Brazil’s Military Is Not the Problem

Democracy will depend on whether civilians can exploit rifts between Bolsonaro and his base while regaining voter trust.

A man reads newspaper headlines announcing Jair Bolsonaro’s victory in the Brazil’s presidential election in São Paulo on Oct. 29. (Miguel Schincariol/AFP/Getty Images)
A man reads newspaper headlines announcing Jair Bolsonaro’s victory in the Brazil’s presidential election in São Paulo on Oct. 29. (Miguel Schincariol/AFP/Getty Images)

Over the weekend, Brazilian voters elected Jair Bolsonaro as their next president. This makes Brazil the latest in long list of countries that have seen populist figures come to power on a wave of voter anger at traditional political elites.

Bolsonaro’s rise from obscure congressman to social media sensation was swift. His initial popularity came from his colorful denunciations of left-wing figures, including former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who had become entangled in a massive corruption scandal known as Operation Car Wash. Bolsonaro claimed that only a radical conservative government could clean up the political system and rescue Brazil’s faltering economy, once hailed as one of the world’s most promising.

The question now is whether, in his quest to upend the system, he’ll break Brazil’s young democracy beyond repair.

So far, the president-elect’s rhetoric does not give room for much hope. As a member of Congress, Bolsonaro was known for his defense of Brazil’s military dictatorship and his skepticism about democratic ideals. He praised military officers who were accused of torturing political prisoners, threatened to do away with the opposition, vigorously attacked laws designed to extend rights to women and minorities, and once boasted that he was proudly homophobic.

The figures around him have echoed those sentiments. His vice presidential running mate, for example, has publicly considered the possibility of calling in the military to shut down the legislature. And Bolsonaro’s son, now an elected member of Congress, hinted that it would be easy for the Army to close down the Supreme Court if it wanted to.

And yet, Brazil’s democratic institutions have come a long way since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985. The country did away with censorship, for one, and citizens now enjoy more civil liberties than ever. The 1988 constitution, for example, was the first to give every adult citizen the right to vote. Since then, the rights to public education and health care have been added in. Meanwhile, the country has seen regular national elections every two years without any significant fraud or political violence, and the major parties have always respected their results.

That doesn’t mean that all is well. In the last few years, a seemingly endless series of corruption scandals—coupled with a worsening economy—have undermined the credibility of the country’s democratic institutions. Brazilians now consistently name corruption as one of their biggest worries about the future.

It is still unlikely that the president-elect will be able to dismantle Brazil’s imperfect democracy. The main reason is that doing so would not be possible without the support of the upper echelons of the armed forces. And the evidence suggests that most Brazilian generals would not be willing to support another dictatorship.

After all, the last time the generals took over for the civilians, it took a major toll on morale and discipline within the ranks. During their two decades in power, infighting among the generals was a constant problem.

Further, a new power grab by the military would call unwanted attention to the privileges officers have enjoyed since the Army negotiated its withdraw from front-line politics in the 1980s. These include generous pensions and early retirement schemes. Meanwhile, the opposition to any coup, although it would likely be fragmented, would still tarnish the military’s reputation and popularity—and it would be difficult to put down.

To be sure, Bolsonaro always promised that he would appoint generals to top cabinet positions and that he would consult with the military on major decisions. And indeed, this year, 79 active service and retired military officers have been elected to Congress and to state legislatures. Many of them rode the wave of Bolsonaro’s popularity to get there. Yet, these figures appear to understand the value of exerting their influence through the country’s civilian system rather than against it.

The real risk to democracy, then, is not a military coup but a gradual erosion of civil liberties and the rights of minorities. The president-elect’s hateful rhetoric toward women, sexual minorities, Afro-Brazilians, and left-wing leaders has already inspired violence among his supporters. In one case, a man drove a car into a journalist who was wearing a T-shirt with a picture of Lula on it. After Bolsonaro’s astonishing victory, there will surely be more such incidents.

Bolsonaro has also rallied his supporters against the media, which he accuses of left-wing bias and propagating fake news. He’s already promised to use his powers to stop state-owned enterprises from advertising with newspapers that have been critical of his campaign, which would mean a significant financial loss for them.

Finally, as a staunch critic of left-wing bias in academic and intellectual discourse in Brazil, Bolsonaro is likely to push for reforms of school curricula and to try to limit freedom of speech in state schools.

In other words, although Brazil’s formal democracy is not in any immediate danger, Bolsonaro’s inflammatory rhetoric and tacit support for violence and repression will undermine trust in democratic institutions and polarize politics in the long run.

Bolsonaro’s own staying power, however, will depend on the economy. Brazil is facing one of the worst economic crises in its history, with unemployment numbers at record high levels and with the economy growing only slowly after years of deep recession.

To reverse this trend, the new president will have to pass reforms that will put him at odds with powerful interest groups such as the civil service unions and organized private sector lobbies. The more Bolsonaro is bogged down in protracted battles with these groups, the more his popularity will wane. The fact that he signaled his willingness to make concessions to them in his victory speech surely upset supporters brought in by his promises to “drain the swamp” in Brasília.

Opposition leaders will have to get smart about exploiting any rift of this kind while showing that only deepening liberal democracy can save Brazil. In order to have a fighting chance, they will also need to think long and hard about why Brazilians decided to elect such a radical outsider. For decades, corruption and bad governance have been the norm, and voters are understandably tired of it.

Opposition groups—both on the left and on the right—have four years to reorganize and devise realistic agendas for fighting Brazil’s many social, economic, and political problems, including the fact that they lost voters’ confidence to begin with.

Eduardo Mello is an assistant professor of politics and international relations at the Fundação Getulio Vargas in São Paulo.