With his cabinet reshuffle this week, Brazil's president Jair Bolsonaro gave another demonstration of his seemingly inexhaustible appetite for political chaos.
The biggest ministerial shake-up of his two years in power was supposed to help steady an embattled administration leaking support because of his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, which, raging out of control across the country, left 66,868 victims in March alone.
But rather than calm political tensions Bolsonaro only managed to stoke them further. The reshuffle set off a new crisis as he picked a fight with the military with the sacking of defence minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva on Monday.
The most significant ministerial casualty of the reshuffle was meant to have been Ernest Araújo, the alt-right propagator of conspiracy theories in charge of the foreign ministry. But the hapless diplomat’s exit ended up being completely overshadowed by that of his colleague at defence.
Not only was his removal totally unexpected, Azevedo e Silva did not go quietly. The retired general released a statement pointedly saying he had “preserved the armed forces as institutions of the state” as the news circulated he was fired for some unspecified resistance to efforts by the far-right leader to drag the military further into his increasingly bitter disputes with political opponents over their use of lockdowns as a means of tackling the pandemic.
By Tuesday, the heads of the three branches of the armed forces were gone as well. They were sacked before they could resign in solidarity with the outgoing minister by his replacement Walter Braga Netto, another retired general seen as more pliant to the president's demands.
“It is the biggest crisis in civilian-military relations since the end of the dictatorship in 1985,” says João Roberto Martins Filho, a political scientist who specialises in Brazil’s military.
The exit of the three commanders has exposed strains in the tacit alliance between the former army captain and the armed forces. Bolsonaro has sought political gain by associating his administration with one of the country’s most respected institutions, filling his government with serving and retired officers.
The military in turn has garnered political influence and bigger budgets from loaning its prestige to his political project. But the president’s increasingly erratic performance and attempts to have the army openly back him in his political fights poses a challenge for the armed forces, whose doctrine since the return of democracy states they should remain out of politics.
The crisis with the military broke into the open as Bolsonaro's supporters were encouraging police in Bahia to mutiny against lockdown measures imposed by the state's opposition-controlled administration, days after the president failed to get the supreme court to rule them unconstitutional.
It was just the latest effort by elements in bolsonarismo to undermine the control of state governors over their police forces. But the attempt quickly died down as the government grappled with the upheaval in the military and for some the two events are linked.
"The stand by the minister and the commanders inhibited or aborted the possibility of a police mutiny in Bahia and the risk of it spreading to other states, provoking a far worse crisis," says Paulo Ribeiro da Cunha, a historian of the military's involvement in politics. "Their exit marked a rejection by the military as an institution as opposed to the military wing in the government of Bolsonaro's desire to intervene in opposition-run states without some form of broader political consensus."
‘No coup plotters’
The president's supporters deny he has any such authoritarian ambitions. "There are no coup plotters in this government and there is no political interference in the armed forces," says Major Vitor Hugo, one of his main allies in the lower house of Congress. As evidence he points to the president respecting the military's tradition of seniority in selecting the three new service chiefs.
Their unveiling brought something of a close to the week’s events, as even after Tuesday’s firings the president appeared unable to impose names more to his liking on the high command, especially and most crucially in the army.
However, Bolsonaro has shown he does not accept setbacks and future attempts to co-opt either the armed forces or state police are likely, observers predict.
“He has not been able to implement it yet but our president has a dictatorial project as his goal. I have no doubt because this is what he says,” warns Martins Filho.