and was the head of the legal section until 1975, when he became the union’s president, according to Britannica.

From 1978 until 1980, unions held a series of strikes to protest for wage increases, which led to Lula’s arrest and imprisonment.

Lula ran for political office in 1982, and ran for president a number of times in the 1980s and 1990s, eventually being elected in 2002.

He first took office in January 2003, and by the end of his first term in 2006, he had expanded the economy and lowered Brazil’s poverty rate.

A bribery scandal, in which he was not directly implicated, hurt his popularity, but Lula was still able to win a second term as president.

Although Lula could not run for a consecutive third term, his chief of staff Dilma Rousseff succeeded him, and became Brazil’s first female president.

He defeated Jair Bolsonaro in the 2022 election and became president again in January 2023.

Who is Jair Bolsonaro?

Some of Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters called for military action to overturn the result of the presidential election (Getty Images)
Some of Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters called for military action to overturn the result of the presidential election (Getty Images)

Jair Bolsonaro was the president of Brazil, serving from 2019 until 2022. He is a right-wing politician and former army captain.

Mr Bolsonaro graduated from a military academy before serving in the army and rising to the rank of captain. He left the army in 1988 and entered politics, during which time he praised Brazil’s era of military rule, according to Britannica.

He has made a number of misogynistic, homophobic and racist remarks, and when he ran for president in the 2018 election, he earned the nickname “Trump of the Tropics”, two years after Donald Trump was elected president of the US.

He has expressed nostalgia for Brazil’s dictatorship era and his government commemorated the anniversary of Brazil’s 1964 coup.

Mr Bolsonaro’s success in the 2018 presidential election followed the Petrobras scandal that implicated left-wing politicians like Lula and Rousseff.

He lost the 2022 election to Lula, leading his party to request that millions of votes should be nullified, which was denied.

What happened during the Brazilian corruption scandals?

The Petrobras scandal began in 2014 and involved a number of politicians allegedly receiving money from corporations in return for Petrobras contracts.

An investigation dubbed Operation Car Wash was launched in March 2014 and looked into allegations that Petrobras executives had accepted bribes in return for contracts.

The Workers’ Party was alleged to have used this money to pay off politicians and buy their votes.

In 2017, Lula was found guilty of corruption and spent 18 months in prison before his convictions were annulled.

He denied the charges and claimed they were brought against him to prevent him from running as president again, as reported by the BBC.

The two presidents who succeeded Lula – Dilma Rousseff and Michel Temer – were also implicated in corruption scandals, and the former was impeached.

Rousseff allegedly moved funds between government budgets, in a case separate from Operation Car Wash.