Bolsonaro Intensifies Push For Military Support As He Plots To Undermine Brazil’s Election

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro indicated this week that he would soon name former Defense Minister Walter Braga Netto, a retired general, as his running mate in October’s elections. Bolsonaro has already made it clear that he does not plan to accept defeat in the Oct. 2 contest. His choice of Braga Netto intensifies concerns about the role military leaders and the armed forces could play in Bolsonaro’s efforts to undermine a race he seems likely to lose.

For 18 months, Bolsonaro has stoked conspiracies about voter fraud, questioned Brazil’s electronic voting system and targeted the country’s democratic institutions with a barrage of threats and false claims similar to those Donald Trump leveled in the United States. (Bolsonaro still questions the legitimacy of Trump’s 2020 defeat.)

With his presidency on the ropes, Bolsonaro is clearly escalating his efforts to court Brazilian military leaders who could help his attempt to remain in power succeed where Trump’s failed. Braga Netto is a comfortable choice for Bolsonaro ― who similarly chose a general as his running mate four years ago and has stacked his government with veteran military leaders — and was also an early adopter of Bolsonaro’s election conspiracy theories.

“Bolsonaro thinks he needs the military’s support to survive, and possibly even to stay in office beyond January,” said Brian Winter, editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and the vice president for policy at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. “So he is offering them positions across the government, but especially the second-highest elected office in the land.”

The selection of another military official likely won’t do much to help boost Bolsonaro’s electoral chances. Some of Bolsonaro’s backers pushed him to pick Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina Dias because they believed she could help attract new support to his limping campaign.

That he chose to turn his back on a potentially wider path to victory will, however, further rattle a country that was ruled by a military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985 and now finds itself increasingly vulnerable to an attempt to undermine democracy — especially as more generals back Bolsonaro’s claims.

“I don’t know how he plans to win an election like this,” said Carlos Gustavo Poggio, a professor at the Armando Alvares Penteado Foundation, a São Paulo-based university. “Choosing a general as his vice president indicates that it’s more important to Bolsonaro to have the loyalty of the Army than to have the votes. So that’s something that indicates, a little bit, what kind of path he’s taking.”

Retired Gen. Walter Braga Netto (left) has served as Brazil's defense minister and Bolsonaro's chief of staff. He reportedly threatened congressional leaders that
Retired Gen. Walter Braga Netto (left) has served as Brazil’s defense minister and Bolsonaro’s chief of staff. He reportedly threatened congressional leaders that “there would be no elections in 2022” if they didn’t alter election rules to meet Bolsonaro’s demands. (AP Photo/Bruna Prado, File)

An actual coup attempt still remains improbable and would be unlikely to succeed if it did take place, many Brazilian political experts argue. Some advisers to leftist former President Lula da Silva, who led Bolsonaro by 19 points in the most recent poll, share that view. They also worry that too much focus on the military — or on how da Silva should counter Bolsonaro’s appeals to military leaders — may inadvertently create the perception that the armed forces are the ultimate arbiters of electoral legitimacy, an authority they do not have under the Brazilian constitution.

“I don’t think you have to appeal to them,” said Celso Amorim, who served as Brazil’s foreign minister under da Silva and its defense minister under former President Dilma Rousseff, da Silva’s successor. “That would be to admit that they will rule the country. We want them to express the confidence that they will act legally.”

Bolsonaro’s attempts to cast doubt on the election may ultimately prove the last whimpers of a desperate president. Some generals have insisted that the military will act within the bounds of its constitutional authority, and there may not be enough support for Bolsonaro within the top ranks to provide the support he seeks.

But the far-right president has argued that he is the one defending Brazil’s constitution. And if Brazil’s military leaders continue to support Bolsonaro’s preemptive claims of election fraud, it is at least plausible that they could twist themselves into believing that they are defending rather than actively destroying democracy by backing him to the hilt.

If that scenario unfolds, “they won’t think that they’re ‘doing a coup,’ they’ll think they’re saving democracy,” Winter said. “And some of them might even believe it.”

“Choosing a general as his vice president indicates that it’s more important to Bolsonaro to have the loyalty of the Army than to have the votes.”
– Carlos Gustavo Poggio, professor at the Armando Alvares Penteado Foundation

Bolsonaro said he would soon make Braga Netto’s selection official in the Sunday evening interview with “Programa 4 por 4.” He also lobbed fresh threats at Brazil’s electoral system and renewed his criticism of Supreme Court justices who have demanded that he produce evidence to support his claims, a request he has been unable to meet.

“Someday a tragedy will happen that we don’t want,” Bolsonaro, who has long expressed affinity for the country’s former military dictatorship, said on the program.

Signs that the president intends to provoke that tragedy continue to pile up. Bolsonaro recently threatened to hire an outside auditor to scrutinize the results of the election, a move that could help him cast doubt on the official count. He has called on supporters to rally in Brasília, the capital city, just weeks before the vote.

It’s therefore possible that a Jan. 6-type episode could explode in Brazil before the election takes place, and it’s not just Bolsonaro’s opponents and neutral observers who think so. Even his own advisers now take it as a given that Bolsonaro will take drastic action in the coming months, the newspaper O Globo reported this month.

Bolsonaro has privately warned his advisers that he may try to cancel elections if his defeat looks likely, telling his “closest allies” that it is “a real possibility,” O Globo columnist Bela Megale reported.

“In private conversations, the president uses the same false argument that has reverberated publicly on other occasions, saying that ‘If you are not sure that the elections will be clean, they will not happen.’”

He also believes he has the support of the Brazilian military, Megale reported, citing anonymous sources within the government.

Former Brazil President Lula da Silva, a leftist, currently holds a 19-point lead in election polls. A resounding victory could help thwart Bolsonaro's attempts to stage a Brazilian version of the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection and cool military support for the current president.
Former Brazil President Lula da Silva, a leftist, currently holds a 19-point lead in election polls. A resounding victory could help thwart Bolsonaro’s attempts to stage a Brazilian version of the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection and cool military support for the current president. (AP Photo/Bruna Prado)

Bolsonaro has sought to link his presidency to the military since the beginning. His 2018 victory made retired Gen. Antônio Hamilton Mourão the first former general to serve as Brazil’s vice president since the country’s return to democracy.

Mourão’s presence on the presidential ticket was even more alarming because he had talked of the potential need for a military coup in the years before the election. During the contest, he told HuffPost that he could foresee a scenario in which a return to military rule would be necessary. But he ultimately lost influence within the administration, in part because he became an unlikely moderating force against Bolsonaro’s most anti-democratic whims.

Braga Netto, one of nearly a dozen military officials Bolsonaro appointed to Cabinet-level positions, has been more pliant. Last year, Bolsonaro sought to pressure Congress into adding a printed ballot to Brazil’s electronic voting system, a change that alongside other preferred reforms would have made the country’s elections even more susceptible to fraud, top elections officials argued. But Braga Netto went along with the claims, warning congressional leaders that “there would be no elections in 2022” unless they met Bolsonaro’s demands, the newspaper Estado de São Paulo reported.

Braga Netto denied those reports at the time. But since then, other high-ranking military officials have similarly backed the president’s claims.

In May, Navy Commander Almir Garnier Santos supported Bolsonaro’s calls for additional election audits despite the lack of evidence that they are necessary. Bolsonaro, who has baselessly asserted that scores of dead voters have cast ballots in recent elections, “has the right to say whatever he wants,” Santos said, adding that he wants Brazilians “to be sure that their vote will count.”

Defense Minister Paulo Sérgio Nogueira, an Army general, sent a memo this month to election officials detailing military concerns about fraud and security vulnerabilities in the country’s electronic voting system and alleged that the military’s worries had not been properly acknowledged after a government commission rejected its suggestions for electoral changes.

“It’s not that a coup has never happened in Brazil. But it has never happened in a circumstance in which it doesn’t have the support of the economic elite, the big media, and the United States. And I think those three things are lacking now.”
– Former Defense Minister Celso Amorim, on why a coup attempt is for now unlikely

A defeat as resounding as polls currently suggest Bolsonaro will suffer could cool military support for the president, convincing military leaders that any involvement in overturning the result would unnecessarily risk international relationships and a domestic reputation it has worked hard to repair since Brazil’s return to democracy.

There are other indications that suggest the military is unlikely to intercede. The sort of military overthrows that were once commonplace in Latin America are now rare, and the factors that have paved the way for past coups in Brazil are not currently aligned in Bolsonaro’s favor.

“It’s not that a coup has never happened in Brazil,” Amorim, the former defense minister, said in a recent interview. “But it has never happened in a circumstance in which it doesn’t have the support of the economic elite, the big media, and the United States. And I think those three things are lacking now.”

Bolsonaro enjoys the support of Brazil’s elite, according to pre-election surveys. But polls have suggested that few of his supporters would back an actual coup attempt.

The press has broadly signaled its opposition to the president’s most anti-democratic actions, often describing them frankly as “coup threats.”

The Biden administration, meanwhile, has warned Bolsonaro and his military advisers to stop threatening the country’s democracy. That could signal that the United States would not look the other way if Bolsonaro and the armed forces attempt to undermine the election, although it’s not clear whether the U.S. “would be interested in doing anything more than just words of disapproval,” Poggio said.

There are also lingering questions about what the military might do if Bolsonaro seeks to cancel the election, or if his supporters attempt to disrupt it with a Jan. 6-style event ahead of the vote.

Chief among them is whether the military would intervene to protect the country’s institutions if they come under pressure during protests or an insurrection-like event, or if it would remain on the sidelines in a way that is ostensibly neutral but nevertheless aids Bolsonaro’s efforts.
The police pose another potential threat, and surveys show that election skepticism runs deep among rank-and-file officers across the country. Brazil’s militias — rogue paramilitary outfits that Bolsonaro has routinely supported and that reign violently over parts of the country — are often made up of police officers, and they could also wreak havoc around the contest.

Other influential entities, including congressional leadership, major business organizations and parties that make up Bolsonaro’s governing coalition in Congress, have meanwhile remained largely silent about his ongoing attempts to erode confidence in the election, the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo reported in May.

Bolsonaro attempted a dry run against Brazil’s institutions last Sept. 7, the country’s independence day. After Congress and the Supreme Court refused to overhaul election rules to accommodate his fraud conspiracies, he argued for the need for a “countercoup” against judges, lawmakers and democratic institutions and urged his supporters to stage massive protests in Brasília.

The demonstrations fizzled without posing a major threat, embarrassing a president in search of a definitive show of strength. But Bolsonaro has redoubled his efforts, and this month, he called on supporters to return to the capital this Sept. 7 for another round of protests just three weeks before the election.

There’s still a chance Bolsonaro, whose chances for reelection cratered thanks to his poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, a sluggish economy and his scandal-prone approach to governance, could rebound and win a second term, especially if inflation rates peak and the economy begins to bounce back.

But Bolsonaro prefers the muddy waters of political chaos. Whether the military joins him or not, he clearly has no intention of going quietly, especially if he faces certain defeat. He seems guaranteed to test Brazil’s democratic institutions in unprecedented ways, even if there’s little chance he succeeds.

“There’s no mystery or intrigue about what’s going on because Bolsonaro says what he’s thinking out loud,” Winter said. “He’s like Trump in that regard. He’s telling us what he plans to do, if necessary.”

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