scorecardresearch

Brazil’s military strides into politics, by the ballot or by force

Antonio Mourão, a retired army general, at the headquarters of the Military Club in Rio de Janeiro. Retired generals and other former officers are mounting a sweeping election campaign in Brazil.
Antonio Mourão, a retired army general, at the headquarters of the Military Club in Rio de Janeiro. Retired generals and other former officers are mounting a sweeping election campaign in Brazil. (Dado Galdieri/New York Times)

RIO DE JANEIRO — Members of Brazil’s armed forces, who have largely stayed out of political life since the end of the military dictatorship 30 years ago, are making their biggest incursion into politics in decades, with some even warning of a military intervention.

Retired generals and other former officers with strong ties to the military leadership are mounting a sweeping election campaign, backing about 90 military veterans running for an array of posts — including the presidency — in national elections this October.

The effort is necessary, they argue, to rescue the nation from an entrenched leadership that has mismanaged the economy, failed to curb soaring violence, and brazenly stolen billions of dollars through corruption.

Advertisement



And if the ballot box does not bring change quickly enough, some prominent former generals warn that military leaders may feel compelled to step in and reboot the political system by force.

“We are in a critical moment, walking right up to the razor’s edge,” said Antonio Mourão, a four-star general who recently retired after suggesting last year, while in uniform, that a military intervention might be necessary to purge the corrupt ruling class.

“We still believe that the electoral process will represent a preliminary solution for us to shift course,” Mourão said.

The military’s push into politics is a major shift — and for many Brazilians, a worrisome one. The country’s military dictatorship lasted 21 years before ending in 1985.

Since then, Brazil, Latin America’s largest country, has experienced its longest stretch of democratic rule. Many are fiercely protective of the separation between politics and the military, guarding against any potential slide toward authoritarian rule.

But the former generals, officers, and veterans organizing campaigns for October’s national elections say that “military values” like discipline, integrity, and patriotism are vital to fixing Brazil, a nation they consider poorly governed, dangerously polarized, and embarrassingly irrelevant on the world stage.

Advertisement



Analysts and politicians say the chances of a military intervention are probably remote, but they are wary of the rising political profile of military figures, particularly because the country has not fully come to terms with its authoritarian past.

Military personnel tortured people suspected of being dissidents with electric shocks or beat them as they hung from walls, according to a 2014 truth commission report. At least 434 people were killed or disappeared during the dictatorship.

Yet Brazil has done far less than many of its Latin American neighbors to punish the abuses committed during the 1960s and 1970s, adding to concerns about giving military figures more political power.

“The eventual election of these military officials may lead to the adoption of authoritarian proposals, especially when it comes to public security,” said Carlos Fico, a historian at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

The growing appeal of Brazil’s armed forces in politics comes amid a rightward shift in South America and rising authoritarianism in democratic nations including Poland, Hungary, the Philippines, and Turkey.

“In each country, this movement has a different facet, but in the background it has to do with dissatisfaction and fear,” said Fico.

Mourão, the former general, and other retired officers are avidly backing the presidential bid of a far-right congressman, Jair Bolsonaro, a tough-talking former army captain who has proposed contentious measures to restore order, including giving police freer rein to kill criminals.

Advertisement



Bolsonaro, the first former military officer to mount a viable bid for the presidency since democracy was restored, recently said he would appoint generals to lead ministries, “not because they are generals, but because they are competent.”

The campaigns seize on broad frustrations across Brazil. Faith in the nation’s democracy and government institutions has cratered in recent years, especially after the 2016 impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff and the enormous kickback schemes that have tainted all major political parties.

A survey by Latinobarómetro, which tracks public opinion across Latin America, found last year that only 13 percent of Brazilians were satisfied with the state of democracy, the lowest ranking among 18 nations. The poll also found that only 6 percent of Brazilians supported their government, ranking well below other deeply unpopular governments, including those in Venezuela and Mexico.

But the military has largely escaped such criticism. While a majority of Brazilians distrust the current president, Michel Temer, the nation’s Congress and Brazil’s mainstream political parties, 8 out of 10 respondents had a favorable view of the armed forces, according to a 2017 poll by Datafolha.

That, analysts and retired generals say, is the reason Temer has given military officers unusual power in his Cabinet. In a break with the past, Temer appointed a general in February to lead the Defense Ministry.

General Eduardo Villas Bôas, the current commander of the army, said in a recent speech that those who talked about military intervention did not understand the “democratic spirit that reigns in all the barracks.”

Advertisement