A Postelection Coup in Brazil Is Unlikely. But the Military Is Still Too Powerful.

Despite fears that a military coup could follow Sunday’s elections in Brazil, the country’s military brass is unlikely to feel threatened enough to attempt one. Whoever wins, the military’s growing institutional hold on power looks likely to continue.

Current Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, during an audience with his former Minister of Defence and current running mate, General Walter Braga Netto. (Clauber Cleber Caetano / Wikimedia Commons).

Sunday’s presidential election in Brazil, which pits far-right president Jair Bolsonaro against former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (commonly known as Lula) of the Workers’ Party (PT), has rightly sparked fears of political instability and violence. Bolsonaro has consistently tried to weaken and discredit Brazil’s democratic institutions while declaring the election a “fight of good versus evil.” As Bolsonaro has busied himself discrediting the country’s electoral system and spreading conspiracy theories that he could only lose the election by fraud, several attacks by radicalized Bolsonaro supporters against supporters of the PT have highlighted the grave stakes of this election.

Worse, many fear a potential coup attempt by Bolsonaro if he loses the vote, as all reliable polls suggest he will. The military’s more or less explicit backing of the president and the large presence of off-duty officers in government further exacerbate these fears. Today, there are more officers in the cabinet than during the height of the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985. More than six thousand military personnel serve in different functions in the administration and in ministries — almost twice as many as during preceding president Michel Temer’s government.

As in the 2018 election with General Hamilton Mourão, Bolsonaro has again chosen an off-duty officer — General Walter Braga Netto — as a running mate. The defense secretary Paulo Sérgio Nogueira de Oliveira, himself another off-duty general and previous army commander, has repeatedly joined the president in sowing doubts about the electoral system. Further underlining the symbiosis between government and military, the armed forces took part in celebrations of Brazil’s bicentenary in Rio de Janeiro that were clearly set up as another campaign event for Bolsonaro.

The military’s history of political interventionism further stokes fears of a coup. The armed forces carried out a coup abolishing the monarchy in 1889, and officers governed the country for the first years of the republic. Another coup in 1930 ushered in the authoritarian regime of Getúlio Vargas and reinforced the central political role of the military to haunt Brazil until today. A fake document authored by army officer Olímpio Mourão Filho about a supposedly planned communist uprising paved the way for Vargas’s “self-coup” in 1937. Mourão Filho was later a central figure of the military coup in 1964, which the armed forces still celebrate as the “Democratic Revolution” that saved the country from communism.

Still, I would argue that the most likely election outcome is that Bolsonaro will eventually (but not necessarily quietly) leave office, the military won’t launch a coup, and Lula will be sworn in as the new president in 2023. While participating in a (self-)coup attempt is not unthinkable — given the widespread anti-leftism in the military’s ranks — it would be highly irrational to engage in acts that would certainly damage the military’s long-term institutional interests. The military might well prefer another Bolsonaro term, but they would have much to lose if they actually attempted a coup. After all, why would they want to endanger their institutional prestige and the privileged position they enjoy in Brazil’s polity?

Since the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in 2016, the armed forces have benefitted from governments that have significantly increased their political power and swaddled the military top brass with favors — for instance, on the issue of budget cuts surrounding social security reforms. The Bolsonaro government made it possible for officers in government to continue to receive their generous pensions on top of their salaries, allowing them to earn significantly more money than foreseen given the constitutional salary ceiling for public servants. For an institution that is supposedly concerned that too much open political exposure could harm its image among the population, the rational choice would be to give at least the appearance of respecting democratic rules and accepting the election outcome.

Refusing to side with Bolsonaro when push comes to shove would once more allow the military to present themselves as the adults in the room, an image they have tried to spread during the current president’s term of office, and which has been frequently echoed by national and international media. Feeding the press with off-the-record comments about the military’s supposed discontent with the generals’ presence in government certainly helped shift the blame for the government’s failures. The generals have been spinning a narrative of being reluctantly pulled into political responsibility by an erratic president, whom they now supposedly need to control out of a sense of duty to the country.

Perplexingly, the armed forces are presenting themselves as the solution to a problem they themselves created in the first place — for instance, by letting Bolsonaro campaign in military units. Moreover, they’re taking the public for fools when they act surprised about Bolsonaro’s antics: most of the generals who joined the government have known the president for decades and nevertheless supported his election campaign. An official army document from 1988 accused the future president of “tarnishing the military’s honor” after he had been caught lying about his involvement in a plot to plant bombs in military barracks as a protest against low salaries. A military regime leader called Bolsonaro a “bad soldier” who was unqualified for a military career. Bolsonaro has spouted his far-right worldviews throughout his political life and publicly demanded the killing of a former president.

It should be clear by now to everyone who even casually follows Brazilian politics that the generals in government were and continue to be fully on board with Bolsonaro’s decisions. They share a common ideology and a nostalgia for the military regime, and they don’t hesitate to share their admiration of known torturers. Trying to discern from the outside how far the military as an institution has been behind the generals’ involvement in the Bolsonaro administration appears to be a futile version of Kremlinology: it is not entirely clear whether or not parts of the military’s leadership were indeed unhappy with the institution’s growing politicization or if it is rather the case that a group of generals shrewdly used Bolsonaro as a figurehead to pursue their own political goals.

What’s certain is that actions speak louder than words when it comes to the expressions of alleged discontent that were deliberately leaked to the press: if the military commanders had been really as opposed to Bolsonaro’s policies as they wanted us to believe, they could have blocked active-duty generals from joining the government. Instead, active-duty general Eduardo Pazuello was made responsible for overseeing Brazil’s disastrous COVID response. Active-duty general Luiz Eduardo Ramos joined the cabinet but still felt free to wear his uniform at military ceremonies. Finally, few things were more telling than the army commanders’ decision to ignore the prohibition on active-duty service members taking part in political demonstrations, and not to sanction General Pazuello for participating in a pro-Bolsonaro rally.

Make no mistake: telling Bolsonaro to go would not be driven by any inherent acceptance of democratic rules among the generals. Rather, actions by the Temer and Bolsonaro governments have ensured that the military now enjoys a strategically powerful position that all but guarantees its institutional interests for the foreseeable future. If we assume that Lula will eventually become president again, one of the crucial questions facing his time in office will be how to deal with the military.

To begin with, Lula would face an entirely different relationship with the miliary than he had during his first presidency beginning in 2003. Back then, his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, had reduced the military budget and made efforts to reduce the generals’ political power — for instance, by finally against the resistance of the armed forces. The fact that they accepted Lula — a former trade union activist who had been imprisoned by the military regime — as their new superior was seen as a sign of a growing acceptance of democratic rules among the armed forces.

The Lula government’s initial approach to dealing with comparatively weaker armed forces in the 2000s can hardly be called confrontational. His government increased spending on the military’s modernization and authorized the armed forces’ leading role in the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti, thus allowing the military to gain the operational experience they craved and the opportunity to test tactics in urban operations they would later use in Rio de Janeiro — again in missions performed on Lula’s orders. The PT government did not succeed in reducing the military’s ability to control its own affairs in the Ministry of Defense; instead, the number of military personnel in the ministry actually increased and further guaranteed the armed forces’ relative autonomy.

Although it seems clear that Lula’s first terms in office were not driven by ambitious policies in civil-military relations, I doubt that the PT governments would have been able to drastically cut back the military’s political influence. When things became contentious, the military flexed its muscles and limited the elected administration’s effective power to govern.

This became obvious when the Lula government tried to abolish the Amnesty Law and create a truth commission that was supposed to clarify crimes committed by the military regime. The military commanders considered this an act of “revanchism” by a leftist party that included many former regime opponents. As a consequence, the three service branch commanders threatened to resign. Even Lula’s defense secretary, Nelson Jobim — a civilian who used to visit military barracks in uniform as a sign of the integration of civil power with military power — sided with the commanders and also threatened to step down. In the end, the military commanders succeeded and the establishment of the truth commission as envisioned by the Lula government failed.

In recent years, the military fairly obviously sided with the attempts of biased former judge Sergio Moro to remove Lula from the political arena. As there was plenty of corruption in the military dictatorship, the generals’ adherence to the supposed fight against corruption mostly reflected their deeply ingrained anti-leftism. Current vice president Mourão even threatened a military intervention in 2017 if the judiciary wasn’t able to remove corrupt politicians from public life. As the generals do not seem to regret that the army commander openly used Twitter to basically intimidate the Supreme Court when determining whether Lula had to go to prison in 2018, one could think of better initial conditions for the relation between the military and a new Lula government.

Still, there are signs that a peaceful coexistence is possible — but this will come at the cost of accommodating the military’s interests. A Lula government can’t be expected to address the root causes of Brazil’s civil-military malaise. The military’s increase in political power in recent years will guarantee that it can expect concessions from a PT government. Reports suggest that the aforementioned Jobim is one of Lula’s emissaries with the task of establishing a dialogue with influential officers. One can thus expect that Lula would seek conciliation instead of confrontation.

Against this background, it would already be a success to roll back at least some of the military’s political gains. Most importantly, this would involve again nominating a civilian as head of the Ministry of Defense. While this would be an important symbolic step to end the normalization of having generals at the helm of the Defense Ministry, it is unlikely that this person would be able to radically reduce the political power of the military. We can expect that the armed forces would have to at least informally agree with the choice of a potential civilian defense secretary.

The contentious issues that sparked the military’s greatest concerns about the PT governments seem to be off the table for the time being: it is highly unlikely that Lula would seek a fight over the Amnesty Law and the punishment of the military dictatorship’s human rights violations such as torture and extralegal killings. Lula might be able to present a success to his base by reducing the number of the thousands of military personnel working in different functions in the administration or by ending the militarization of public schools.

The military’s political influence will remain the sword of Damocles hanging over the head of Brazilian democracy. If Lula were to endanger their fundamental institutional interests, the armed forces would probably be able to sabotage the government’s attempts to exercise civilian control. The military’s bargaining power does not look set to decrease, as Lula seems to be planning on heavily relying on the military for internal tasks.

Lula’s recent statements indicate that the military could return to some of the problematic functions it exercised under his previous administrations: seemingly reviving his previous (failed) attempt of increasing the federal government’s role in citizens’ security, Lula promised to let the military do “more necessary” things for the population. Given that his previous governments heavily relied on the military for infrastructure development and significantly increased the military’s participation in ”Guaranteeing Law and Order” (GLO) operations, it is not far-fetched to assume that soldiers are going to play a prominent internal role. Yet again, this might create further opportunities for the military to become involved in politics; their resistance to GLO operations is mostly related to the legal framework, according to which soldiers who kill civilians risk lengthy trials. Frequent GLO operations would further embolden the military’s calls for a de facto amnesty for killing citizens, which was backed by Bolsonaro and his former justice secretary Sergio Moro but so far has not been approved by Congress.

Other possibilities for Lula to deal with the armed forces might appear as suitable short-term solutions, but also might exacerbate some of the issues that led to the current state of civil-military relations. This would include a return to large-scale participations in UN peacekeeping. For the government, this would have the advantage of signaling Brazil’s return to the global stage. However, the experience of peacekeeping arguably reinforced some officers’ inclination to meddle in politics. Moreover, peace operations have previously fueled the military’s demands for a more lenient legal framework for internal crime-fighting, which had also been supported by — you guessed it — Nelson Jobim.

These missions would not necessarily be risky if the armed forces were not still clinging to their traditional but deeply problematic self-understanding as “saviors of the homeland.” Paired with fierce anti-leftism, this superiority complex motivates the generals to meddle in politics whenever they consider it necessary.

Partly as a consequence of the military’s influence on Brazil’s transition to democracy, no government since 1985 has succeeded in changing this fundamental and deeply problematic issue in Brazil’s civil-military relationship. In a country where dozens of roads, bridges, and even schools are named after military regime leaders, however, it is a steep task to change the military’s conviction that it is always on the right side of history. Considerable parts of society, the military itself, and its allies and representatives in Congress — as well as business interests — are quite comfortable with the armed forces’ role in politics. The Bolsonaro government has further entrenched the military’s understanding that it plays an appropriate role in politics and society as a moderating power.

As long as the military refuses to fully accept being a nonpartisan state institution, it will continue to play an outsize role in Brazil’s democracy. As things stand, a Lula government won’t be able to change this basic problem. Instead, the Lula government is going to tread lightly when dealing with the generals.