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Who are the protesters in Brazil – and why have they ransacked the country’s Capitol?

Rioters have invaded and ransacked Brazil’s Congress, presidential palace and Supreme Court – in a grim echo of the US Capitol riots two years ago by fans of former President Donald Trump.

The uprising, which lasted just over three hours, marked the severe polarisation that still grips the country.

It came days after the inauguration of leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who defeated Jair Bolsonaro in the October election in one of the tightest presidential races, with just 50.9% of the votes.

It also made Mr Bolsonaro the first president of Brazil to lose his bid for re-election.

The current Brazilian president, known as Lula, described the vandals on Sunday as “fanatical fascists” who “did what has never been done in the history of this country”.

Speaking at a news conference during an official trip to Sao Paulo state, he added: “All these people who did this will be found and they will be punished.”

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Brazil’s president condemns rioting

Who is protesting – and why are they protesting?

The protesters are far-right supporters of Mr Bolsonaro, who disputed the election win of Lula on 30 October 2022.

Lula was previously president of Brazil from 2003 to 2011, but narrowly beat Mr Bolsonaro last year in a run-off vote.

Shortly after the election result, Mr Bolsonaro’s supporters began gathering for the first time outside military bases across Brazil, calling for a military intervention to prevent Lula from returning to office.

supporters of Brazil's former President Jair Bolsonaro, storm the the National Congress building in Brasilia
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Protesters stormed the National Congress building on 8 January
Protesters, supporters of Brazil's former President Jair Bolsonaro, storm the the National Congress building in Brasilia. Pic: AP

In the following days, truckers were among Mr Bolsonaro’s supporters who blocked roads throughout the country after his defeat.

In November, Mr Bolsonaro’s supporters held rallies across the country, asking for an armed force intervention.

Supporters of Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, mainly truck drivers, block the Castello Branco highway during a protest over Bolsonaro's defeat in the presidential run-off election, in Barueri, Brazil November 1, 2022. REUTERS/Carla Carniel
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Truck drivers block the Castello Branco highway during a protest over Mr Bolsonaro’s defeat in the presidential run-off election

Brazilians flocked outside a regional military facility to denounce what they described as an unfair or stolen election, while defying a recent Supreme Court order to free-up roads and public spaces.

Many protesters were anticipating that a report by the Ministry of Defence, which Mr Bolsonaro has sought to involve in election oversight, would substantiate their claims.

The document, published in November, proposed improvements to address some flaws in Brazil’s electoral systems, but it did not find any evidence of fraud.

Domingues Carvalho, 63, who protested for 15 days straight, told the AP news agency: “I’m fighting for my country, for my daughter and three grandchildren.”

He added that he sometimes kneels down in front of the military building to pray. “I’ll stay here as long as necessary. We are peaceful but we will never, ever leave our country in the hands of communists,” he said.

Jair Bolsonaro
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Jair Bolsonaro

What has fuelled the rallies?

On 22 November, Mr Bolsonaro challenged the results of the Brazilian election and argued that votes from some machines should be “invalidated” in a complaint that was later rebuffed by election authorities.

Although the Bolsonaro administration has not directly opposed the transition of power, the far-right leader has yet to concede or congratulate his opponent.

His supporters have taken the cue – and are also refusing to accept the result.

Supporters of Jair Bolsonaro protest Lula da Silva's win on the streets of São Paulo. Stuart Ramsay eyewitness
Supporters of Jair Bolsonaro protest Lula da Silva's win on the streets of São Paulo. Stuart Ramsay eyewitness
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Supporters of Mr Bolsonaro protest Lula da Silva’s win on the streets of Sao Paulo in November

“This election was not fair,” said 51-year-old entrepreneur Anselmo do Nascimento. “The Supreme Court should be neutral.”

In December, Lula’s election victory was certified by the federal electoral court.

Later that day, Mr Bolsonaro’s supporters attempted to invade the federal police headquarters in Brasilia, the capital, which was prompted by the arrest of a pro-Bolsonaro indigenous leader for alleged anti-democratic acts.

Protesters have also condemned the shutting down of many pro-Bolsonaro accounts and groups on social media platforms – describing it as akin to censorship.

Supporters of Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro block highway BR-251 during a protest against President-elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva who won a third term following the presidential election run-off, in Planaltina, Brazil, October 31, 2022. REUTERS/Diego Vara TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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Supporters of Mr Bolsonaro block highway BR-251 during a protest in November
Supporters of Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro move a tire, as they block highway BR-060 during a protest against President-elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who won a third term following the presidential election run-off, near Abadiania, Brazil, October 31, 2022. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
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Protesters move a tyre as they block highway BR-060

Build up to 8 January riots

On Christmas Eve, a man identified as George Washington de Oliveira Sousa was arrested for attempting to set off a bomb in protest against Brazil’s election results. A copy of his police statement showed he was inspired to build up an arsenal by Mr Bolsonaro’s traditional support of the arming of civilians.

And on 29 December, Brazilian police arrested at least four people over an alleged coup attempt during riots by Mr Bolsonaro’s supporters.

Lula was sworn in as president for the first time on 1 January, where he said democracy was the true winner of the presidential election – but he takes the reins of a polarised Brazil.

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Lula sworn in as Brazil’s president

It wasn’t always like that, however. When he retired in 2011 it was with 83% approval ratings. A series of scandals led to his imprisonment on corruption charges which were subsequently annulled.

This was the final event before the storming of the Brasilia Capitol on 8 January by Mr Bolsonaro’s supporters.

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