Why Brazil dodged a military coup

Despite pleas from Sunday’s protesters for the military to join them in storming the capital, the top brass honored an election result – as well as civilian rule.

Supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro leave their encampment outside army headquarters as military police stand watch in Sao Paulo, Jan. 9, the day after Bolsonaro supporters stormed the capital.

Military coups against elected leaders have hardly gone out of favor – see Myanmar, Egypt, and multiple African countries, even an attempt in Germany last month to incite an army rebellion. So it is worth asking why the top brass in Brazil, the world’s fifth-largest democracy that only a few decades ago was under junta rule, didn’t take the bait from thousands of protesters Sunday asking officers to join them as rioters briefly took over the capital’s main buildings in an attempt to roll back a presidential election.

For weeks before the winning candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took office Jan. 1, protesters had camped outside army barracks in Brasília hoping the military would keep the losing candidate, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, in power. And that, despite a statement from three commanders of Brazil’s armed forces after the Oct. 30 election saying solutions to the country’s disputes must come from the democratic rule of law.

“When it came down to it, the armed forces were quiet,” wrote University of Denver scholar Rafael Ioris in The Conversation. “The idea of a traditional coup – tanks on the streets stuff – that just didn’t happen.” On Sunday, military forces ended up helping detain hundreds of the most violent protesters. While some in the military’s lower ranks may believe in Mr. Bolsonaro’s social causes, those in the higher ranks were not willing to overthrow a legitimate election, political commentator Tanguy Baghdadi told The Grid.

Many militaries around the world have come to realize that a duty to defend national sovereignty with force of arms must run secondary to civilian rule based on ideals such as individual sovereignty, civic equality, and peaceful resolution of disputes. Democracies may falter or their economies weaken, but might does not make right. Ballots are a far greater source of legitimacy than bullets.

During his presidency, Mr. Bolsonaro, a former Army captain, appointed thousands of current and former military officers to government posts. Many of them at the top ended up resigning because of the president’s tactics. Mr. Bolsonaro would often refer to “my” military.

The new president, who won over many in the military during his previous terms in office (2003-10), plans to restore healthy civilian control over the rank and file. “The depoliticization, and more, the non-partisanship of the armed forces is absolutely necessary for the country,” said José Múcio Monteiro, a career politician appointed as defense minister.

Brazil has now avoided what could have been one in a rich history of Latin American coups, in part because its military respects the supremacy of elected, civilian power. Such power begins – and ends – with ideals embedded in a democratic constitution, even if sometimes poorly practiced.

Staying in the barracks despite the protesters’ pleas to join them was the military’s best way to uphold Brazil’s democracy.

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