The increasing militarization of the Bolsonaro government and the risks of this phenomenon to Brazilian democracy

March 17, 2021

President Bolsonaro (no party), throughout his public career, has always presented strong links with the military class. The chief executive vehemently affirms his pride in assembling a management, in his words, “completely militarized”.

In this sense, his actions ignore Brazil’s authoritarian past, whose main class responsible for the institutional rupture and the preservation of the dictatorial period were the Armed Forces.

This context is even more worrisome when the data reveal that the presence of the military class is strongly increasing. The presence of military personnel in civilian positions, which was already low under the Temer government, according to a balance sheet made by the Federal Audit Court, more than doubled in 2020. This represents approximately 43% of the government’s commissioned positions.

But why such decisions by the federal executive branch? And, furthermore, what are the risks for the Brazilian democratic culture?

Militarization of politics in Brazilian history

The participation of the military in public office is a dangerous tradition in Brazil’s republican history.  The military class participates in the political scene in two main ways: (i) filling strategic positions in the state framework; (ii) expressing speeches or comments on the directions of national politics.

Brazilian history demonstrates this strong activity, having as examples the founding act of the Republic, the Vargas period, the 1964 coup, and the attempts to be present in the National Constituent Assembly of 1987-88.

According to José Murilo de Carvalho, in his book “Armed Forces and Politics in Brazil”, this posture is closely linked to the construction of the figure of the bachelors in uniform, whose main characteristic is the creation of a model of soldier-citizen, one who is supposed to be concerned with and comment on the internal political issues of his country.

This model had the claim of legitimacy for internal military interventions. It was a systematic formulation, of psychosocial origin and formulated within the War College in the late 1940s to even stand up to law graduates and gain positions of power within the state cadres.

In this way, the organization’s extensions of influence were guaranteed, resulting in strong political capital and rhetorical power. This strategy was based on the purpose of reinforcing an identification of the Armed Forces with the State, in which the idea of the Army’s organic expression is linked to the representation of the State. It is the attempt at autonomy and transmutation of the organization into a strong political actor, ignoring that, in fact, the Armed Forces are a state institution subordinated to civil authority.

This complex structure made the 1964 coup possible, the height of the so-called militarization of politics. The rhetoric expressed was precisely linked to this background: Armed Forces as a supposed defensive model of the Nation’s interests. The representation is well visualized in Institutional Act no. 1, which will reinforce the supposed “democratic model” of the so-called “revolution”, revealing how the military class presented itself as a strong political actor in the power games.

Anthony Pereira, when describing the discourse of legitimization of military authority, defines what he calls authoritarian legality: the process of delegitimizing opponents, in this case the resistance, through the subversion of legal tools, with the agglutination of support from the legal field. Based on this, the military presented a pretense of legitimacy before society, to justify their actions of repression.

The problem is that these discourses, this strong military presence, still reverberate, to some extent, in the redemocratization process. This tensioning of disputes over participation and interpretative disputes have accompanied our democratic culture inaugurated in 1988. The aforementioned risk seems to have become greater since, as already discussed, the growing presence of military personnel, whether in public office or in rhetorical-discursive participation in public space, has increased under Bolsonaro’s administration.

In this context, what are the possible risks of this exponential political militarization in contemporary times?

Democratic culture of the 1988 constituent project: the military and the risks to democracy in Brazil 

The 1988 constituent project undeniably broke with the repressive-authoritarian model maintained by the military class during the dictatorship. However, one cannot obscure the fact that some issues of authoritarian legacy remained in the post-1988 period. It is not a matter of reproducing reasoning similar to the supposed continuation of the former undemocratic regime, or anything of the sort. But it is about drawing attention to how some issues were not resolved in a satisfactory manner.

This is what Zaverucha calls the insufficiency of democratic form in civil-military relations. The author calls attention to how some institutes related to the Armed Forces were maintained after 1988, especially intervention in the internal security model. Or to what Ulisses Reis reiterates: the model of trials by military in the exclusive competence of the class itself, something atypical for democratic regimes.

Reis also emphasizes how this institutional model reiterates the internal conflict, which serves as a tool to justify interventions in civilian affairs. Such was the case of the military-led federal intervention in Rio de Janeiro, strongly criticized by Amnesty International.

President of the Republic Jair Bolsonaro, receives Military Honors where he is honored with a 21-gun salute. (Resende – RJ, 05/12/2020) Photo: Isac Nóbrega/PR

The reasoning is reinforced by the management of Jair Bolsonaro, a military reserve officer who is elected councilman precisely during the transition. His political trajectory has always been based on this militarized system, serving as a key to the demonization of social agendas, invoking a certain ethos to demonstrate himself as a national hope, through the support of the military wings.

It is the phenomenon called military party, due to the functioning of the Armed Forces as a kind of traditional political party: fight for positions, political base built, political purposes, etc. Just think how the military is called to speak out in the public space. This was the case of the Globo interview with General Villas Bôas, in the form of a casual conversation, where the military man freely gave his opinion about the political directions of the country. Another example of the same general, is his revelation in a book, whose content points to the feasible possibility of intervention in the Supreme Court.

One can think of several other consequences of political militarization today, especially in the Bolsonarist administration: the case of Vice President Mourão (PRTB) defending military intervention to solve political crisis; important strategic positions being occupied by military personnel; the defense of the Executive Branch in continuing with commemorations of the coup of 64; jurist Ives Gandra defending “constitutional” military intervention, placing the Armed Forces as Moderating Power in Brazil; Minister Paulo Guedes threatening the imposition of a new AI-5; the president of the Military Club saying that the population misses the dictatorship; President Bolsonaro placing himself as the Constitution itself, besides saying that it is “easy to impose a dictatorship in Brazil”; the military manifestations against former President Lula’s speeches.

Moreover, if these repeated attacks against Brazilian democracy and the increase in the number of military personnel in civilian positions were not enough, the presence of this class in the management of state companies has multiplied tenfold.

The government’s conduct and decision-making reveal a close proximity to the dictatorial scenario broken with the constitutional project of 1988. One can perceive, in fact, a gradation to normalize the attempts of fraud or setbacks with our democratic model, supported by the interventionist logic of the Armed Forces, whose functioning is similar to that of a political party. This discursive model and this posture have already been demonstrated throughout Brazilian history. The result was the implementation of an authoritarian model.

The outlines become even worse when 58% of the population trusts the Armed Forces and half of the population sees the presence of the military in the government as positive.

It is impossible to think that the project of 1988 is compatible with these phenomena. The constituent with the largest popular participation in history, with the inclusion of several legal minorities, cannot be left aside. Any remnant or ghost of authoritarian legality cannot gain more space.

The military is subject to civilian power, period. This confusion between political posture and military duties is a dangerous political project for the Brazilian democratic culture. It is totally incompatible with the Citizen Constitution.

Facing this scenario, we must pay attention to what Marcelo Cattoni warns: “[…] the daily and permanent challenge of making the Democratic State of Law a citizen conquest, in a process of social learning with Law, in our own history”. A democratic model of the here and now. We have already learned from our dictatorial history, the indications of regression, the similarities with the authoritarian-militarized past are more present than ever.

By Lucas de Souza Prates [1]

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[1] Law student at the Federal University of Ouro Preto (UFOP). Researcher at CJT and International Law Without Borders. Former member of the Transitions and Authoritarianism Group (UFOP).