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Waiting For the Generals
Brazil has few safeguards in place to prevent President Bolsonaro from pulling off a coup.
Watching events in Washington D.C. unfold on January 6, 2021, it was hard to shake a sense of unreality. The mob of Trump supporters who broke through police lines and breached the Capitol building seemed like the proverbial dog that catches the mail truck: unsure of what to do next. Americans, it turned out, don’t quite understand how coups work.
This was due, I think, to unspoken truths about the American political system: things everyone understands without anyone needing to explain them. The most important is that, come what may, civilians decide who the next president is. Not even the most deluded January 6 rioters seem to have expected the United States Armed Forces to get drawn in. That made for a kind of psychic safety net for everyone that day. No matter how badly off the rails the republic seemed to have gone, a military coup was unthinkable.
Now try to imagine January 6 without that safety net. Try to imagine it happening in a country with a short democratic tradition and a long history of military involvement in politics, where millions of older people remember growing up under military dictatorship…and not all of them hate the memory. Worse, try to imagine it in a place where the incumbent, a retired army officer, makes no secret of his preference for military over civilian rule.
Welcome to Brazil in 2022.
Following an inconclusive first round of elections yesterday, the country is perched on a knife edge. The incumbent Trump-loving president Jair Bolsonaro significantly outperformed expectations and gained 43.2% of the vote, five points behind his leftist challenger, former president Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva. A second round between the two is scheduled for October 30.
For months, President Bolsonaro has been explicit in saying he will not accept a defeat at the ballot box, claiming he can only imagine one of three outcomes for himself: prison, death or victory. With a communication style that makes Trump look like a master of nuance, Bolsonaro has fully pre-committed to a “stop the steal”-style campaign. A report published by his party baselessly claims that election officials have “absolute power to manipulate election results without leaving a trace.” He has now repeated claims of election fraud so often that he is under investigation by the Brazilian Supreme Court. That he will seek to stay in power unconstitutionally basically amounts to a campaign promise.
The constitutional crisis now dawning has been firmly established on the calendar for months. By being fully explicit about his intentions, Bolsonaro has given up the element of surprise: military officers up and down the chain of command have been preparing for the coming few weeks all year. When a presidential order that implies disregarding the election results comes—and it will come—Brazil’s military officers will have to show their cards. They’ve had plenty of time to plan for such a moment, and presumably most know how they intend to behave. But none can be fully certain how their fellow officers will react. Until the fateful order comes, anyone’s prediction as to what they will do is as good as anyone else’s.
A military coup is by no means an inevitable outcome. Most of Brazil’s military top brass have had the gospel of non-interference in political affairs drummed into them for decades. Yet among the most senior officers—including defense minister Paulo Nogueira—their time in uniform overlapped with Brazil’s last military dictatorship, which ran the country until 1985. Whatever else it may be to them, a military dictatorship is not “unthinkable.”
This state of affairs has left Brazil’s democrats on edge. They have little choice but to line up behind a very flawed figure. Now 76 years old, Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva is a longtime leftwing trade union leader who served as President of Brazil from 2003 to 2010. Lula—as everyone calls him—was the first leftist to take power since before the military dictatorship. During his time in office, he instituted the hugely ambitious Bolsa Família program, which transferred federal cash directly to Brazil’s poorest and helped accelerate a historic fall in poverty in the country, with tens of millions of people making it into the middle class for the first time during his term.
He also, alas, presided over an empire of corruption whose tentacles reached into the Brazilian government, state-owned companies, private firms, and other governments throughout Latin America and even Africa. During his tenure, his party used public funds to buy congressmen whose support it needed with monthly stipends worth up to $12,000. In fact, for much of 2018 and 2019 he served the first year and a half of a 12-year prison sentence for corruption and money laundering.
It is true that he was prosecuted by his political enemies—the judge in charge of his trial later accepted an appointment as Bolsonaro’s attorney general. But the corruption charges against Lula can hardly be called trumped up: there was no lack of evidence at his trial, and his conviction was upheld on appeal. It was ultimately quashed only on a jurisdictional technicality.
By the standards of the Latin American leaders of his era, Lula was not one of the worst. But neither is he the savior his supporters claim. The stunning fall in poverty achieved during his time as president had more to do with sharply rising prices for Brazilian exports such as soybeans, crude oil and iron than with his vaunted social policies. His promises to rework his magic if re-elected lack credibility: it’s a vastly different world now, Brazil can’t even get access to the fertilizers it needs for its export crops as a result of the war in Ukraine, and public finances are in no state to support vast new spending programs. The scale of graft and corruption during his term, meanwhile, shocked even seasoned observers of Brazil’s politics. There is little left now of Lula’s former reformist sheen.
And yet beggars can't be choosers. When faced with an incumbent openly hostile to democracy, Brazilian democrats don’t get to be picky. For all his many and grave flaws, Lula never put Brazilian democracy in mortal danger. Bolsonaro undoubtedly does.
With pre-election polls showing large leads for Lula, many of us had hoped he would win a decisive victory in the first round, diminishing the chances that Bolsonaro would proceed with an insurrectional strategy. Now that the incumbent president has exceeded expectations, what happens next is depressingly easy to predict. Lula will likely win the second round narrowly on October 30; Bolsonaro will try to overturn the result using the power of both the streets and the barracks. The millions of votes cast one way or the other will not decide who leads the world’s fourth largest democracy: the men with the guns will make the decisions that count in the end.
In this sense, Brazilian democracy is already the loser of this election.
Francisco Toro is a journalist and the Content Director for the Group of 50.
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