The Military Returns to Brazilian Politics

As Bolsonaro takes the lead, the future looks dim for democracy in Brasília.

Jair Bolsonaro waves to the crowd during a military event in São Paulo on May 3. (Nelson Almeida/AFP/Getty Images)
Jair Bolsonaro waves to the crowd during a military event in São Paulo on May 3. (Nelson Almeida/AFP/Getty Images)

This weekend’s first-round presidential election in Brazil was the culmination of years of tumult and intrigue that have brought the military back into the limelight after decades in the barracks.

The vote’s big winner is Jair Bolsonaro, who is now the favorite going into the final round of the election. He’ll face off against Fernando Haddad, the candidate from the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT). Haddad is a stand-in for party stalwart Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was disqualified from running after he was convicted with corruption and incarcerated. He’s running on a platform of ending the war on drugs, tightening gun laws, and balancing law enforcement with human rights protections. But he will sink or swim on his ability to portray himself as a competent Lula proxy.

Bolsonaro, meanwhile, is a far-right former military man who has publicly voiced his approval of Brazil’s last military regime, which ruled from 1964 to 1985. That government killed or disappeared hundreds of people during its tenure, but it also provided law and order, and many Brazilians recall the period with some nostalgia. On the campaign trail, Bolsonaro has frequently drawn comparisons to U.S. President Donald Trump. Not only is he a Trump admirer, but he also shares Trump’s zest for political incorrectness. The candidate openly denigrates women, ethnic minorities, and LGBT people.

Millions of Brazilians are aghast at the thought of a Bolsonaro presidency; as recently as last week, 45 percent of those polled said they would never vote for him. But it isn’t like there are many better options. Much of Brazil views the PT as corrupt. Meanwhile, support for the other major party, the center-right Brazilian Social Democracy Party, has plunged during its stint as part of the ruling coalition under the unpopular President Michel Temer.

With Bolsonaro and Haddad now set to compete in the final round of the vote later this month, powerful financial elites are casting their lot with Bolsonaro as the lesser of two evils. In contrast to the PT, which has rejected market-friendly reforms and proposed new investments in social services, elites view Bolsonaro as a much more likely bet for austerity, privatization, and deregulation. They are crossing their fingers that the rest of his rhetoric is just that.

More worrying, perhaps, is that Brazil’s powerful military is backing Bolsonaro too. For military leaders, it appears to be a question of law and order. Over the last several years, twin economic and political crises have generated large-scale protests, conflict within the judiciary, and a series of impeachments and jailings of former leaders. At the same time, crime and gang violence has risen sharply.

During the unrest, the military has stepped back into politics in a real way. Early this year, Temer placed the military in charge of security in Rio de Janeiro. It was the first federal intervention in any Brazilian state since the end of the military dictatorship, and the first time troops have been tasked with domestic security. Months later, ahead of an April Supreme Court ruling on whether to cut short Lula’s appeal process, the Army’s commander, Gen. Eduardo Villas Bôas, tweeted that the military “repudiates impunity.” It was a thinly veiled warning to the court to lock Lula away.

Under a Bolsonaro presidency, such interference could become more frequent. For one thing, Bolsonaro has promised to pack his cabinet with military leaders. And he has made law enforcement, backed by military might and carte blanche policing, the main plank of his political platform. Indeed, he relishes making trigger-pulling gestures on the campaign trail. This contrasts with other candidates who have called for a balance between respect for human rights and policing.

What’s more, Bolsonaro, himself an ex-paratrooper, is running with retired Army Gen. Antônio Hamilton Mourão as his vice president. Mourão, to his credit, is honest about his outlook for the armed forces: He has stated that the military could conceivably step in to rule during a “hypothetical situation of chaos in the country.” After all, according to Mourão, “the armed forces cannot be playing while the Titanic sinks.” Although Bolsonaro denies wanting the military to formally take the reins, he does call the previous dictatorship “a very good” period of Brazil’s history. And he went so far as to dedicate his congressional vote to impeach former PT President Dilma Rousseff to the military colonel who ran the program under which Rousseff was tortured during the dictatorship.

The return of the military to Brazilian politics is shocking. For decades, the armed forces largely avoided direct interference in or commentary about civilian politics. But support for democracy plummeted in Brazil to merely 13 percent last year. The military, by contrast, retains widespread respect, which helps to explain why the outgoing president, Temer, broke with the past to appoint a military general to lead the defense ministry.

Worrying as it may be, though, the military’s re-emergence is not unusual in Latin America. In an article I wrote this year for the Journal of Conflict Resolution, I showed that, between 1900 and 2015, former authoritarian elites in Latin America were four times more likely to return to positions of political or economic power under democracy than to be punished for their misdeeds.

The case of Chile, for example, is well known. That country’s 1990 democratic transition was guided by a revised version of its 1980 constitution, which was written by the Augusto Pinochet military dictatorship. The constitution protected the interests of military and other former regime elites; several of them were granted lifetime positions in the Senate, and the military was given the authority to independently choose the head of the armed forces. The constitution also established a unique electoral system that wound up favoring former elites despite their numerical disadvantage.

Consequently, only four top Pinochet-era officials were even nominally punished. Nearly all regained major political offices or landed board seats within large firms. Chile still operates under a revised version of Pinochet’s constitution, and although civilians have deepened their control over the military, many vestiges of the dictatorship remain. Indeed, the cabinet of the current president, Sebastián Piñera, has several ties to the Pinochet regime.

By contrast, Argentina’s military government collapsed in 1983 after the failed Falklands War. Although former officials were able to use the threat of a coup to secure amnesty laws, no protections were written into the constitution. As civilian control solidified in the 2000s, amnesty was stripped away. Scores of military officials were suddenly subject to punishment through transitional justice programs, and the last military dictator as well as his army general, navy admiral, and interior minister were all punished for crimes during the dictatorship. Military influence in Argentina is now a mere shadow of what it was during the mid-to-late 20th century.

Brazil’s experience is more similar to Chile’s than to Argentina’s. After more than two decades in power, Brazil’s last military regime under João Figueiredo stepped down in 1985. Like in Chile, the military took pains to protect itself through a constitution that was imposed during transition. It prohibited ex post facto punishment for crimes, stunted the political power of cities, banned extreme left parties from electoral competition, and prohibited the public from initiating legislation. Although the constitution was rewritten in 1988, it retained a host of illiberal elements. As I argue in my recent book, Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy, such rules fit a pattern of elite-biased constitutions protecting former authoritarian elements from popular forces under democracy.

For his part, Brazil’s old strongman Figueiredo retired from politics. When a journalist asked him how he wanted Brazilians to remember him, he replied, “I want them to forget me.” He then isolated himself at his private property outside Rio de Janeiro until his death in 1999. Meanwhile, top-level officials from the military dictatorship stuck around. A minister in Figueiredo’s cabinet, Antônio Delfim, served as a congressman in the Chamber of Deputies from 1987 to 2007. The military’s designated presidential candidate in the 1985 elections, Paulo Maluf, became mayor of Sao Paulo in 1993 and was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 2006. Figueiredo’s main political strategist and the head of the military’s party, Flávio Portela Marcílio, also became a congressman from 1990 to 1991. The list goes on.

Given the history, the Brazilian military’s reassertion through Bolsonaro’s candidacy is less surprising. The armed forces have always been lurking in the background. What is different now is the nature of that reassertion. Under Lula and Rousseff, as before them, the military institution was relegated to the barracks even though former military figures gained individual political posts. By contrast, the military is now acting in a more unified fashion to shape national-level events. With economic and political crises threatening its interests, it is poised to become more actively involved in the direct maintenance of domestic security and the likely suppression of the PT as a political force.

Although it remains to be seen what will happen next, a Bolsonaro win in the next round of the election could be a major step toward authoritarianism. For all of its power and influence, the military would far rather pull the strings of a Bolsonaro presidency than step in to rule directly. In short, a major step backward for Brazilian democracy could be coming.

Michael Albertus is an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He is author, most recently, of Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy.