Bolsonaro seeks to recruit military into presidential election race

Brazilian president trying to involve armed forces in campaign against voting system

Brazil is a country currently in the grip of two very different political campaigns.

The first is a presidential election race in which candidates are criss-crossing the country seeking the support of voters at the polls in October. But this democratic contest is being stalked by another campaign, one waged by President Jair Bolsonaro, who is stepping up his efforts to contest October's outcome should he fail to win a second term, as opinion polls currently predict.

At a rally on Wednesday the far-right leader called on all “good citizens” to arm themselves during a diatribe against “communisation” that was a thinly-veiled attack on the left-wing Workers Party of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who leads him in the polls. He also once again called for “transparent” elections despite never having provided evidence to back up his claims Brazil’s current highly regarded electronic voting system is vulnerable to fraud.

The week also provided evidence that Bolsonaro's effort to involve the armed forces in his campaign against the voting system is making headway. Federal police ordered by the supreme court to investigate attacks on the voting system identified Luiz Eduardo Ramos and Augusto Heleno, two retired generals in Bolsonaro's inner cabinet, as well as Brazil's intelligence service as involved in the effort to buttress the president's unfounded claims. But the serving military has also now been dragged in.

The electoral court which oversees October’s vote has found itself trying to shut down a dialogue with the armed forces after the latter submitted a series of questions about the voting system, some of which raised false claims previously made by the president. The court had initiated the dialogue in an effort to put an end to the attacks against it by the president. But many observers believe the initiative has unwittingly provided Bolsonaro, who has already called for the armed forces to carry out its own parallel count of October’s vote, with a new opening.

"Without a doubt the military is taking advantage of this opening to question the quality of the electronic voting machines. What should be a technical co-operation has now passed into the political arena," says Oscar Vilhena Vieira, professor of constitutional law at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation's law school in São Paulo.

Military’s stance

The crisis involving the electoral court has renewed speculation about the military’s stance should Bolsonaro, a former military officer, refuse to accept defeat in October. Defence minister Paulo Sérgio Nogueira de Oliveira, a still-active four-star general, was with Bolsonaro on Wednesday when he called on the population to arm itself. But he is viewed as a moderate who was promoted in March into his current position in order to allow a general seen as more aligned with the president replace him as head of the army.

Gen Oliveira has now personally taken over the military’s interaction with the electoral court, which many have viewed as an attempt to defuse tensions between the two institutions rather than advance the president’s agenda. Military watchers say motives abound for the armed forces to refuse to join Bolsonaro on any extra-constitutional adventure.

They have already suffered damage to their reputation after being caught up in several of his administration's corruption scandals, notes Paulo Cunha, a historian of the military's involvement in Brazilian politics. The most prominent of these was the mishandling of the pandemic after the military was put in charge of the federal government's response. More recently it has been subjected to widespread ridicule after it reportedly overpaid for a huge consignment of Viagra as well as prosthetic penises.

“The military is already feeling the negative impact of its association with the president which has been aggravated by these scandals,” says Cunha. “The penny has dropped. There isn’t any political project, just mismanagement and corruption involving the president’s family and even some military personnel. So I don’t believe they will accompany Bolsonaro despite his intentions because of the cost to their reputation. I don’t see a coup as a possibility though we will have a tense year filled with threats of one.”