Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro doing the "gun gesture" in 2019. | Photo: flickr, Palácio do Planalto | CC BY 2.0

Bolsonaro gunning at Brazilian democracy

In Brazil, September 7th is Independence Day, traditionally celebrated with civil and military parades in the capital Brazilia and many other cities. What was intended to foster national pride and unity threatens to damage that very unity this year, as President Bolsonaro wants to turn the events into a show of strength signalling his will to win in the 2022 elections by a coup d’état if necessary.

On September 7th, once again there will be colourful flags and military personnel in the streets of Brazil, but instead of being a symbol of unity this event emerges from a disruption, a crack so deep that it could break institutions and the country itself. Although the official Independence Day celebrations have been cancelled due to the pandemic, demonstrations in support of extreme right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro have been scheduled for this date instead. They signal a first step in a stark scenario for the future of Bolsonaro (and Brazil), as in his words, “I have three alternatives for my future: being arrested, killed, or victory”. Clearly, a democratic transfer of power is not contemplated for 2022.

Almost three years after his election, the retired army captain finds himself trapped by a succession of economic and public health crises, with a loss of popularity and political support that shows that he can be defeated in the 2022 elections. But the weaker he gets, the more urgent is the need to raise the tone and provoke conflicts that may lead to a turn of the tables.

Mirroring the former US President Donald Trump, Bolsonaro has systematically questioned the reliability of the electoral process claiming without any proof that there is a lot of election fraud. In addition, he attacked the STF (Brazilian Supreme Court) when the latter imposed certain limits on his authoritarian impulses. His strategy has been to attack and make threats, especially against democracy. Now President Bolsonaro clearly stated that he does not intend to leave office if defeated in the next elections, indicating that he is willing to act outside the Constitution: “I play within the four lines of the Constitution, and I play, if needs be, with guns on the other side” – exposing a disposition for a coup d’état to remain in power if necessary.

After having raised the stakes, now he will have to show that he has good cards in his hands. In that sense, rallies become very important and September 7th will be a crucial date. Bolsonaro counts on the engagement of his most radical voters, as well as the evangelicals and the ruralists (landholders). To back up his threats he needs the support of those who carry weapons. And he has been working steadily on this purpose.

One of its goals is the arming of civilians, especially its supporters. “Everyone in Brazil should buy a rifle”, the President recently say to his claque.  His very strong pro-gun rhetoric in addition to decrees and changes in regulation expanded significantly the numbers of Brazilians owning guns. But relying only on the most radical armed civilians may not be enough, as the case of Trump in the United States illustrates. In this sense it is crucial, whether Bolsonaro has the endorsement of the armed forces. In addition, he is banking on a wild card, the backing of thousands of police officers.

‘My Army’

The affinity between the President and the military is no secret. Since the beginning of his administration, military personnel were embedded in federal institutions. Between 2018 and 2020, the number of military personnel assigned to civilian positions in the federal government rose from 2.765 to 6.157, half of whom are on active duty. This presence is not limited to areas such as national security but expands into fields such as health and environment. Such proximity indicates that the armed forces have become more than simple allies, they are partners in a project that gradually takes on more authoritarian contours as the general support for Bolsonaro begins to crumble. Now under pressure coming from different state institutions, Bolsonaro uses the military as a shield and a sword to deal with the other powers that dare to limit the Presidential ambitions.

He is salready involved in conflicts with the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. But the most critical is the conflict with the Supreme Court that dared to investigate and arrest Bolsonaro supporters in inquiries about fake news and institutional threats. The Court also opposed some of Bolsonaro’s decisions as unconstitutional and ruled accordingly. It also repeatedly defended the integrity of the countries voting system against Bolsonaro’s attacks, launching a probe into the President’s efforts to undermine Brazilian democracy.

In retaliation, the President not only criticizes the judges on a daily basis, he also recently filed a request for impeachment of one of them. Symbolically, the strongest signal of Bolsonaro’s will to act outside his constitutional powers happened in March already. Raul Jungmann, former Defence Minister between 2016 and 2018, revealed in an interview that Bolsonaro considered sending supersonic air force planes to fly over the STF building, breaking the windows panes and giving the judges a warning. In the face of discomfort and refusal, the President forced an unprecedented joint resignation of his Defence Minister and the commanders of all three branches of the armed forces, replacing them by officers more in line with and subservient to the government.

Bolsonaro and the police

Given the still ambivalent stance of the armed forces, Bolsonaro turned to the police as a possible future support for him. This is an extraordinary move, given that in Brazil the police is established and controlled at the level of the states which are primarily in charge of public security. Thus, legally, most police officers are subordinated to the State Governors, which in principle leaves them outside the direct influence of the Federal Government.

Despite this fairly strict constitutional separation, the proximity between the police and Bolsonaro has become more and more evident in the past year. Bolsonaro links symbolically with the police by being a constant presence at graduations of police recruits for example. He also creates material benefits for police officers, for example by assuring them of certain types of tax exemption and by providing benefits for them in the pension reform. He even goes further, aiming to diminish controls over the police, by proposing a new organic law for the police that aims to guarantee more autonomy for the police and reduce the power of State Governments. In addition, he campaigns for making it almost impossible to prosecute police officers for on-duty killings through specific legal changes. Bolsonaro is clearly aiming at winning the hearts and minds of police officers.

His actions also result in a well-founded fear, that in the case of a President trying to stick to his office with extra-constitutional means, most of the police officers will side with him and act against the constitution. A 2021 survey of 521 Brazilian police officers indicates that at least 62% of them voted for Jair Bolsonaro in the first round and 67% voted for him in the second round in the 2018 elections. Thus, support for Bolsonaro amongst the police forces seems to have been quite solid even before Bolsonaro could start his campaign of embracing them. Even more worrying is that the same survey also showed that at least 27% of military police officers support a military coup in the country. These results are backed by a study that monitored the social networks of 879 public security professionals. This study indicated that 37% of the military police profiles are vocal in expressing public support for President Bolsonaro on social networks; further 25% of low-ranking military police officers frequently interact with pages supporting the President and transmitting content considered radical; i.e. being supportive of undermining or replacing democratic institutions.

Large segments of the police siding with Bolsonaro is a concern that haunts the Governors. On August 23, 25 of the 27 Brazilian State Governors participated in a meeting that discussed the role of the military police in the current scenario of political instability.  This extraordinary move of the Governors was triggered by the actions of an active colonel of Sao Paulo military police who used his social networks to threaten institutions and call on his peers to attend the September 7th demonstration in support of Bolsonaro. Although this colonel has been removed from his post, this case illustrates how and to what extent Bolsonaro’s influence over the police may become a realt threat to Brazilian democracy.

September 7:  a threat to Brazilian democracy?

Thus, the participation of the army and the police in the upcoming September 7 demonstrations are important indicators of the extent to which they are willing to back the President. If this support is taken to the streets on September 7 in pro-Bolsonaro demonstrations, it may become a crucial step in the development of a real threat to the democratic future of Brazil.

In the short term, the worst-case scenarios involve the support of a significant part of the armed forces, military police officers and armed civilians, in moves against the other branches of the state. Another catastrophic possibility would be an uprising by armed civilian supporters of Bolsonaro and parts of the police, which could lead to a violent conflict between them and the armed forces. At this moment, all actions of other institutions also need to be very well thought and planned. An eventual arrest of the President, as alluded to by STF Judge Lewandowski, could set fire to a powder keg.

Next Tuesday, the eyes of Brazil and the world will be turned to São Paulo Avenue, hoping that Independence Day does not become a milestone in the downfall of Brazilian democracy.

Ariadne Natal

Ariadne Natal

Ariadne Natal is a senior researcher at PRIF’s research department “Intrastate Conflict”. Her research focuses on Brazil, police legitimacy and use of force as well as vigilantism. // Ariadne Natal ist wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin im Programmbereich “Innerstaatliche Konflikte” an der HSFK. Sie forscht zu Brasilien, polizeiliche Legitimität und Gewaltanwendung sowie Selbstjustiz.
Ariadne Natal

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Ariadne Natal

Ariadne Natal is a senior researcher at PRIF’s research department “Intrastate Conflict”. Her research focuses on Brazil, police legitimacy and use of force as well as vigilantism. // Ariadne Natal ist wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin im Programmbereich “Innerstaatliche Konflikte” an der HSFK. Sie forscht zu Brasilien, polizeiliche Legitimität und Gewaltanwendung sowie Selbstjustiz.

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