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Elections in Brazil: Bolsonaro’s Fate Lies in the Hands of the Army

Elections in Brazil: Bolsonaro’s Fate Lies in the Hands of the Army

Thursday, 22 September, 2022 - 06:30
Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy
Former Egyptian Ambassador and Senior UN official.

With the elections in Brazil scheduled for next month, the country is receiving increased international attention.


The heightened interest is understandable given the likely effects of the elections on Latin America as a whole, but also on the leadership role Brazil could be in a position to provide - with others - to developing countries in the evolving international system.


The focus of interest, however, is primarily on how President Bolsonaro is drawing upon former President Trump’s playbook in trying to ensure that he is re-elected, starting from undermining the credibility of the electronic balloting machines that have served the immense territory of Brazil very well for decades, to attacking the judiciary, to intimidating the electorate by spreading falsehoods. In fact, he has repeatedly declared that a fair election is only one in which he wins. The latest polls, however, indicate that former president Lula would win with a 15% margin. If Lula is elected, Brazil will once again be in a position to play an important role on the international scene.


Brazil is a special country. It is the closest to a melting pot of races and cultures than any other country. Compared to Brazil, the main immigration countries such as the US, Canada and Australia are mere salad bowls held together by a savory dressing.


Moreover, for the past twenty-five years it has consistently been amongst the top twelve economies in the world, at one point reaching the fifth position. It is an agricultural superpower: the largest producer and exporter of sugar, soya beans and coffee, the second largest of meat, third largest of corn. It is also the second largest iron producer. But it is also an industrial giant: the third largest producer of passenger aircrafts, the eight largest car producer and the ninth largest of steel. It is also a democracy, albeit a flawed one largely due to one of the most skewed income distributions in the world despite the important accomplishments by former President Lula to redress such an injustice.


The Economist captured the optimism about the real potential of Brazil in its November 2009 cover depicting the rocket - like launch of statue of Christ the Redeemer that overlooks Rio de Janeiro. Regrettably it was followed by stories that focused on the negative: crime, corruption, deforestation of the Amazon and lately the erratic behavior of President Bolsonaro. This has been the story of Brazil, veering from being one of the world’s five largest economies to one of a history of lost opportunities.


De Gaulle is reputed to have described Brazil as the country of the future and that it would always remain so.


It is this enigma that has always captured international attention.


What is not receiving sufficient attention, however, is the role of the military in the upcoming elections.


The Brazilian military is one of the most solid institutions in the country. It played an important political role since the late 19th century. Since then it continued, in one form or the other to exercise a measure of influence over the politics of the country. However, since it handed over power to the civilians in 1985, its role has largely receded.


When the army directly assumed power in 1964, it did so in a specific historical context: to save Brazil from a chaos that would have made it prey to communism. Falling to communism was probably an exaggeration, but the staunchly anti-communist military could not take risks. Moreover, at the height of the Cold War, the US could not accept such an eventuality. After all, the saying in Latin America is that the continent goes the way Brazil goes.


The military rule in Brazil which lasted from 1964 to 1985, had a mixed record. It had important achievements but also many failures. The regime had authoritarian characteristics, but was not fascist. No effort was made to organize support for the government amongst the masses. No attempt was made to build a single party to run the state nor to devise an ideology that might win over the population. Quite to the contrary, leftist ideology continued to dominate thought at the universities and among Brazil’s intellectuals in general. Former President Cardoso - a renowned leftist at the time - fled into exile, only to return again under military rule and re-enter politics culminating in his election as president in 1995.


Professional politicians were no longer in charge, nor was Congress an important decision-making body. The military high command, its affiliated organs, and the state technocrats ran the show.


Moreover, unions were not destroyed, even though many of their leaders were persecuted and imprisoned.


It was also the most politically repressive time for most Brazilians. Civil liberties were restricted, administrative detention was rampant as was torture.


But by the standards of the time, and in particular when compared to other Latin American countries, such as Argentina and later Chile, military rule in Brazil was considered to be relatively benign.


However, when it came to the economy, the military had little to do with carrying out economic policy, which was determined by the powerful ministers of finance and planning as well as by the state bureaucracy.


This was the time when the Brazilian economic miracle took place. Brazil benefited from growth rates that were the envy of the world, that is until the oil crisis in 1973. It was the time that important institutions such as the Central Bank “Banco Do Brazil” and many important industries were established. But it was also the time when Brazil’s debt, both domestic and international, became a serious problem, only to get out of control as the result of the oil crisis, increasing from under 40 billion dollars in 1967 to 97 billion in 1972 and to 375 billion in 1980.

Faced with a rapidly deteriorating economy and as a consequence losing the ability to govern effectively, the military gradually paved the way to the return of civilian rule, ultimately handing over power to civilians in 1985.


To the credit of the military, not only did they hand over power voluntarily, they cooperated with the civilians to ensure that the democracy is consolidated. They have done so since 1985 and up to today. Clearly all along they have managed to preserve their special interests.

Since the election of President Bolsonaro in 2018, he has relied on the military in his administration. Elected with no strong political base, Bolsonaro built his ruling constituency around evangelicals, the right wing fringe, gun owners, rural folk and the military. While Bolsonaro’s relationship with the military has been hardly exemplary, he has been keen to cater to their interests. Today 10 out of the 23 ministers are drawn from the military and many civilian jobs are now occupied by former military officers.


But the military leadership has been careful not to overstep the role it has carved out for itself since handing over power to the civilians. They have evaded calls by Bolsonaro to take certain actions that they deemed exceeds what they perceive to be their mission in upholding the constitution and safeguarding national security.


In fact, there are many instances when they have restrained Bolsonaro. For example they have resisted the president’s request that they forcefully interfere to stop deforestation in the Amazon, and have had a calming effect on some of the excesses of his foreign policy, including in the Middle East such as preventing moving the Brazilian embassy to Jerusalem as Bolsonaro had pledged.


Now that Bolsonaro has enhanced the profile of the military over the past four years, the question that poses itself is: will the army do his bidding. That is will it take action to ensure that he is re-elected, even if that means violating the Constitution and the edicts of the Supreme Court? Or will it will merely continue to give priority to their interests, but operate within the parameters set by the 1998 Constitution and political system it generated?


It appears that President Bolsonaro is desperately seeking to force a scenario that would guarantee his re-election and in the event that fails, he is creating an alternative scenario by which he can claim a fraudulent election, precipitating a crisis that would bring his supporters and consequently those who oppose him to the streets, an eventuality that could force the army to intervene to restore law and order. The question is then: how will the military deal with the situation?


The Brazilian army has always been held in high regard by the Brazilian people. It’s prestige and credibility, however, took a serious blow as the result of the mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic by the minister of health who was from the military.


In conclusion, the Brazilian military will be faced with one of two choices: support Bolsonaro in his attempt to undermine the democratic process and overturn the result of an election that he most likely will lose, or adhere to its role in safeguarding the system of liberal democracy that they together with Brazil’s vibrant free press and independent judiciary have nurtured since 1985.


Ultimately, the next few weeks will prove whether the Brazilian military will honor the will of the people as guaranteed by free and fair elections, and that it holds the interests of the country above its own special interests.


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