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The Brazil of Backsliding: deliberation on printed ballots and military parade

On August 10, Brazil experienced another episode of what historian Lilia Schwarcz has characterized as a “theater of power”. On the same day that the vote on PEC 135/19, known as the PEC of the printed vote, was scheduled to take place, the Ministry of Defense held a parade of armored cars in front of the National Congress. The purpose of the event was to deliver the invitation for Bolsonaro and Minister Walter Braga Netto to accompany a traditional Navy exercise, known as Operation Formosa, which took place on Monday, August 16, 2021. The Operation takes place annually since 1988 in the city of Formosa/GO.

The circumstances surrounding the episode demand reflection on the role of the military in Brazil’s political history and the intensification of the use of narratives from the dictatorial past in moments of democratic instability. We intend to call attention to the relationship between military intervention and the destabilization of the political system in certain historical processes and how the episode analyzed invokes an attempt to articulate this relationship in the present time.

What do armored tanks carry? 

The parade of armored cars in front of Congress, on a day when a vote of interest to Bolsonaro’s political agenda takes place, should not be seen as something isolated.

Marcelo Camargo / Agência Brasil. (Brasília/DF, 09/10/2021) Armored personnel walk around the Praça dos Três Poderes in an act to deliver an invitation to President Jair Bolsonaro.

The idea of unconstitutional military intervention in the Brazilian political scenario is nothing new. We can put into perspective the Proclamation of the Republic in 1889, the coup d’état in 1930, and the military coup in 1964. We must emphasize the existence of specificities in each process and situate that military intervention today is related to article 142 of the Federal Constitution. However, it is possible to reflect that, to a certain extent, in these moments, there was a defense of the military’s action, based on a certain doctrine, and that it is presented as a kind of salvation for threats to the nation’s order and security. The articulation between the intervention of the armed forces and the removal of governments still hovers in the threads of history, and from time to time groups seek to evoke it.

The tanks in front of Congress in Bolsonaro’s parade carried the attempt to destabilize the political system. This is not the first time that President Bolsonaro has constructed speeches or practices that attack democratic institutions. In recent months, the government has been articulating narratives around the 2022 elections and associating Bolsonaro’s possible defeat with the existence of fraud.

What do the disputes over the printed ballot PEC make clear? 

Bolsonaro, in an interview to Guaíba radio station, on July 7th, declared that “They are going to have problems next year. If this method continues there, without the public count, they are going to have problems. Because some side may not accept the result, and that side is obviously our side. We want transparency, the auditable vote.” Bolsonaro says he may not accept the 2022 result and lies again about 2014 elections (Carta Capital). Bolsonaro’s speech aims to establish the idea of the existence of fraud, in which the destiny, in the face of possible opposition to his will, is not to accept the results, which is clearly a threat to democratic stability.

The proposal of Amendment to the Constitution 135/2019, authored by federal deputy Bia Kicis from PSL/DF, aimed at adding the 12th paragraph to art. 14 of the Federal Constitution. The amendment was aimed at issuing a statement attesting to the vote cast in the electronic ballot box, which would issue a fiscal ballot for the voter to check.

The PEC of the printed ballot would then be presented as a supposed solution for the 2022 elections to take place without fraud by the government’s opponents. Bolsonaro in his statements has been controversial about the matter, he declared to have evidence, but did not present it and signaled the non-existence of it when questioned. The parade of armored cars can be seen as an attempt to intimidate Bolsonaro so that the vote would be favorable to the approval of the PEC. In order to guarantee the result, the government invests in an articulation that consists of military intervention and the destabilization of the political system. In this way, the president’s declarations show themselves to be a component for the execution of his plan, which aims to inflate civilians’ unease with democratic institutions. Bolsonaro during his trajectory as a parliamentarian has always sought to evoke a specific past, always making references to the dictatorial period.

What do Brazil and the world think of this military demonstration?

The Navy’s military parade through the Praça dos Três Poderes brought news. It was the first time that the invitation to the president was made during a military parade. The unfortunate coincidence, as Arthur Lira called it, happened on the same day as an important vote that would define the course of the next election, and was not well received by the public. The goal of demonstrating military force and intimidating political opponents was frustrated, with the opposite effect of showing the weak, old-fashioned and outdated power of the navy. The image conveyed by a parade of outdated vehicles spewing dark smoke like Brazil’s past under military rule did not bode well for the government. In this sense, the action was considered a joke in social networks, being the target of criticism and memes (Military parade was a fiasco in social networks: 93% of posts are jokes).

One point of controversy in Bolsonaro’s speech is about the validity of the results of the last presidential election. Even under constant attacks today, in 2018, several entities participated in the counting of the votes, after authorization by Minister Rosa Weber. The interesting fact is given by the presence of the “Brazil Above All, God Above All” coalition, as well as by the praise given to the action that allowed the cooperation of the varied entities in the counting of the votes, which was classified by the entity as an important step for “confidence in democracy.”

Furthermore, the repercussion of the military paraphernalia at the center of power in the country was not well accepted worldwide. Several foreign newspapers quoted the episode with a scornful and acid criticism tone. The English newspaper The Guardian refers to the event as the military parade of Bolsonaro’s ‘banana republic’ military parade condemned by critics. The New York Times cites the attacks on democracy by boycotting the elections as they are (Bolsonaro Prompts Fears of a Power Grab With Attacks on Brazil’s Voting System). The French Le Monde talks about the show of force at a moment of crisis of the Brazilian judicial institutions (Bolsonaro fait défiler l’armée à quelques pas du Parlement, en pleine crise avec les institutions judiciaires du Brésil). In short, the circus created by Bolsonaro and his allies sheds light on the decadence of the institutions in Brazil, as well as on the government’s determination to destroy itself.

In Brazilian territory the criticism has also been accentuated. The president of the CPI, Omar Aziz, opened the CPI session speaking out against the actions Bolsonaro has been taking to demonstrate unbridled power and control in affront to constitutional principles, characterizing the act as “pathetic” and declared: “There will be no printed vote, there will be no kind of coup against our democracy. The institutions, with the Congress at the head, will not let this happen. Democracy has instruments to defend its own democracy against coup attempts.

The political parties (PCdoB, PT, PDT, REDE, PSTU, PSB, PSOL and Solidarity) were not left out and issued a note criticizing the use of the armed forces to intimidate parliamentarians and, consequently, influence the vote. In the same vein, after the military parade, deputies gathered in the chamber in an act against the threats to democracy that are being made.

The scenario points to an intensification of the use of the symbols and discourse of military intervention in the political sphere by the Bolsonaro government. The instability we are currently experiencing can be seen as one of the consequences of the actions of a head of state who defends a dictatorial past and constantly threatens the proper functioning of democratic institutions. We cannot lose sight of the fact that this intensification may mean the weakening of the government’s articulation power to maintain the political and economic agenda. It is necessary, as historian Fernando Perlatto points out, “to remain politically attentive to call by name those movements that put democracy and human rights at risk.

By Hygor Mesquita Faria  [1], Thaís Garcia de Castro  [2].

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[1] Master’s student in History at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora (UFJF). Volunteer at CJT – UFJF.

[2] Graduating in Law from the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). Volunteer at CJT – UFMG.

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