Military mission creep threatens Brazilian democracy

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Not since the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship nearly four decades ago have its generals wielded so much political clout. Between active-duty officers and reserve officers, they’ve surveyed the Amazon and urban hotspots, held executive positions in state-controlled corporations, extended their grip on federal government positions, and even aided manage a growing number of schools. Their advantages and advantages have multiplied. Now the armed forces have gotten into the thorny debate over e-voting and plan to help oversee October’s presidential polls. In a democracy, this is a step too far.

Even by the standards of a country that swept the repressive excesses of the 1960s and 1970s under the rug, President Jair Bolsonaro was a cheerleader for the armed forces. With no political foundation to lean on when he took power, the former army captain spotted a suitably conservative base of support that voters trust. So it was no surprise that his government, lagging in the polls, demanded a role for the military in securing a voting process that Bolsonaro has repeatedly questioned. Electoral authorities have made room, giving dangerous credence to baseless allegations of electoral fraud, reinforcing senior officials’ view of themselves as guardians of the nation.

For all the president’s golpist ambitions, an all-out coup in the mold of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol remains unlikely, especially if, as polls suggest, the leftist former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva wins by far. Bolsonaro has a core of supporters, but the armed forces are not united in their enthusiasm, not least because the military will seek to preserve themselves and their influence above all else. Justice, Congress, the media and civil society, for their part, remain counterweights to presidential excesses.

There are other toxic possibilities, such as an outbreak of violence that results in soldiers being called in to restore order. Isolated events like the murder this weekend of a pro-Lula activist by a Bolsonaro supporter are cause for alarm. The far graver long-term threat to democracy, however, is less dramatic and already real: the sheer number of current and former officers in all manner of civilian functions, a presence that fosters respect for the supposedly superior capabilities of the army and erodes civilian control. This includes electoral mission creep.

The military has been amplifying Bolsonaro’s election fraud allegations for months. Never having done so before, the Armed Forces began raising questions about the e-voting process from late 2021 and has now filed dozens of petitions, along with suggested changes. They demanded electoral registers from 2014 and 2018. To ease tensions, the electoral authorities had already included them in a transparency commission. This, says Vinicius Mariano de Carvalho of King’s College London, was a mistake, granting the armed forces power they do not and should not have, and legitimizing their claim to a political role. It has also proven to be insufficient – officers are feeling resentful after some of their suggestions have been brushed aside, and the armed forces are preparing a parallel program of monitoring and inspection, a first.

The head of Brazil’s electoral authority said earlier this month that the army would collaborate, ruling out any intervention. It looks more and more like wishful thinking.

This problem is not new to Brazil, which has mostly had soft discussions about a military dictatorship deemed less brutal than those of neighbors such as Argentina and Chile, even though more than 400 people have been killed(1) and thousands were tortured between 1964 and 1985. The result was an incomplete transition, in which military and civilian affairs intertwined. The army has been called in numerous times to help with security, memorably cracking down on crime in Rio de Janeiro, while the president of the Supreme Court in 2018 chose a retired general as his adviser. That same election year, the army commander escaped serious punishment for repeatedly wading into political discussions.

The situation is much more dangerous today. Despite his pedestrian career in the military, Bolsonaro enjoyed the reflected shine of the army’s reputation for efficiency, competence and incorruptibility. Yet his efforts to harness these qualities have largely backfired: Bolsonaro’s decision to place a medically untrained general in the Health Ministry at the height of the pandemic in 2020 proved disastrous, as did the decision to involving soldiers in the Amazon, where there were more of them. spent and deforestation has increased. The armed forces, meanwhile, have sought to use the president as a bulwark against the perceived threat from the left – few have forgotten President Dilma Rousseff’s ill-timed truth commission to investigate torture and other abuses. during the dictatorship – and against the dissemination of liberal opinions values ​​which they consider as dividing society.

They were compensated for their support. In 2020, there were 6,157 military personnel in federal government jobs, more than double the figure from last year under Bolsonaro’s predecessor, Michel Temer. Defense has clawed back discretionary funding more effectively than any other department. Civil-military schools are multiplying. And in October, Bolsonaro will run again with a military man as vice president – this time, former defense minister and retired general Walter Braga Netto, has chosen several civilian candidates (including at least one woman, the impressive former agriculture minister Tereza Cristina, who could have helped her faltering fortune).

Bolsonaro’s undisguised authoritarian tendencies offer no assurance. He sought to rehabilitate the military dictatorship, called a torturer a “national hero”, said only God would remove him from office and sowed unfounded talk of a “secret room” for vote counting – while allowing to his sons and supporters to tweet Josef Stalin memes and other comments unsubstantially suggesting that the left seeks to manipulate the election.

At a time when inflation is eating away at incomes and hunger is on the rise, Brazilians’ strong support for the military and its underlying narrative of order and prosperity is even more worrisome.

Joao Roberto Martins Filho, a veteran political scientist working on the Brazilian dictatorship and the armed forces, says the risks of military mission drift have been underestimated; even experienced researchers working in the field believed that the military had accepted the rules of the democratic game. Instead, given the opportunity, the top brass jumped at the chance to fill the political vacuum, turning a blind eye to Bolsonaro’s limitations and contradictions. The military, he says, still sees the world through a Cold War lens.

Three things must now happen. First, before the election, civil society must raise the alarm, prioritize discussions about the realities of authoritarianism and the need to keep generals out of the ballot box in a democracy. This can at least limit the damage already done. The Supreme Court must keep its cool, as it says, and push back the parallel electoral adventures of the military, which only accumulate problems. Then, if Lula wins the election, he must use the popular mandate to quickly and quietly reduce the number of military personnel in civilian roles, and, among other things, reappoint a civilian defense minister.

This will set Brazil on the path to the final stage, a long overdue public debate on the role of the military. As Marina Vitelli of the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro points out, political parties will need to come to a consensus that a politicized army benefits no one, a realization that has come to Argentina. It will be a difficult consensus to build in this polarized nation – but for Brazilian democracy it is also vital.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• A pardon from Bolsonaro is a bad pre-election omen: Clara F. Marques

• Governance must trump ideology in Latin America: Shannon O’Neill

• Brazilian expats flee country of Bolsonaro’s past: David Wainer

(1) According to Anthony Pereira “Ditadura e Repressao: O Autoritarismo eo Estado de Direito no Brasil, no Chile e na Argentina”, 2010, there were 284 to 364 deaths and disappearances in Brazil between 1964 and 1979, compared to 3,000 in 5,000 in Chile between 1973 and 1989, and up to 30,000 in Argentina between 1976 and 1983.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering foreign affairs and climate. Previously, she worked for Reuters in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, UK, Italy and Russia.

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