RIO DE JANEIRO: With an ex-army captain leading polls, a reserve general picked as his running mate, and a military chief sticking his nose into the election chaos, Brazil’s army has become an increasingly conspicuous participant on the political scene.
On top of that, the number of military candidates across both the presidential and gubernatorial elections on Oct 7 has almost doubled since the last vote, up from 13 to 25, according to the influential Estado de S. Paulo newspaper.
In a country that suffered almost 20 years of military dictatorship from 1965-84, there is understandable apprehension in the air.
“After the dictatorship, the military was on the defensive for a long time, but now they are more visible,” said Nelson During, director at Defesanet, a website specialising in defence affairs.
Most worryingly, perhaps, is the fact that poll front-runner Jair Bolsonaro has spoken admiringly about Brazil’s military dictatorship and even its use of torture.
It is no coincidence that he picked reserve general Hamilton Mourao as his running mate, and thus potential vice-president, and has promised to name six generals to his government if elected.
Mourao is not just any general, either. He caused an uproar with his veiled threat last year, amongst a raft of corruption scandals, that should the political situation continue to degrade, the army would be forced to “impose a solution”.
Since the right-wing Bolsonaro was stabbed by a left-wing activist while campaigning last week and subsequently confined to hospital, his running mate has taken up the lobbying reins.
Bolsonaro, 63, remains in a serious condition and may not be able to return to the campaign trail before the Oct 7 first round, perhaps not even before the second-round two-candidate run-off three weeks later that he is expected to reach.
That means Mourao’s profile, visibility and influence will grow.
The attack on Bolsonaro didn’t go unnoticed by his former military colleagues, with army chief General Eduardo Villas Boas giving an interview to Estado de S. Paulo warning that the climate of “general intolerance” surrounding the elections could “throw into question the legitimacy of the next government”.
He also aimed a barb at jailed former election front-runner Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, whose exhaustive attempts to secure a spot on the ballot paper despite serving a 12-year sentence for corruption extended even to petitioning the United Nations.
Villas Boas hit out at the UN Human Rights Committee, which said that left-wing icon Lula could not be barred from standing in the election, for attempting “to violate national security”.
In reaction to Villas Boas’s scolding of the UN for meddling in Brazil’s election, Folha de S. Paulo ran an editorial entitled: “Imprudence in uniform.” It ticked off Villas Boas for “these confused statements that contribute in no way to calming” the election chaos.
That was soft and diplomatic in comparison to centre-left candidate Ciro Gomes’s reaction, telling O Globo newspaper that had he been president already, the military chief would have been “sacked and put in prison”.
‘Loss of credibility’
A political science professor at Brasilia University, David Fleischer, lays part of the blame at the feet of incumbent President Michel Temer as his “loss of credibility”, as well as implication in serious corruption scandals, “could have contributed” to Villas Boas feeling the need to intervene.
“Military visibility has increased greatly these last few years because Temer’s government has deployed troops several times” to maintain law and order, he said.
Most dramatically, he put Rio de Janeiro law enforcement under the command of the army in February in an attempt to bring under control spiraling deadly violence in favelas.
But while it would be understandable for a population still scarred by 20 years of military dictatorship to fear a political return of the armed forces, some are willing to listen to “a discourse in which the military is less corrupt” than scandal-tainted politicians “and could establish order, peace and security”, according to Sergio Praca, professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a higher education institute specialising in management and economics.
Part of the population would approve of “military intervention” but Praca says that still leaves Brazil far from a resurgence of the dictatorship.
“We’re a long way from the situation in 1964. These days, the military applies itself politically by democratic means,” he insisted.—AFP
Published in Dawn, September 17th, 2018