But that could change, particularly as the government begins prosecuting the hundreds of people arrested for participating in the riot. The new administration “has to prosecute these people, and is going to prosecute these people,” said Amy Erica Smith, a political scientist at the University of Iowa who studies Brazilian politics and democracy. “But prosecuting them may also be destabilizing.”
It’s important, too, to know that a sudden military coup is not the only way that political violence can undermine democracy.
The police in Brazil have a history of using strategic inaction as a political tool, Ms. González said. Her research found that in São Paulo in the 1980s, for instance, the police let riots unfold during a time of economic crisis in order to generate a sense of panic in society that would put pressure on politicians. And in 2013, after the mayor of São Paulo delayed overtime payments to the local military police, they were deliberately lax in policing a major cultural festival, leading to a spike in crime and a slew of bad headlines for the mayor.
Now, she sees a risk that pro-Bolsonaro factions within the police or other security services could “stand with their arms crossed” rather than stopping political violence in the future.
There are allegations that deliberate inaction already played a role in Sunday’s riot. On Tuesday, Alexandre de Moraes, a Brazilian Supreme Court justice (and a polarizing figure in his own right, who has been accused of severely overstepping his authority), said that investigators had found evidence that security officials knew violence was brewing but did not stop it. He issued an arrest warrant for Anderson Torres, the man effectively in charge of security for the capital, in response to a request by the federal police.
“The risk is of a slow erosion of institutions and norms,” Ms. González said. In the worst-case scenario, bottom-up political violence, combined with targeted inaction from elements within the police or other security services, could add up to “a slow-building coup, almost an everyday coup.”
‘Useful idiots’ for the military?
One reason for that kind of strategic inaction might be support for Mr. Bolsonaro, who is widely believed to be the preferred candidate of the police and military rank and file. But another, perhaps more likely, motivation is that many within the security establishment fear that Mr. Lula’s policies could threaten the security forces’ status, privileges or immunities.