Brazil 2022 elections: despite low unrest, insurgency risks, growing political violence is a threat

The concerns that parts of the Brazilian society had about potential unrest or political violence taking place during Independence Day demonstrations did not materialise. Large crowds in Brazil’s main urban centres on 7 September held pro-government marches peacefully. No clashes with opposing groups or with police forces were recorded – partially because left-wing leaders postponed scheduled events. However, political violence events did take place during that week, as a supporter of President Jair Bolsonaro stabbed to death a leftist co-worker in Mato Grosso state on 9 September. 

These two events, while not directly associated, summarise well the pre-elections security environment in Brazil. 

Strategies to schedule events of opposing political groups at different dates, sites or times have proved successful in mitigating risks of confrontation and will continue to be adopted by security forces before and after the vote in October, further limiting security risks. Coordination between local, state and federal public security authorities and intelligence agencies will also prevent a successful Capitol-like event from occurring. 

While radicalised individuals are likely to plot an attack against the Federal Supreme Court (STF) or the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) in Brasília, these attempts are unlikely to result in the storming of these buildings as we saw in Washington, DC, on 6 January 2021. Pro-government protesters will continue to antagonise with the judiciary and high court justices but are more likely to stick to verbal attacks online than a coordinated, large-scale demonstration targeting the judiciary headquarters.

In the likely scenario that Bolsonaro is defeated, he will challenge the results claiming fraud in the country’s electronic voting system. This is likely to mobilise part of his supporters, but risks of demonstrations escalating to widespread violence will likely remain low in the coming months. Right-wing supporters are proud that their acts never escalate to vandalism, in an implicit criticism of left-wing protests. That will continue to be the case and will mitigate security risks. Also, while social movements’ protests will remain prone to sporadic clashes with police forces or small, radicalised groups vandalising bank branches, for instance, they will also remain largely peaceful. Organisers and most protesters are not interested in having their cause damaged by claims that they are conniving with violent practices. For those reasons, Brazil is unlikely to undergo a countrywide wave of unrest.

The action by radicalised individuals or small groups will represent the most likely security risks throughout the electoral cycle. Political quarrels escalating to gun violence or event to homicides have unfortunately become more common over the past year. Amid a polarised political environment and increased civilian gun ownership, the chances of mundane disputes, such as road rages, escalating to deadly fights have grown, a sign of democratic erosion in a country where democracy is facing its most challenging test of the last three decades. 

All these situations are unlikely to target business or high-profile executives. However, rare clashes or sporadic episodes of political violence will pose indirect security risks to demonstrators or by-passers. Those directly involved in politics or taking a more outspoken stance regarding the country’s political landscape are more likely to become targets of extremists.

As we focus on the political polarisation and radicalisation amid the electoral period and the security risks they pose in the coming months, it is necessary to have in mind that these issues will remain in 2023 and beyond. Brazil will likely remain a divided society in the coming years, regardless of who is elected in October, and political violence – even if occasional – is likely to gain more prominence than it has had since Brazil’s return to democratic norms in the mid-1980s.