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Will Brazil remain a democracy ? Answer soon.

Since 2019, when Bolsonaro took office, many observers of the Brazilian political scene have considered that Brazil was undergoing a singular type of coup that mixes old-fashioned and modern tactics to destroy democracy. They speak of a hybrid coup [1]. The threat should not be treated lightly. It does not mean, though, that the former captain and his supporters will succeed. In fact, Bolsonaro’s hybrid coups strategy faces many obstacles.

One can speak of a hybrid coup when both strategies to undermine democracy from within and by an act of force are happening simultaneously, in a mutual reinforcing process. Bolsonaro is using two paths to authoritarianism that are complementary and not exclusive of each other. Analysts like Abranches call the first path to authoritarian transformation the "Trojan horse strategy". The candidate for authoritarian leadership relies on the rules of democracy to come to power. Once elected, the leader manages to gain a majority in Congress, which he needs to make the necessary changes to neutralize the checks and balances of democracy and put individual rights in recess [2]. The classic coup is called "an appeal to the tanks" that symbolize the military and police force on standby. To execute his project, Bolsonaro needs an extra-parliamentarian resource that enables him to domesticate parliament and, therefrom, also subjugate the judiciary. The Armed Forces perform this function and are the backbone of Bolsonaro’s government [3]. The military serves as a political-electoral base of Bolsonaro’s government, but also as an instrument to intimidate the institutions of representative democracy and the opposition. Bolsonaro is trying to convey the idea that he can use force against his political enemies, however far from the truth that may be.

How far will the Armed Forces follow Bolsonaro?

One strategy feeds the other. Institutional resistance is counterattacked with threats of an alleged strength of this backing of the military. Bolsonaro has in fact a significant support among the military who in turn has obtained important benefits in his government [4]. In addition to the use of military support, other Forces are used as threats, such as security forces (Policias Militares) and militias. The very threat of an act of force is being used as a persuasion tactics to move forward with the project of undermining the democratic institutions from within.

The hybrid coup has been prepared since the beginning of the presidential term. One very important stage of preparation and operationalization of the illegitimate seizure of power is the dissemination of lies and conspiracy theses to create the climate of tension and confrontation to justify an intervention. An important piece of this opinion-forming strategy is the attempt to “normalize” what was previously unacceptable by the public [5]. Such a shift may embrace the argument that a coup against the democratic institutions is not a coup but a backlash against the system that does not let Bolsonaro govern. Step by step, the government and its allies try to convince a majority that an act of force is acceptable. A strong and efficient network of fake news and disinformation helps achieve such a goal.


“The would-be autocrat has faced some strong institutional resistance to its projects since the first day of his term”.


The hybrid coup and obstacles.

By simply using the legal and institutional framework, Bolsonaro has not been successful – at least not at the pace and breadth he needs until the next presidential elections in October 2022. The would-be autocrat has faced some strong institutional resistance to its project since the first day of his term. The Trojan horse strategy has been implemented in relations with Congress. In Brazil, coalition presidentialism is a major obstacle. The president directs policymaking and drafts the budget but cannot get much done without Congress, where his or her party rarely has a majority. He has to do politics and negotiate with various segments of the political realm to get a majority. Sectarian, refusing political dialogue and unable to negotiate, Bolsonaro has had to form an alliance with the so-called centrão (big center), a bloc of self-serving parties without ideological platforms who back presidents in exchange for patronage. Centrão support is never free. In 2018, on the campaign trail, Bolsonaro vowed to advance his agenda without resorting to old politics. As a president, he only succeeded in getting texts adopted by using pork-barrels politics. There are many ways to describe pork-barrel politics in Brazil. They include tomá lá dá cá (give and take) or troca de favores (trading favours) and corporativismo (corpo-ratism).

President Bolsonaro and his government have tried hard to overcome the majority hurdle they lack. The former captain offered many positions to his allies, including that of government coordinator (ministro-chefe da Casa Civil). He has had to free up budgetary allocations that allow elected officials to meet the demands of their local constituencies. In exchange for these favours, he got the house of representatives and the senate to elect a Speaker and a Chairman who are relatively accommodating to him. The speaker of the House is a key actor. He has the power to accept one of the several impeachment bids on his desk. However, the coalition formed by the pro-Bolsonaro parties and the opportunist organizations of the centrão is not solid and does not form a sufficient majority to approve bills, let alone constitutional amendments [6]. The alliance only works when the huge centrão’s constant appetite for new favours is catered. The pre-sident manages to unite and broaden this coalition when the government submits texts that interest many MPs who are often unscrupulous or even clearly involved in criminal practices. Thus, a few months ago, he got approval for an electoral code in the House of Representatives that reduces electoral crimes to almost nothing, removes powers from electoral justice, transfers them to those whom it should regulate and opens the possibility of electoral fraud that has already inflicted Brazilian democracy in the past.

Undermining the judiciary is also on the agenda of Bolsonaro and his supporters. However, the level of judicial autonomy and strength (probably the highest in Latin America) plays against those moves. All Bolsonaro's initiatives that are undemocratic or transgressive to the constitution let to fierce reactions by the judiciary, particularly by the Supreme Court and the Electoral Superior Court. However, the strategy of weakening the judiciary has had some success. The nomination of Augusto Aras, Attorney General of the Republic, was a move typical of the Trojan Horse strategy. The Procurador Geral da Republica (PGR) has the initiative to prosecute the President. Since the Public Prosecutor's Office has much power of initiative, Bolsonaro chose a career prosecutor, to dismantle the institution's autonomy and power of agency. The power of agency is expressed in the control of judicial initiative and in the faculty that each prosecutor must initiate investigative procedures to fulfill the constitutional mission of the MP. Aras centralized the procedures in the Attorney General's office to manage the initiative and the power of agency as he saw fit. Coming from the previous phase of the organization of the public ministry, which even allowed him to practice law simultaneously with his job, he has no career loyalties.

For months, the great battle waged by the Bolsonaro’s clan has been that of abandoning electronic voting and returning to printed ballots. The Head of State's supporters wants the elections to be able to be rigged, they just do not want them to be able to be rigged against their side. Congress recently discussed a proposal for constitutional amendment that would radically change Brazil’s well-regarded and modern electoral voting system, adopting instead the old troublesome one. It did not pass in the end and the reaction by the justices of the Superior Electoral Court and the Supreme Court was extremely harsh. Them, Bolsonaro goes further in his conflictive strategy. Not satisfied that his proposal for constitutional amendment had not passed in Congress, he intensified his attacks on the Supreme Court, and particularly on two justices – Alexandre de Moraes and Luis Roberto Barroso – as both have more frontally challenged Bolsonaro’s most authoritarian impulses. Last august, as part of his attempt to tame the judiciary, Bolsonaro presented an impeachment bid against Justice Alexandre de Moraes in the Senate [7]. The chair-man of the senate rejected this request. If the President succeeded, he would repeat the expedient, until he took full control of the Supreme Court.

Brazilian electronic ballot box (candidates are identified by numbers).

Operationalizing the strategy of appealing to tanks.

Using the Armed Forces as an instrument to intimidate the opposition and the civil society is not as easy as it could seem. As pressure on the government mounts, with the COVID-19 death toll approaching 600 000 and a presidential election looming in late 2022, the future of the partnership between the military and Bolsonaro is becoming clouded with uncertainty. Much as the generals have benefited under Bolsonaro, and much as they may sympathize with his ideology (Bolsonaro’s rhetoric invokes values cherished in the barracks – order, nationalism, and authority), how far would they be prepared to go on his behalf? Relations between Bolsonaro and the staffs of the three arms are complicated. A recent political spat between the president and military suggests that instead of defending Bolsonaro to the hilt, senior officers might be more interested in protecting themselves from the more noxious effects of his rule. At the peak of the pandemic in Brazil in late March, with around 4,000 deaths being recorded each day, Bolsonaro fired military commanders because they did not pay him the deference and did not approach the government to the extent he wanted. He appointed three docile commanders, who gave him every deference and aligned themselves with his political project. The previous commanders, jealous of the distance that the Armed Forces, as state institutions, should keep from the government, did not want this shift towards politics. Bolsonaro transferred General Braga Neto (who had already demonstrated a perfect alignment with the objectives of his boss) to the Ministry of Defense. Since then, relations between the military and civilian wings of the Brazilian government appear to have calmed. But the Armed Forces’ apparent fear that they have strapped themselves to a political time bomb may not yet have dissipated.


"To compensate for the sharp erosion of his ability do govern, Bolsonaro is trying to show that the Armed Forces are at his service"


Despite these difficulties, the President continues to threaten republican institutions. He wants to persuade Congress and the Judiciary that he has the full support of his army and that he is accumulating resources for a classic coup. Last month, a spectacular demonstration was organized to reinforce this strategy of intimidation. On August 10th, tanks rolled in front of the Praça dos Três Poderes, the square that surrounds the Planalto Palace (the seat of the executive power), the National Congress, and the Federal Supreme Court in Brasília. Such a military exercise takes place every year, but the parade in front of the Praça dos Três Poderes was totally unprecedented [8]. The message could not be interpreted otherwise: Bolsonaro’s goal was to intimidate. In reality, the demonstration appeared grotesque. Instead of showing strength, it revealed Bolsonaro’s blatant weakness and the ridicule of an Army in steep demoralization. No MP took it seriously and both the government and the military were subject to public mockery (memes of tanks expelling black smoke went viral on the internet).

Tank passing by Congress. August 10, 2021.

To compensate for the sharp erosion of his ability to govern, Bolsonaro is trying to show that the Armed Forces are at his service. He seeks to play on fear. When he loses his political capital, he pushes for military strength. Whatever form the coup takes, success depends on a few key factors, especially the support by important sectors of the society. Bolsonaro does not have this support. Its popularity wanes. The ongoing congressional investigations of the handling of the COVID-19 add to the scrutiny of the Bolsonaro government, already under pressure over its response to the pandemic, and so are likely to further weaken support. They also highlight that Bolsonaro, a candidate who cam-paigned on an anti-corruption platform, may have been aware of corruption linked to vaccine contracts. As documented by polls, an over-whelming majority of Brazilians support the Congressional investigations and the inquiry has already affected Bolsonaro’s popularity, leading to him facing some of the worst approval ratings since he took office [9]. Bolsonaro may not lose his loyal core base because of the congressional inquiries, but he will likely emerge weakened as less devoted parts of his base are exposed to highly televised information about the erratic and potentially illegal handling of pandemic-related policy. Many Brazilians supported Bolsonaro in 2018 hoping for a more liberal and orthodox economic agenda, but support from this part of his base also appears to already be eroding. Bolsonaro’s confrontational approach to governance and defiance of institutional rules of the game also alienates potential allies within the conservative-leaning Congress.


"More and more, Bolsonaro has been losing support from the finance industry and productive sectors, which can be a fatal blow for his electoral chances".


Bolsonaro can still count on the support of about 25% of the population, a sector that does share his disregard for democratic values, either through the narratives of extreme social conservatism or the rejection of the established democratic institutions as corrupt. This sector of the population has two components. The first one is linked to the military (in particular the troops and middle-ranking officers) and to the security forces (Policiais militares). The second component is formed by Pentecostal church members, key Bolso-naro constituencies. Nevertheless, even within these churches, the President's popularity is declining. In last June, an opinion poll indicated that if an election had been held on that date, only 32 per cent of the evangelical vote would have gone to Bolsonaro. This would amount to roughly half the support that the President received from evangelicals in the 2018 elections, and which was fundamental in bringing him to power.

This erosion of the President's political capital and popularity matters in a country that has been living under a democracy for some decades. The society may even accept that the military participate in the government. It does not follow that it will support them as a means for an act of force against democracy. Will the military institution support an institutional coup led by a would-be autocrat who does not have the support of most of the population?

According to the latest polls, Bolsonaro will lose to any candidate in a second round – some by a large margin – in the next presidential elections, and there is a chance that he will lose to former President Lula da Silva in the first one. His disapproval rating has skyrocketed and is now over 61%. The economy is going backwards and inflation is again on the radar. More and more, Bolsonaro has been losing support from the finan-ce industry and productive sectors, which can be a fatal blow for his electoral chances. The military are not immune, either : they have seen their popularity tumble as they have been increasingly associated with the government and its serious cases of mismana-gements and corruption.

What can happen in the next few months?

If evidence were needed, the 32 months of the Bolsonaro presidency have shown that the political-institutional design is important, even if flawed by some means. Brazil’s coalitional presidentialism, with its high party polarization, has many dysfunctionalities but has served as a shield against authoritarianism, even if imperfectly. The country’s strong Supreme Court has, by the same token, growingly moved to adopt several tools to protect democracy. Federalism has played an important role by increasing political competition and establishing some coordination in favour of democracy. Finally, organized civil society is also mobilizing against the government, so protests became more and more frequent during the last months.


"In the best-case scenario, Bolsonaro ends up backing down, disorder ends, leaving behind a trail of deaths, destruction of property and terrible institution damage."


From now on, Bolsonaro will continue operating in “desperation mode”. He still has some support in the society and particularly among the security forces, including the military, police, and militias. The next event aimed at showing strength is scheduled for September 7 (Brazil independence day), in which Bolsonaro, members of his government and security forces have incited the society at large to an uprising against the country’s democratic institutions. Further demonstrations to intimidate society and opposition political forces may follow. These demonstrations are of concern because they could lead to mutinies in the military police of several states. The nightmare scenario is as follows. The military police, or some of them, inspired by Bolsonaro's fake news machine, mutiny, and there is rioting. We have had examples of this recently in Ceara and Espirito Santo. The governors then ask the federal government to determine that the Armed Forces carry out an operation of Law-and-Order Guarantee (GLO) to restore public order and normality. But Bolsonaro refuses to give the order. The governors then appeal to the Supreme Court, to determine that the president, commander in chief of the Armed Forces, should order the GLO. But Bolsonaro again refuses to give the order, committing a crime of noncompliance with a court order. The country then finds itself in a total institutional impasse. In the best case scenario, Bolsonaro ends up backing down, orders the GLO, and the disorder ends, leaving behind a trail of deaths, destruction of property and terrible institutional damage (given the damage, Bolsonaro's permanence in office becomes virtually impossible).

If Bolsonaro does not back down, the Supreme Court should have him arrested. We will then see if the commitment of the Armed Forces with democracy and the rule of law is as firm as the generals claim. The coming months will be chaotic and…decisive for democracy in Brazil.


[1] The concept of a hybrid coup d'état is frequently used by analysts, in particular by Sergio Abranches, a Brazilian leading political scientist. In a post on his blog, he recently coined this concept to depict Bolsonaro’s strategy. [2] In Venezuela, Chávez did this to implant authoritarian populism and Maduro manages to hold on to power using a legislature and judiciary trained to follow his commands. [3] Nine of Brazil’s 22 government ministries are run by active or reserve members of the military. There were 10 until General Eduardo Pazuello left his post at the health ministry in March 2021. There are at least 6,157 members sitting on the boards of state-owned companies such as Petrobras (oil and gas), hydroelectric company Itaipu, Brazil’s post office and Eletrobras (electricity). [4] The government under Bolsonaro has invested the equivalent of $16.6 billion dollars (€14 billion) in privileges for the military, including the benefits granted with military pension reform, meaning military personnel can retire with their full salary, unlike civilians. Serving military personnel have also received a substantial salary increase. The $16.6 billion amount does not consider the rule change that allows retired military officers such as Bolsonaro or his ministers Walter Braga Netto (Defense), Luiz Eduardo Ramos (Secretary of Government) and Augusto Heleno (Institutional Security) to collect a salary above the constitutional cap of $7,500 a month. The president has extended these benefits to military police in the 27 states of Brazil’s federation, who form a natural support base for the president, even though they technically answer to state governors rather than the executive. [5] A frequent example of this shift in meaning is the argument that the Brazilian civilian military-dictatorship (1964-1985) was not a dictatorship but a “strong regime” or that such dissenting “views” are just a matter of “semantics”. [6] The adoption of an amendment to the constitution requires a two-thirds majority vote of the votes cast in both the House of representatives and Senate. [7] Moraes presides over an investigation on fake news and attacks on democratic institutions that directly affects Bolsonaro’s electoral strategy. Bolsonaro also promised that he will present another bid against Luis Roberto Barroso, who intensely worked to defend Brazil’s well-regarded electronic voting system. [8] The alleged reason for such a parade was simply to give President Jair Bolsonaro an invitation to an upcoming exercise by the Navy that would take place a few days later in Formosa, a city located in the outskirts of the capital. [9] However, it is hard to disassociate this from the impact of his catastrophic handling of the pandemic as Brazil recently surpassed 580,000 deaths from COVID-19, the second highest death toll for a country globally.

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