Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s failed response to the COVID-19 pandemic cost him popular support. Now he feverishly lays the groundwork for a military coup in the event he loses the upcoming 2022 elections. On March 31, 2021, the 57th anniversary of Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship, Bolsonaro implemented measures that bring Brazil to the brink of a new military dictatorship. However, a Bolsonaro-led military coup has slim chances of success. A military-led coup against Bolsonaro, due to his catastrophic pandemic response, would have a greater chance of success than a Bolsonaro-led coup, but the current absence of critical factors makes a military-led coup improbable.
Some of the forces that drove the 1964 military coup are currently in play and trending toward a democratic crisis. Democratic theorist Alfred C. Stepan, in his book The Military in Politics: Changing Patterns in Brazil observes that the quality of political leadership is an important variable that will drive or inhibit the necessary conditions for a coup from reaching a peak. Stepan describes three “macro” factors that drove the military to remove democratically-elected leftist president João Goulart.
Circumstances inhibited the military from acting when (1) the president enjoyed constitutional legitimacy and public support, (2) civilians with militia control had a stake in future elections, and (3) the army was divided on whether they can rule better than a civilian politician. Comparatively, the military felt compelled to act once (1) Goulart’s political strategy undermined his constitutional legitimacy and cost him public support, (2) civilians with militia control lost their stake in future elections, and (3) the military’s internal divisions diminished.
Bolsonaro replaces military leaders with pro-1964 coup loyalists.
In a consolidation of power unprecedented since Brazil’s re-democratization, Bolsonaro fired his defense minister and the top commanders of the army, navy, and air force jointly resigned. Bolsonaro replaced pragmatic defense minister General Fernando Azevedo e Silva with his former chief of staff and known-coup-supporter, General Walter Souza Braga Netto.
The players’ own inclinations are a crucial coup-driver. Where Azevedo e Silva refrained from engaging the military in politics, Braga Netto aligns with Bolsonaro’s explicit support for the former dictatorship, stating it must be “celebrated.” During Brazil’s military dictatorship, the government tortured approximately 30,000 people and disappeared hundreds.
Bolsonaro himself was an army captain during the dictatorship, praised it as a “very good” period, stated he is “in favor of torture,” and exalted a convicted torturer as a “national hero.” Ominously, Bolsonaro advocated for the violent overthrow of democracy in a 1999 interview, stating that “[e]lections won’t change anything in this country. It will only change on the day that we break out in civil war here and do the job that the military regime didn’t do: killing 30,000. If some innocent people die, that’s fine. In every war, innocent people die.”
Goulart also attempted to shore-up power by installing military loyalists. He put the military in as many key political positions as possible to pressure Congress to make radical constitutional changes. This backfired because appointing new generals whenever old ones disagreed with him cut him off from accurate feedback about his waning military support.
Bolsonaro lacks public support and his unconstitutional manipulation of the military to attempt to achieve his political goals cost him military legitimacy.
Bolsonaro perceives his most recent maneuver as insurance for his falling public approval ratings driven by an abysmal COVID-19 response, but he remains at risk. Brazilians are living in the world’s pandemic epicenter. Brazil reports over 300,000 deaths total at a rate of more than 4,000 deaths per day—more than a third of the world’s daily coronavirus fatalities. Bolsonaro angered Brazilians with his apathetic remark “there’s no use crying over spilled milk” about Brazilians killed by the pandemic. A highly infectious variant, abysmal 2% vaccination rate, and federal opposition to social isolation measures are contributing to the disproportionate death rate. As a result of Bolsonaro’s poor handling of the pandemic, his public support fell from 41% to 33%.
Additionally, Bolsonaro’s populist discourse exploits his close association with the military to rally popular support but he is losing support among the military. A rift formed among Bolsonaro’s supporters between the pragmatic military wing and the religious conservatives demanding more radical social change. Bolsonaro is increasingly at odds with the faction of the military unwilling to assert itself in politics.
Pablo Ortellado, professor of public policy and management at the University of São Paulo, describes how Bolsonaro’s poor handling of the COVID-19 crisis damaged his relationship with the military. Bolsonaro demanded that the military intervene to stop state and municipal coronavirus lockdown measures that he believes harm the economy. Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court declared that state and municipal authorities have the constitutional right to implement health measures. The military’s refusal to deploy forces to supersede the governors and implement Bolsonaro’s political objectives was a red line for the military leadership that he fired and that resigned. This schism indicates Bolsonaro’s declining constitutional legitimacy among the constitutionalist military faction unwilling to assert itself in politics.
Civilians with militia control and their stake in future elections.
Stepan found that the governors’ 1965 elections candidacies deterred them from supporting the coup until they believed Goulart would cancel them. On March 8, 2021, a Brazilian Supreme Court judge annulled former president Luiz Inácio Lula de Silva’s (2003-2011) two criminal corruption convictions stemming from the “Operation Car Wash” scandal. Lula, now eligible to run, would be Bolsonaro’s most forceful opponent in the election. One poll indicates both Lula and leftist lawmaker Ciro Gromes are ahead of Bolsonaro by 5% each.
Here, as long as Bolsonaro is behind in the polls, anti-Bolsonaro military factions have an incentive to wait until the 2022 elections. If Bolsonaro pulls ahead in the polls or wins the election, the anti-Bolsonaro faction’s calculus could in favor of seizing power. However, Stepan notes that this is only likely if the Brazilian people call for the military to seize power, as was the case with Goulart, because an unpopular seizure of power is extremely risky.
Crises stemming from the coronavirus pandemic may unify the Brazilian military’s internal divisions in the future.
Lastly, Goulart’s actions alienated the military and gave its factions a cause to unite behind. While the Brazilian military is currently divided, economic crises caused by the coronavirus may precipitate a political flashpoint in the near future. With so many military members in Bolsonaro’s administration, the military is caught in a Catch-22. Public opinion will hold it responsible if Bolsonaro fails on the coronavirus front and preclude its future participation in politics. This fear may propel the military to act if the Brazilian people call for it to become the country’s caretaker during this time of national emergency.
The rift between Bolsonaro and the military deepened even before the pandemic. First, Bolsonaro scorned and ejected multiple well-respected generals. In June 2019, Bolsonaro fired General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, a hero among the military for leading United Nations forces in combat, and two other retired generals. The Bolsonaro family’s spiritual leader publicly insulted him as an “over-starched turd.” This harkens back to when Goulart’s brother-in-law, Leonel Brizola, called General Muricy a “gorilla” to his face.
Additionally, Bolsonaro cut pension benefits for Brazilian soldiers, with particularly deep cuts for the majority rank-and-file. Memes calling Bolsonaro a “traitor” and “liar” swept military circles. The head of the National Association of the Brazilian Military (ANMB) said that his fellow soldiers feel betrayed by Bolsonaro’s “fatal stab in the back” and described his relationship with the military as “broken.”
Analyzing the aforementioned three factors which drive the sufficient conditions for a coup, Brazil is alarmingly trending toward satisfying them. The most probable scenario of a coup attempt would be led by Bolsonaro after his loss in the 2022 elections but he would almost certainly fail. Comparatively, the most likely scenario of coup success would be military-led against Bolsonaro and thus pose a greater threat to Brazil’s democracy. However, a military-led coup is less probably because the lynchpins: a united military and public support for the military taking control, have yet to be satisfied. As the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc in Brazil, time will tell if the crises which stem from it will claim Brazil’s democracy as another victim of COVID-19.