Almost three weeks after his re-election bid failed, supporters of Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro demanding a military coup remain camped out in front of army bases across the country.
Protesters want the military to intervene and cancel last month’s election which was won by former left-wing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, claiming without evidence the vote was rigged against Bolsonaro. Though the crowds have diminished as the protests drag on and those taking part become the butt of national ridicule, portrayed as sore losers, the ongoing mobilisation points to a new unstable element in Brazilian politics in which a proportion of the population is unwilling to accept the outcome of an election.
“We have never had a scenario like this before and it is going to continue even after Lula is sworn in. Attacks on his government during the next four years will be constant,” says political analyst André Pereira César.
Against this background one of the most immediate challenges Lula’s incoming administration faces will be handling relations with the armed forces, which has flirted with the protesters in the weeks since the election.
Under Bolsonaro they have been handed a central political role unprecedented since the return of civilian rule in 1985 and have repaid him by remaining loyal even in defeat. Despite being unable to substantiate the president’s accusations of fraud in the electoral process, the military leadership has adopted an ambiguous public stance that has sought to align with his criticism of the electoral process while claiming for itself the role of “moderators” in the country’s political life, which has no grounding in the constitution.
The high command has also publicly defended the right of Bolsonaro’s supporters to protest outside army bases. The most explicit military support for those demanding a coup came on Tuesday in a statement released by reserve general Eduardo Villas Bôas, former head of the army and the most respected officer of his generation within the ranks who went on to serve in the Bolsonaro administration. He explicitly questioned the electoral process and claimed the protests in favour of a coup are a response to “attacks on democracy”.
“The statement by Villas Bôas expresses the mood inside the barracks,” says João Roberto Martins Filho, a political scientist who studies Brazil’s military. “The military sees no problem with protesters calling for the cancellation of a democratic election which shows that between Bolsonaro and Lula it prefers Bolsonaro and is not ready to break with him.”
Though Lula has made clear his priority will be tackling the country’s grave social crisis, he will face an early test in his handling of the military when he appoints a new defence minister. This will almost certainly see a return to civilian oversight after a string of military appointments under Bolsonaro, but the incoming president is likely to choose someone not viewed as hostile to it by the high command.
Lula will also have to nominate new heads for the three branches of the military. This will require him to pass over those most closely associated with Bolsonaro but without alienating the high command which resents civilian presidents who do not respect military seniority when making appointments.
These appointments will all take place against a background of a mass exodus of thousands of serving and retired officers leaving the federal administration where they have been given influence to go with their high paying jobs under Bolsonaro. Back in barracks they will nevertheless continue to pursue key objectives, among them maintaining the ongoing exclusion of the military’s generous pension system from broader pension reform and defending the amnesty the armed forces awarded themselves for crimes committed during the 1964-85 dictatorship. Commanders will also want to avoid any accounting for their prominent role in the Bolsonaro administration’s disastrous pandemic response.
“The military is doing nothing to reduce tensions now so as to build up its bargaining power with the new administration,” notes Martins Filho. “Lula will have to be careful but he knows if he shows any weakness it will go badly for him. Even if he just does what the military wants they will create problems for him at the first opportunity, whether for political or ideological motives.”