Political violence in Brazil symbolises broader change


The shift towards more nationalist, populist government has raised concerns over insecurity in our political systems

Article Image

Image by Jeso Carneiro

By Lydia Chowdhury

Last month saw Brazil’s Bolsonaristas rampage through the presidential palace and the Brazilian congress in protest of Lula’s nascent presidency. The attempted coup to reject President Lula smeared the new year with violence and outrage from both sides. The resulting violence devastated the presidential Palácio da Alvorada (“Palace of the Dawn”), leaving Brazil stunned as the sun set on the unprecedented scenes.

8 January marked the biggest threat to the Brazilian electoral system since the 1980s. Jair Bolsonaro, former President of Brazil, had won the adoration of many conservative Brazilians with his populist, polarising rhetoric. Bolsonaro claimed, “I always dreamed of liberating Brazil from the nefarious ideology of the left”, whilst visiting former US President Donald Trump at the White House in March 2019.

His far-right loyalists vandalised the palace; slashing presidential portraits, urinating in offices and adding their own graffiti to historical art. Swarms of mobs clad in the Brazilian flag were filmed inside, overrunning what should be the most secure building in Brazil. The question is who orchestrated the coup, and how?

An investigation resulted in 300 arrests and the removal of 40 troops guarding the presidential palace. President Lula pronounced distrust in the military as well as launching an investigation on Jair Bolsonaro’s involvement. No evidence supporting his direct involvement has been found.

As revolt echoes through the Americas, Brasilia’s political dissonance is tainted by an unnerving sense of déjà vu. Capitol Hill, two years ago, almost to the day, amassed an indignant storming mob protesting Trump’s expiring presidency. Trump, like Bolsonaro, left a trailing blaze of flames and violence in his presidential wake.

The scrambling rabble of Trump loyalists surging into the Capitol sporting the distinct Trump-red MAGA hats, military gear, and the United States and confederate battle flags. The dystopian event was engineered by the far-right, neo-fascist militia group ‘The Proud Boys’.

The Capitol Hill riots resulted in the deaths of five people; officers and civilians.

The thread that sinews these parallel events is not the rage of right-wing allegiants, but a particular political strategy implemented by their figure-head: populism.

Populism is defined by an antagonistic relationship between the ‘people’ and the elite. The problem here lies in the use of the term ‘people’ as sacrosanct and absolute. Logic dictates that those in power cannot truthfully declare that they are for ‘the people’: there will always be people in opposition. Populist rhetoric can illegitimise alternative views and the romantic idea of a ‘chosen people’ versus the rest of the world can quickly sour. Recent events have demonstrated this. ‘Good’ versus ‘bad’ is alluring in its simplicity but can have catastrophic side effects.

However, conservative Brazilian Bolsonaristas and right-wing American Trumpists aren’t the only people swayed by populist rhetoric.

Former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has relied on a populist idealisation of ‘virtue’ to help legitimise his policy positions.One doesn’t have to look too far back to remember videos with beams of glowing neon lights raking through the cramped crowds of Glastonbury festival goers in 2018: an undulating sea of heads all chanting to the tune of Seven Nation Army, “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn”.

At a conference held in Salford, 2019, Corbyn declared: “Labour would never try to silence parliament, but we don’t believe democracy stops there. We want to expand democracy, not restrict it.”

Corbyn’s strategies have produced much discourse and debate over whether they are truly populist. Indeed, the term populism has become ubiquitous, so much so, the Guardian’s word of the year in 2016 was “populism”. Corbyn has been called a classic populist leader while others disagree for the most part, agreeing that he sometimes implemented populist strategies. It is hard to categorise given that the definition of populism is not clear-cut.

Nevertheless, figureheads such as Trump and Bolsonaro have been more consensually agreed as playing around with populist politics. India’s Prime Minister Modi has often been grouped into this category although Indian populism differs from American and Latin American politics due to Hindu nationalism.

Hindu nationalism is at the core of Prime Minister Modi’s politics which ties Hinduism inextricably to Indian culture and nationality. This renders minorities, such as Muslims, second-class citizens. Modi’s further instilling of Hindu nationalism has been advantageous for him in executing his populist policies.

Now the storm has cleared in Brasilia, President Lula has cracked down on deforestation with a renewed zeal and expressed desire to reduce the number of starving people. Thus, Brazil’s government is, in some senses, stronger and more secure than before.

Billionaire Donald Trump’s instatement as president for the people perhaps captures the zeitgeist of our political era.