Is Brazil heading towards a military dictatorship?

It has been 33 years since Brazil’s military government gave up power and democratic elections were held. And it’s been 30 years since the country returned to democracy after the promulgation of its constitution.

In these three decades, there have been many political ups and downs – including the impeachment of two presidents – but the political process has always observed the constitutional order.

In recent weeks, however, as the new election season heated up, it seems the shadow of the military is creeping back onto the political scene in Brazil. The political polarisation and instability in the country have ushered a period of public “unreason”, similar to the one the United States experienced in 2016 which resulted in the election of Donald Trump.

Like in the US, there is talk about “draining the swamp” and fighting corruption, but unlike the US, there have been some suggestions that Brazil needs the “firm hand” of the military in order to bring back stability and order.

Jair Bolsonaro, a frontrunner in the presidential race and a former army officer, along with his supporters, seems to be at the centre of this increasingly worrying trend.

Brazil’s political ‘alternative’: A military president

The Brazilian political establishment has been struggling with major political crises over the past few years. Huge corruption scandals have shaken the very foundations of political institutions, feeding growing public anger which has often spilled into the streets.

All major political parties have been tainted, including the Workers’ Party (PT), which suffered through the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff and the jailing of its leader and former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Amid this crisis, Bolsonaro emerged as an “alternative” candidate, preaching quick and heavy-handed solutions and appealing to the strong anti-PT sentiment in the country.

He is currently leading in the polls, with a recent projection of a runoff between him and the PT candidate Fernando Haddad showing him winning by two percentage points.

With his military background and conservative rhetoric, Bolsonaro remains quite popular despite being seen as a far-right candidate. He has not shied away from insulting minorities, women, and gay people and publicly praising the military government. He has even declared the notorious head of the Doi-Codi intelligence service, Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, who oversaw the torture and killing of political prisoners in the 1970s, his personal friend and a Brazilian hero.

Bolsonaro’s running mate is retired general Hamilton Mourao who has equally, if not more, controversial views. He recently defended the possibility of an auto-coup if “anarchy” erupts when the duo is elected. He has also said that Brazil needs a new constitution to be written by a commission of unelected “notable people” and that having an elected constituent assembly write the 1988 constitution was a “mistake”. 

Bolsonaro also has a number of reserve generals working on his campaign programme, he is contact with the defence minister and the army leadership, and has many officers privately and openly supporting him. There are even WhatsApp groups of military personnel who are actively promoting his campaign.

At the same time, the military leadership has demonstrated their resentment of the PT and Lula and pressured the Federal Supreme Court not to rule in his favour of his appeals to be released from prison.  

There have also been reports that there is growing discontent among high and low-ranking military officers triggered by recent protests and strikes, which they see as “anarchy”.

These reports and public comments by military leaders are gravely unsettling and it seems that however this election goes, the military is likely to get involved directly or indirectly.

If Bolsonaro wins, he is likely to ingratiate himself with the military’s top brass and push forward with regressive policies undermining Brazil’s democracy, resurrecting various aspects of the military junta, or even undertaking a Fujimori-style auto-coup – assuming full legislative and judicial powers.

If Haddad wins, the military might not accept his victory; what that would translate into is anyone’s guess.

Nostalgia for the junta

During the twentieth century, Brazil witnessed nine coups, four of them successful, with the last one installing a military government that ruled with violence and cruelty for 21 years.

Thirty years have passed since then – enough time for retrospection, objective historical evaluation, and a public debate to be held on what happened during those decades. Instead, many Brazilians seem to be confused about the history of the military government to the point that today, there is a frightening revisionist trend. 

According to a June 2017 opinion poll, 43 percent of respondents trust fully the army, while another 40 percent trusted it “a little”, and only 15 percent did not trust the institution at all. Another survey released in September last year indicated that a staggering 43 percent of Brazilians are in favour of the military intervening in government affairs.

This nostalgia for the military government should be seen within the context of the ongoing crisis in Brazil. The corruption scandals, the protests, the violence in the streets, and the deteriorating economic situation have pushed many to think that the country needs rule by an iron fist.

A government with a more authoritarian approach would be able to solve the problems the country is currently facing with greater efficiency and ease, some think. And the only institution capable of that is the army, which is largely seen as immune to corruption. It is not uncommon to read on social media that there “was no corruption” during the military dictatorship and that all public services “were better” back then.

But those who have adopted this type of thinking – especially the youth who have no memory of the bloody violence of the 1970s and 1980s – do not realise the consequences of supporting the involvement of the military in civilian power.

And part of the reason for this is because Brazil never went through a proper legal process to bring to justice those responsible for the crimes committed by the military government – whether forced disappearances, torture and killings, or corruption, embezzlement and illegal self-enrichment. This very much has allowed historical revisionism and continued politicisation of the army.

Brazil needs to snap out of this delusion that the military can fix the country and that the “order” of military rule is better than the “chaos” of democracy. In fact, we should follow the example of Uruguay, which recently detained the head of its armed forces for publicly criticising a draft law.

It is the duty of the army and its officers to follow the orders of civilian power, to submit to the people and to their institutions. They have no place in government.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance. 

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