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Almost three years into Jair Bolsonaro’s presidential term and one year away from the next elections, Brazilian politics have reached levels of militarization unseen since the end of the dictatorship in 1985.

Two weeks ago, Congress was voting on a highly contested bill to change Brazil’s voting system—a reform pushed by Bolsonaro as a means to distract public attention from corruption scandals and coronavirus chaos. On the same day, the President ordered a military parade to roll through Brasilia, a spectacle with no precedent since 1985. While Bolsonaro watched the parade from the presidential palace, a convoy of armoured vehicles proceeded through the capital, passing by the Congress and High Court. Although allegedly organized to deliver an invitation to annual navy exercises to the President, after threatening to reject 2022 election results if the electronic voting system is maintained, this show of force suggests an obvious attempt to demonstrate that he has the military’s support, which was condemned from all sides of his political opposition.

The parade comes as the last instance of a much broader trend in Bolsonaro’s militarized politics. Himself a former captain with admitted authoritarian inclinations, as a political outsider unaffiliated to any party, he had to rely on the military to fill his government. By choosing a retired general for Vice President and appointing numerous retired or active-duty officers in his Cabinet and administration, Bolsonaro gave the military significant influence on key policy questions. Military involvement in political matters was further aggravated with the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw the appointment of various members of the armed forces in the Ministry of Public Health. As the situation got increasingly chaotic, the military’s efficiency and coordination expertise was heavily relied on for managing the pandemic from medical care to logistical activities.

Although such developments have rightfully raised serious concerns among domestic and international commentators about the implications of the military’s increasing political involvement, several factors encourage confidence that Brazil’s democracy will survive the test of 2022 presidential elections.

Although simulations suggest he retains about a third of voters for 2022, a poll from July shows 51% of Brazilians disapprove of Bolsonaro—a number up 45% since May and almost doubled since last October. Indeed, the President is currently under parliamentary investigation for his handling of the pandemic (failure to acquire sufficient vaccines, promotion of ineffective treatments, weak lockdown measures, pursuit of herd immunity…) and overwhelmed with protests in a corruption scandal regarding the purchase of vaccines. Further evidence of Bolsonaro’s declining support is the pathetically low attendance –itself reduced to his most hardcore supporters—at the infamous tank parade.

Moreover, Brazil’s democratic system appears to have been consistently able to overcome authoritarian threats since 1985. Bolsonaro’s militarization of Brazilian politics has been particularly troubling in a country where the armed forces have always had important political influence, especially with the enduring memory of the military dictatorship (1964-85). However, although the military has been increasingly involved in politics despite the return to democracy, a somewhat balanced relationship between military and government has survived despite confronting a number of challenges to national unity in the past decade. Courts have continuously defended the media from government attacks and punished Bolsonaro and his associates’ attempts at undermining its legitimacy, allowing journalists to keep reporting freely on the government’s missteps and authoritarian leanings.

It also appears unlikely that the military would intervene undemocratically in favour of Bolsonaro in 2022. The President’s relationship with the armed forces is more complicated than it appears, and seems to be increasingly rupturing. There exists a certain hostility from a large portion of the senior ranks of the armed forces towards Bolsonaro, as military generals have publicly challenged the President’s decisions on several occasions. He even seems to have progressively lost his long-standing popularity among the rank-and-file as he successively failed to act on his campaign promises. Regardless, authoritarianism expert Steven Levitsky asserts that the military will likely persist in its historic ‘moderator’ function rather than associating with individual political figures, especially one as isolated as Bolsonaro currently is.

Furthermore, chances are that Bolsonaro’s threats and his military show-of force are merely threats—expressions of his growing fragility, and that he is not willing to orchestrate a 1960-70s-style military coup, which former presidents and military sources seem to agree on. It is also quite clear that succeeding with such a coup in 2022 would differ greatly from the Cold War context, as the international community would have a much different perspective on Brazil’s internal affairs today. Although a challenge to electoral results in case Bolsonaro loses is inevitable, in the absence of Donald Trump’s example and support, it thus seems to be highly unlikely that Bolsonaro would take the risks of calling for military intervention, or that he would be able to.

Yet, the President’s mercurial personality and such high levels of polarization make it difficult to make definite assertions, which means Brazil must strengthen preventive mechanisms against any potential scenario in 2022. More importantly, as Bolsonaro’s presidency has increased the government’s reliance on and popular confidence in armed forces for public policy decision-making and coordination, it has clearly become imperative to address the problematic consequences of intensive military involvement within a democracy’s politics where the military should not be a political actor.

Charlotte is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Jeso Carneiro]