The Military Is Back in Brazil

From security to economic policy, under Jair Bolsonaro, the armed forces will be a major player in politics.

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)

Sunday’s election in Brazil capped Jair Bolsonaro’s meteoric rise from fringe far-right congressman to the country’s president. He won the runoff with slightly over 55 percent of the vote, delivering a drubbing to his opponent, Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party.

Bolsonaro’s electoral rout will change Brazil’s political landscape in two ways. First, it will dramatically reshuffle the country’s party politics, relegating the Workers’ Party, long Brazil’s most organized and powerful political force, to the backbench.

His victory will also bury several other established parties, including the centrist Brazilian Social Democracy Party, which in the general elections earlier this month failed to win even 10 percent of the seats in either the Senate or Chamber of Deputies, and many parties on the right, which saw their voters flee to the president-elect’s Social Liberal Party. For example, outgoing President Michel Temer’s centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement, which has been the target of repeated corruption allegations, lost about half its electoral support compared to the previous general electoral. It will take years for these parties to rebuild their constituencies, if they can, and they will face a more polarized electorate as they try.

Second, and perhaps even more important for the long-term health of the country’s democracy, is what the election means for the Brazilian military. Bolsonaro, a former military man, has promised to pack his cabinet full of former generals and deepen the armed forces’ role in domestic security. He’s likely to interpret his landslide victory as a mandate to charge forward with those plans, which would upset the careful balance struck between the military and civilians in the last few decades.

Brazil’s military ruled from 1964 to 1985. During that time, it imposed strict order, took an active role in economic development, and squelched civil society. Although the military retreated to the barracks in the 1980s, individual members of the former regime subsequently won important political posts in local and national government, through which they retained outsized power and influence.

Under Bolsonaro, military influence in civilian affairs won’t be limited to a few former military figures. Rather, the Brazilian military as an institution will return to politics. It will exert its power in at least three areas.

First and foremost will be the military’s role in policing and public security. Bolsonaro rode to victory in large part due to popular outrage about rising crime, insecurity, and gang violence. Over 60,000 people were slain in the country last year alone, which makes for a murder rate more than five times higher than in the United States and 20 percent higher than in Mexico, where a brutal drug war is playing out on the streets. Not surprisingly, nearly 40 percent of Brazilians name violence as one of their country’s most pressing problems.

If his campaign promises are any guide, Bolsonaro will hand the military a greater role in domestic security.

If his campaign promises are any guide, part of Bolsonaro’s solution to the problem will be handing the military a greater role in domestic security. His predecessor, Temer, already took the unprecedented step of placing the military in charge of security in Rio de Janeiro. But Bolsonaro could well extend that to São Paulo and other major urban areas.

Doing so would fit well with the president-elect’s calls for much more aggressive policing. He’s gone so far as to say that a police officer who hasn’t killed anyone isn’t a real police officer, and he has argued that the police should be allowed to use lethal force. He also wants to automatically classify any deaths at the hands of officers as accidents, in spite of the fact that Brazilian police killed over 4,000 people in 2016—that is a lot of accidents. In the last year, the count has spiked in hot spots such as Rio de Janeiro.

Although a majority of Rio residents “do not believe that Brazil’s security problems will be solved by giving the police a license to kill,” according to polling by Brazil’s Center for Studies on Public Safety and Citizenship, most Brazilians do demand better security. In fact, earlier this year, nearly 40 percent of Brazilians said that security considerations would be a major factor in how they would decide to cast their vote in this month’s elections.

Concerns about security combined with wariness of more police violence feeds the military’s resurgence. Among many Brazilians, it is simply seen as the more competent and trustworthy force. (One survey in June 2017 found that 80 percent of people trust the military fully or at least a little. As few as about 50 percent reported trusting the police in another survey that month.) Indeed, some mayors have already staffed up local police forces with retired military officers in hopes of improving discipline and performance.

Under Bolsonaro, the military will also reassert itself into economic development. Many older voters remember the so-called Brazilian economic miracle, during which the military dictatorship stoked industrialization and development to create annual economic growth rates of nearly 10 percent. The gains from that boom were unevenly distributed, and it eventually came to a crashing halt. But that period of relative prosperity nonetheless contrasts sharply with the extreme economic contraction of recent years, which has coincided with a drop in support for democracy. According to a 2017 Pew poll, over 30 percent of Brazilians believe democracy is a bad way to govern. Almost 40 percent offered some support for rule by the military.

On the campaign trail, Bolsonaro appealed to these Brazilians when he said that he would appoint generals to many of his government’s ministries “not because they are generals, but because they are competent.” Although he has recruited the free-market economist Paulo Guedes as his economy minister, observers such as Alexandre Schwartsman, the former director of Brazil’s central bank, believe that this alliance is tenuous at best. It may prove to be a gambit to gain support from financial elites and will falter to the extent that Guedes’s plans bump up against the military’s desire for more direct economic management.

In particular, the armed forces would like to see more development in the Amazon, which they have historically viewed not as an important ecosystem to protect but as a security burden and national resource that should be exploited. Bolsonaro, who shares that vision, has unsurprisingly declared his intention to scrap environmental protections and regulations in the name of pushing forward new road, mine, hydroelectric, and agribusiness projects.

Finally, under Brazil’s new president after he’s inaugurated next January, the military will likely get more involved in the way the country regulates arms sales and the weapons industry. Brazil previously tried and failed to implement gun control, in part through an ill-fated referendum in 2005 in which nearly two-thirds of voters rejected a proposal to ban gun sales. Any similar efforts are off the table for now.

Today, the military is aligned with the so-called bancada da bala, the congressional caucus tied to pro-gun and weapons lobbyists. Together, the two will likely halt any further attempts at gun control even as they attempt to boost international arms sales. Bolsonaro supports allowing law-abiding citizens to arm themselves and has called for a legislative repeal of Brazil’s “disarmament statute,” which restricts gun ownership and the ability to carry guns. Pro-gun lawmakers visited Bolsonaro at his home last week to ensure that their agenda is front and center at the outset of his presidency. It probably will be: Given the president-elect’s public support and the military’s sway among parts of Brazil’s judiciary, they will probably be able to pursue this part of the agenda largely unchecked.

What all this ultimately portends for Brazil’s democracy remains to be seen. Despite its power and influence, the military would far rather work through a Bolsonaro presidency than rule directly. But if the two hollow out Brazilian institutions enough—and if Bolsonaro unleashes the police and armed forces against his critics, as he has threatened to do—Brazil could retrace its steps all the way back to 1964, the last time the military fully took control.

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.

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