The uncertain role of the Armed Forces in the Bolsonaro government

. May 07, 2020
Jair Bolsonaro addressing the Southeast Military Command. Photo: Isac Nóbrega/PR Jair Bolsonaro addressing the Southeast Military Command. Photo: Isac Nóbrega/PR

During his participation in yet another quasi-putschist demonstration this past Sunday, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro made sure to increase speculation about the role of the military within his administration. “The people are with us, the Armed Forces — alongside law, order, democracy, and liberty — are with us as well,” he said. Mr. Bolsonaro went on to say that the government was “on the edge” and that there was no longer any room for negotiations. “From now on, we will enforce the Constitution […] at any cost,” he said, to his assembled supporters.

This was a not-so-veiled attack on the Supreme Court, which has gotten in Mr. Bolsonaro’s way on a number of occasions over the past month. Most notably,

Justice Alexandre de Moraes <a href="">blocked the president&#8217;s appointment for Federal Police Chief</a>, as the intended pick, Alexandre Ramagem, is a close friend of Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s son. The president then decided to appoint an ally of Mr. Ramagem&#8217;s to the post.</p> <p>The tension between the Supreme Court and the government was taken up a notch on Wednesday when Justice Celso de Mello authorized the subpoena of three army generals who are members of Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s cabinet. In an excerpt from his decision, Justice Mello says that if the three generals refuse to appear on the agreed date and time, they should be compelled to testify. The military was reportedly unappreciative of the Supreme Court justice&#8217;s tone. According to <em>CNN Brasil</em>, members of the Army saw the decision as an offense, <a href="">creating &#8220;animosity&#8221; towards the Supreme Court</a>.</p> <p>These disagreements and back-and-forth statements raise the question of how the Armed Forces would react if Congress were to launch impeachment proceedings against President Bolsonaro, who himself is a former Army captain. Would they remain in the shadows and let politics take its course? Or would they, as they have done on so many past occasions, step in as a self-modeled &#8220;moderating force&#8221;?</p> <div id="buzzsprout-player-1079012"></div> <script src=";player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Hand in hand with the military</h2> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s suggestion that he has the military in his corner once again sparked a slew of outraged statements, forcing the Defense Ministry — led by a non-civilian — to <a href="">release a statement</a> saying the barracks are committed to upholding the Constitution. “Military forces are bodies of the state, which consider independence and harmony as indispensable to governability,” read the press release.</p> <p>The statement, however, did not include even the slightest hint of criticism of the president&#8217;s suggestions that military forces would <a href="">help him bulldoze democratic institutions</a>.</p> <p>According to political scientist Adriana Marques of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, the statement makes it clear that the Defense Minister and the president are in sync. “The document says the Army is not willing to support a coup, but that’s all. They are otherwise extremely committed to the government.”</p> <p>João Roberto Martins Filho, a professor at the Federal University of São Carlos whose research is focused on military issues, sees the Armed Forces as having an undesirable influence on the Bolsonaro administration. “The best-case scenario for the military would be working behind the scenes, but that has not worked because Jair Bolsonaro can’t be tutored.”</p> <div id="buzzsprout-player-3644899"></div> <script src=";player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Blurred lines</h2> <p>Though the Armed Forces are independent institutions and not part of the government, many of their influential members were given high-profile cabinet positions in the Bolsonaro government. Three Army generals — one retired, two active — serve as the president&#8217;s closest advisers. And amid the worst pandemic in a century, key positions in the Health Ministry have been &#8220;seized&#8221; by military officers.</p> <p>The total number of non-civilian government officials currently hovers around 3,000.</p> <p>Ms. Marques believes that Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s decision to bring <a href="">so many military members into senior positions</a> was a clever move. Their extensive participation in the administration has blurred the lines between the government and the barracks, meaning that the failure of Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s administration would also be a failure of the military.</p> <p>But links to the government have left the military&#8217;s top brass in some uncomfortable positions, says Mr. Martins Filho. “The president has often put them in tight spots. He speaks with them on Saturday and on the following day translates the message publically in his own way. The military’s position is to try to fix whatever Mr. Bolsonaro does. Every day he does something more unbelievable.”</p> <p>At the same time, Mr. Martins Filho thinks the president and a significant segment of the high military command have a similar view of the political landscape. According to the professor, both see democratic pillars such as the Supreme Court and Congress as obstacles.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="683" src="" alt="Jair Bolsonaro during a military ceremony in Rio Grande do Sul. Photo: Marcos Corrêa/PR" class="wp-image-38397" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 2048w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Jair Bolsonaro during a military ceremony in Rio Grande do Sul. Photo: Marcos Corrêa/PR</figcaption></figure> <h2>The &#8220;I&#8221; word</h2> <p>Unlike many of his counterparts across the globe, Mr. Bolsonaro has seen his popularity ratings drop since the beginning of the pandemic. Alongside the health crisis and a looming recession, this institutional deadlock between Brazil&#8217;s branches of power makes the situation all the more troubling.</p> <p>But while the military says it is not willing to support a coup, its mere presence could dissuade Congress from making impeachment moves against the president. Ms. Marques sees the congressional ousting of Mr. Bolsonaro as a harder sell than those of former presidents Fernando Collor, in 1992, and Dilma Rousseff, in 2016.</p> <p>“These people supported Mr. Bolsonaro as a candidate, and now they are subordinated to him. In other cases, it was easier for them to step back and just allow democratic institutions to work. Now it is more complicated because they are also part of the government.”</p> <p>Both professors agree that, to some extent, military forces supported the removal of Dilma Rousseff in 2016, and that there is much anti-left-wing sentiment in the core of the Armed Forces. Mr. Martins Filho classifies this interference as the beginning of the weakening of Brazilian democratic institutions. Public statements from the barracks are neither normal or desirable in a healthy democracy.</p> <p>The military is crucial to keep Mr. Bolsonaro in office. &#8220;If they remove their support, the country will experience a severe political crisis. Mr. Bolsonaro wouldn’t allow it. The president is not the kind of guy that would accept an impeachment.&#8221;</p> <p>Both experts say it is difficult to predict Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s next steps, the reaction of the other branches of government, or how the military will position itself. But they say that whatever the outcome, the Armed Forces will be involved.

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José Roberto Castro

José Roberto covers politics and economics and is finishing a Master's Degree in Media and Globalization. Previously, he worked at Nexo Jornal and O Estado de S. Paulo.

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