From the angry mob’s chants about a stolen election to the physical desecration of edifices of democracy to a shaken national political class trying to make sense of how things descended into mayhem, seeming parallels between the violent attack on the Brazilian Presidential Palace and the Supreme Court and Congress buildings by supporters of former president Jair Bolsonaro this January 8 and the insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, abound. But appearances can be deceiving. Unlike January 6—which delayed the peaceful transfer of power in the United States for the first time in the country’s history—nothing of substance was interrupted in Brazil. The rioting in Brasília unfolded after the inauguration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva had taken place, on January 1. The rioters stormed empty public buildings in Brasília, as Brazilian politicians enjoyed the weekend elsewhere. As for Bolsonaro, the so-called Trump of the Tropics, he had already decamped for Florida.
More important, there is no Brazilian equivalent to “Stop the Steal,” the movement that powered January 6. Devoted to undermining the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s election, the movement enjoys widespread support within the Republican Party and among conservative media outlets. At least 150 election deniers were elected to the House of Representatives in the 2022 midterms, an increase over the 139 Republicans who voted against the certification of electoral votes on January 6, 2021. By contrast, election deniers in Brazil appear to lack political patrons. No major Brazilian politician is on record as denying that Lula won fair and square, and a reported 90 percent of a random sampling of social media posts about January 9 were negative. Indeed, the most prominent voices questioning the Brazilian elections are in the United States, including former Trump adviser Steven Bannon. Even though political violence driven by conspiracy theories and mass delusion about a stolen election will forever unite the Trump and Bolsonaro administrations, Brazilian democracy fared better than American democracy under a president who was hell-bent on undermining the institutions and norms that he was elected to protect. There’s much irony in this turn of events, since Brazilian democracy only dates to 1988.
A mix of factors explains why Bolsonaro was much less effective than Trump in undermining democracy. Bolsonaro, who won in 2018 by capitalizing on the excesses of the Workers’ Party, had no institutional support akin to the Republican Party. He joined the Liberal Party (PL), an ideologically fluid coalition of parties, only ahead of the 2022 elections, after being without a party affiliation since 2019. Prior to the elections, the PL controlled less than 10 percent of the seats of the Chamber of Deputies. Less apparent is that Brazilian democracy is engineered to withstand antidemocratic threats like Bolsonaro’s. Brazil’s 1988 Constitution did away with its electoral college. The significance of this reform is that Brazilian presidential election results are made official without the cumbersome process of certifying state electors. In 1996, Brazil introduced an electronic voting system to replace a paper ballot system that was notorious for its corruption. Today, voting experts recognize Brazil’s electoral system as among the world’s safest and most efficient. In 25 years, there has been no credible reporting of any fraud or irregularities.
The capacity of the Brazilian electoral system to deliver clear and fast results is critical to understanding why Bolsonaro’s claims of electoral vulnerability found little resonance beyond his core supporters. Moreover, his baseless claims were routinely refuted by Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court. Edson Fachin, the court’s president, issued no fewer than 20 rebuttals to Bolsonaro’s charges, calling them “unacceptable electoral denialism.” After the election was certified, even Bolsonaro’s most ardent supporters, such as House Speaker Arthur Lira, noted that the voters had spoken.
Last but not least are the reforms introduced in recent years to strengthen the judiciary. These allowed state agencies to confront Bolsonaro’s attacks on democracy in real time. In 2004, by means of a constitutional amendment, Brazil created the National Justice Council. Its key mission is to assure the independence of the courts by exercising complete control over the courts’ financing and management. During the Bolsonaro era, the Brazilian judiciary amply displayed its newly established powers. As The New York Times reported in the weeks leading up to the 2022 elections, “Brazil’s Supreme Court has drastically expanded its powers to counter the antidemocratic stances of Mr. Bolsonaro and his supporters.”
None of this is to say that Bolsonaro didn’t manage to inflict serious damage on Brazilian democracy. His attacks on the electoral system and the judiciary are a blueprint for future Brazilian and Latin American leaders to emulate. He’s also responsible for millions of Brazilians losing faith in their democracy. But the mere fact that Brazilian democratic institutions have withstood the Bolsonaro era is itself a cause for celebration. When Bolsonaro took office in 2018, many mistook the youth of the democracy that had emerged in a country with such an authoritarian past as a source of weakness. Ironically, the youth of this democracy was its hidden strength.