Brazil Bolsonaristas Up Their Attacks as Institutional Tensions Simmer

On 14 June, the office of Brazil’s federal attorney general (PGR) launched an investigation into attacks against the supreme court (STF) committed the previous day by supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro.
Brazil STF PGR

Analysis:

Institutional tensions in Brazil once again boiled over onto the streets this weekend (13-14 June), as pro-Bolsonaro demonstrators attacked the STF building following a strained exchange between the country’s highest court and the federal executive regarding the constitutional role of the armed forces. With anti-government protesters also taking to the streets yesterday, the political atmosphere is tense. These tensions are further exacerbated by the challenge of managing the country’s worsening coronavirus (Covid-19) epidemic; with 867,624 confirmed cases and 43,332 deaths, according to yesterday’s health ministry figures, Brazil has the second highest number of both cases and deaths in the world, behind only the US.

  • After a day of altercations between ‘bolsonaristas’ and law enforcement in Brasília, a group of around 30 Bolsonaro supporters set off fireworks around the STF building on the night of 13 June, calling out verbal attacks against the STF magistrates and asking whether they had “got the message”.
  • These actions were met with widespread condemnation, with several former presidents publicly expressing their solidarity with the STF, while a number of STF magistrates vehemently condemned what they described as an attack on democracy.
  • The PGR authorised the launch of the investigation yesterday following a request from the STF chief justice, José Antonio Dias Toffoli, that those found to be directly or indirectly behind the attack be held responsible. In a note, Dias Toffoli stressed that “the supreme court will never bow...to any type of threat”.
  • This comes after members of the Bolsonaro government have, on various occasions, appeared to dangle the armed forces as a possible threat to the institutions that oppose the executive, as the STF has frequently been doing. Cabinet ministers deny this interpretation of their statements, but with military intervention being a frequent demand made by bolsonarista demonstrators, speculation has been growing over the military’s possible involvement in the current institutional conflict.
  • In this context, STF Justice Luiz Fux emitted a preliminary injunction on 12 June regarding the interpretation of the armed forces’ constitutional role. Responding to a petition filed by the opposition Partido Democrático Trabalhista (PDT), Fux ruled that the armed forces cannot be employed as a moderating force between the different branches of government.     
  • The presidential office then immediately issued a note signed by Bolsonaro, Vice President Hamilton Mourão, and Defence Minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva (the latter two being army generals), highlighting that the armed forces are under the authority of the president. “Brazil’s armed forces do not follow absurd orders such as seizing power. Nor do they allow attempts to seize power by another branch of government, [...] or on account of political judgments”, their statement read. 
Looking Ahead:

Bolsonaro has not publicly commented on the 13 June attack against the supreme court. With the STF continuing to contain actions by Bolsonaro that are deemed unconstitutional or harmful – such as his recent call for members of the general population to go and film inside Covid-19 wards in hospitals – institutional tensions are likely to persist.

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