Brazil: Military Looking out for Its Own Interests, Not Bolsonaro’s

By Matheus de Oliveira Pereira*

An Ordem e Progresso badge on a Brazilian soldier / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons License

Despite President Bolsonaro’s bluster about rejecting the results of Brazil’s national elections on October 2nd, the military does not appear likely to intervene on his behalf – preferring instead to use its power with whoever wins the election to avoid accountability, reduce civilian oversight, and protect its own institutional interests.  

Bolsonaro worked hard during his term to curry favor with the military, giving it significant policy positions and influence.  

  • Based on data from the government’s Tribunal de Contas de União, William Nozaki estimates that more than 6,000 active military personnel took government positions during Bolsonaro’s presidency, including six critical Ministers of State. An intelligence task force created by interim President Temer in 2018 is now dominated by the military. Another 8,540 benefit from public contracts. Retired officers figure prominently in public debate with the government’s endorsement. 
  • This level of participation also reflects the military’s support – at least implicit – for Bolsonaro’s political project. General Eduardo Pazzuelo, who was in charge of the government’s disastrous response to COVID-19, is running for Congress as a member of his party. In São Paulo, General Tarcísio de Freitas is running for governor as an ally as well. Bolsonaro, a retired officer himself, is seeking the presidency again with a general officer as his running mate. 
  • Some officers claim that they have been a moderating force on the President’s impulses. Like the party’s Centrão group, they say they’re pushing for a more “presidential,” less divisive style by the Executive. The divisions in the party, however, are mostly for image rather than reflective of real cleavages, as are the claims of military officers, who frequently embrace Bolsonaro’s conspiratorial allegations about electronic voting machines and other matters.  

Most officers believe it is crucial to keep feeding the narrative that the security forces have not compromised their non-partisan, non-political role. They are also undoubtedly aware that a coup to keep Bolsonaro in power would face significant international resistance, particularly in the Americas. Also, backing a coup led by Bolsonaro would further deepen their role in the government in a context of tough times, mainly in the economy. 

  • Disinterest in a Bolsonaro coup project does not mean that they welcome Lula da Silva’s return as President. He still faces significant resistance in the barracks. The Army Commander, claiming he is not involved in electoral matters, has avoided contact with emissaries of Lula’s campaign. Figures close to the former president, however, have repeatedly stated that they trust the Armed Forces to respect the outcome of the polls. 

The mere speculation that the military would support Bolsonaro’s claims of fraud so seriously and allow him to remain in power is compelling evidence of how damaged Brazilian democracy and military adherence to democratic principles are. Even if the high command does not support Bolsonaro’s schemes, it seems headed to a different, and perhaps more destructive, approach to using its power – bargaining with whoever wins in October by trading military promises of non-intervention in return for civilian promises to pull back from investigations into its behavior and from future oversight. The officers will probably demand a commitment that the new government would grant an amnesty for mismanagement and corruption during the Bolsonaro years, and would not take steps to restrain their autonomy in budgetary matters. 

  • Some members of Lula’s entourage appear aware of the dangers of this scenario and are reportedly looking for creative solutions to it, especially if Bolsonaro’s base mobilizes and causes serious instability, which Lula would need security forces’ help controlling. However much Lula would want to reject a deal with the military, he may be boxed in by a lack of political support for confrontation and his own conciliatory tendencies during the campaign.  
  • If Brazil repeats the mistake it made 37 years ago – when the main political forces did not face the country’s authoritarian past nor establish mechanisms to effectively limit the military’s political autonomy – the country will again be missing a crucial opportunity to impose civilian control over the military and build a better, more robust democracy. 

* Matheus de Oliveira Pereira is a professor of International Relations at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo and at the University of Ribeirão Preto, and a researcher at the INCT-INEU and GEDES. He is a former CLALS fellow

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