Brazil’s democracy in peril? Bolsonaro’s military courtship raises concern.

Adriano Machado/Reuters
Brazilian Navy tanks pass flags with the image of Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro at the Esplanade of Ministries after a military parade in Brasilia, Brazil, Aug. 10, 2021. Mr. Bolsonaro has strong ties to Brazil's military.
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Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro looked on approvingly earlier this month as armored vehicles snaked through the nation’s capital. But his military parade was controversial for its timing on the eve of a vote in Congress about election security in 2022 and for the signal it sends about Mr. Bolsonaro’s increasingly close ties to Brazil’s armed forces. 

Having weathered the first year of a pandemic that Brazil is widely seen as mismanaging, Mr. Bolsonaro has seen his popularity fall to new lows this summer. As angry Brazilians take to the streets – at times calling for impeachment – he’s turned to sowing doubt about the trustworthiness of the 2022 presidential vote, echoing the strategy of former President Donald Trump in whipping up a disgruntled base. 

These moves are calling into question the stability and independence of Brazil’s democratic institutions. They also represent a risky political calculation that could alienate moderates whose votes elevated Mr. Bolsonaro, a fringe far-right congressman, to the presidency in 2018. “Bolsonaro is weaker than he’s ever been – and he is throwing all his cards on the table,” says Marjorie Marona, a political science professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. 

Why We Wrote This

Brazil's calamitous handling of COVID-19 has hurt President Jair Bolsonaro's prospect of being reelected. His defiant response and courtship of the military has raised fears of democratic backsliding.

A line of military tanks rolled through the heart of Brazil’s capital on a recent morning, enveloped by a cloud of black exhaust smoke. From the marble steps of the presidential palace, President Jair Bolsonaro looked on approvingly.

The Aug. 10 military parade, unprecedented since Brazil’s 1985 return to democracy, came just hours before lawmakers voted on the far-right president’s proposal to bring back paper ballots, a proposal that critics say is aimed at discrediting Brazil’s electronic voting machines. Mr. Bolsonaro is seeking a second term in next year’s presidential election.

The parade, which drew criticism domestically and abroad, was seen as a not-so-subtle attempt at intimidating lawmakers. In that regard, it failed: Congress rejected the proposal. But it forms part of a pattern that has raised questions over Brazil’s democratic health. 

Why We Wrote This

Brazil's calamitous handling of COVID-19 has hurt President Jair Bolsonaro's prospect of being reelected. His defiant response and courtship of the military has raised fears of democratic backsliding.

As COVID-19 continues to ravage Brazil and its stricken economy, Mr. Bolsonaro’s popularity has tumbled to new lows in recent months. Angry Brazilians have taken to the streets to call for his impeachment. The president, a former army captain, has responded by attacking other branches of government, sowing doubts over election security, and flaunting his increasingly cozy relationship with the armed forces.

“Bolsonaro is weaker than he’s ever been – and he is throwing all his cards on the table,” says Marjorie Marona, a political scientist at the Federal University of Minas Gerais.  “It’s a show of strength,” but it’s coming from a place of “desperation,” she says.

Military wildcard

COVID-19 has killed 578,000 people in Brazil, a toll second only to the United States. Mr. Bolsonaro has repeatedly brushed off the severity of the health crisis, rejecting sanitary measures like face masks, social distancing, and lockdowns. His government also slashed emergency aid this year to millions of workers, an unpopular move.  

In televised hearings, a parliamentary inquiry has dissected Mr. Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic, including a stream of corruption allegations that have tarnished his image as an anti-graft crusader. This includes an alleged kickback scheme in which his government sought to buy millions of COVID-19 vaccines at sharply inflated prices.

Only 23% of Brazilians believe Mr. Bolsonaro is doing a good or great job, according to an August poll by XP/Ipespe.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s courtship of Brazil’s military has fueled worries that he’s trying to rile up his core supporters and lay the groundwork for a coup if he loses next year’s election. While recent challenges to election results in the United States and Peru didn’t succeed, some experts say Brazil’s young democracy is more vulnerable.

“The risk here is greater,” says Camila Rocha, a political scientist who has studied right-wing voters and Mr. Bolsonaro’s supporters. “Sizable segments of the Armed Forces support Bolsonaro.”

Walter Souza Braga Netto, an army general and Brazil’s minister of defense, has denied that this month’s parade was intended to intimidate lawmakers. “The president considered it an homage. Because he is a president who honors the Armed Forces,” he said. 

Adriano Machado/Reuters
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro looks on during a Soldier's Day ceremony, in Brasilia, Brazil, Aug. 25, 2021. Mr. Bolsonaro, a former army officer, has cast doubt on election security ahead of next year's presidential poll.

Mr. Bolsonaro has said he won’t accept the election results if he sees the vote as fraudulent. He recently threatened to cancel the elections altogether if the voting system is not fixed, despite no evidence of fraud in past elections. “Next year’s elections have to be clean,” he declared last month. “Either we’ll have clean elections, or we won’t have elections.” 

Mr. Bolsonaro has attacked Brazil’s Supreme Court, which is investigating the president’s role in spreading false information about the electoral process. He filed a lawsuit against the Supreme Court and even sought to impeach one of its judges, though the Senate shot down his requests last week.  

The central question is whether the military will stand by Mr. Bolsonaro. Earlier this year, the chiefs of Brazil’s army, navy, and air force jointly resigned, allegedly in protest of Mr. Bolsonaro’s attempts to exert undue control over them. Their replacements have closer ties to the president.  

Mr. Bolsonaro has appointed thousands of former and current military officers to top government posts. At least 6,100 staff members in his administration have a military background, more than double the number under his conservative predecessor, Michel Temer. 

“We already know that Bolsonaro doesn’t have limits,” says João Roberto Martins Filho, a political science professor at the Federal University of São Carlos and author of several books on Brazil’s military dictatorship. “What we still don’t know is how far the armed forces will go.”

There’s cautious optimism among academics that the military will remain loyal to the country’s democratic institutions and that these bodies can remain independent and strong enough to resist any electoral foul play. But Dr. Martins Filho warns that the military could resist a return to the political margins. “They will want to stay in power,” he says.

And public faith in institutions has been shaken by years of corruption scandals, says Dr. Marona. This mistrust, which also applies to the electoral process, could play into the hands of a strongman like Mr. Bolsonaro.

The situation “has only amplified this sense of not being represented, that democratic institutions don’t function well, that all politicians are corrupt,” she says. 

Adriano Machado/Reuters
A demonstrator takes part in a protest against President Jair Bolsonaro's government outside the National Congress in Brasilia, Brazil, Aug. 18, 2021. Mr. Bolsonaro's approval ratings have slumped in recent months as poverty and hunger have grown during the pandemic.

Broken spell?

Mr. Bolsonaro’s assaults on democratic institutions are not new. During his 26 years in Congress, he often lamented the limits of democracy, waxed nostalgic about military dictatorship, and fantasized about shutting down Congress, calling it a system that “doesn’t work.”

“This discourse has always been Bolsonaro’s signature, and it was crucial to his election,” says Dr. Martins Filho. “He presents himself as an outsider by questioning institutions.”

Mr. Bolsonaro won over moderate voters in 2018 by promising to kick-start the economy. And his pledges to get tough on crime resonated in a country with one of the world’s highest rates of violent crime. An outsider status gave him a leg up, too: Brazilians were disillusioned after more than a decade of leftist Workers’ Party (PT) leadership. 

Mr. Bolsonaro’s reliance on moves like the military parade may be alienating this more moderate demographic. “Bolsonaro has this core base that’s really loyal,” says Dr. Rocha. But trying to radicalize his base with claims of electoral meddling by opponents is “a big gamble” if it turns off moderates.

Vinícius Pedrada Coutinho says he voted for the president in the 2018 election runoff because he was an appealing alternative to the PT. He was drawn to Mr. Bolsonaro’s vows to put the economy back on track, but last month he lost his job as a supervisor at an appliance company.

“We were looking for a political renewal,” says Mr. Coutinho. “We were hoping for a new economic era. But he didn’t deliver on any of his promises.”

Gean Perreira Santos, a security guard in Brasilia, the capital, says his concerns go further. “He seemed like an authentic guy who spoke his mind,” he says of casting his ballot for Mr. Bolsonaro. Now, “It seems like what he really wanted all along was” to stay in power.

With former President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva – a divisive but still wildly popular figure – now free to run in next year’s elections, Mr. Bolsonaro’s position is even more fragile.

Just 24% of Brazilians say they would vote for Mr. Bolsonaro in the first round of elections next year, according to the XP/Ipespe poll. Some 40% say they would cast a ballot for Mr. da Silva. Others say they don’t like either choice.

If there is no strong third option, Mr. Coutinho says he will spoil his vote. “I don’t want to be responsible for Bolsonaro winning another term, I can’t have that on my conscience. But I also don’t believe in voting for the lesser of two evils.”

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