Why Bolsonaro’s Coup D’état Should Miserably Fail in 2022
Whether or not Brazil’s president would dare to go against the country’s democratic rule in the final days of his tenure is yet unclear, but institutions need to be prepared to react
The image of Brazil’s President Jair Messias Bolsonaro has been notably melting for the past couple of months due to ongoing hearings held at the Parliamentary Inquiry Commission (aka. CPI) established at the Brazilian Senate in charge of investigating wrongdoings during the government’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic. Almost simultaneously, between May and June this year, Bolsonaro was the protagonist in four major motorcycle demonstrations in favor of his administration in Brasília-DF, Rio de Janeiro-RJ, São Paulo-SP, and Chapecó-SC, gathering thousands of supporters on two wheels and with no masks on. Although very visually impactful and noisy, these events were contrasted by opposition forces starting to occupy the streets again in capitals and major cities as vaccination coverage rates are gradually accelerating in the country.
Parallel to Bolsonaro’s loss of popularity, significant damage is also being noticed in the image of Brazil’s Armed Forces not only due to the intrinsic involvement of army, navy and air force officials in the current administration — never before in democratic periods the country had so many non-civilians in federal administration positions — but also because several names of generals and lieutenant colonels are popping up during the CPI sessions. Just like in any other division within the broader public sector, there are of course corrupt military officials. As a direct consequence, by mid-July 2021, 58% of Brazilian citizens were against Armed Forces officials taking over civil servants administrative duties. Sentiments related to 21 years of military dictatorship in Brazil (1964–1985) are slowly being resurrected.
With presidential elections just around the corner — scheduled for October 2022; these should occur every four years according to Brazil’s 1988 Constitution — president Bolsonaro now seems desperate to doubt the credibility and reliability of the country’s current electoral system, which is quite advanced, safe, technological and paperless, having been utilized for 25 years, since 1996. Over 500 thousand fully electronic voting devices are installed in all municipalities on voting days (Sundays) and are responsible to collect, process and instantly transmit every citizens’ votes to the Supreme Electoral Court (aka. TSE) headquarters located in Brasília. Results are widely known just a few hours after electoral sections closed at 5:00pm. On top of all democratic setbacks witnessed since Bolsonaro took over in 2019, this is the first time a democratically elected president questions the very system that made it possible for him to be chosen.
The president has been imposing the need for voting devices to print paper receipts, which could cost up to BRL 2 billion (USD 380,9 million) extra for the entire operation with no evident benefit. Brazilian elections have always been auditable, audited and subject to regular monitoring by international organizations such as the Organization of American States (OAS). For months, Bolsonaro has been threatening all democratic institutions that if his idea isn’t implemented, then he wouldn’t take part in the electoral process next year or, worse, there wouldn’t be elections in Brazil in 2022 at all. Everyone knows that far right tactics have a lot to do with testing the boundaries of laws and institutions. Multiple scenarios are possible as Brazilians never know what Bolsonaro, his family and close allies could be capable of doing. Could he be even thinking about the use of force?
Here are seven reasons to believe that any attempt by Jair Bolsonaro to take over power through authoritarian ways will face consistent focuses of resistance:
1. Lack of support among civil society — Public opinion would represent a first barrier. Bolsonaro supporters currently range from 20% (one fifth) to 33% (one third) of the population. A recent Datafolha poll indicated that 70% of Brazil’s population believe there is corruption in Bolsonaro’s administration, while 63% believe that there was overbilling in the acquisition of vaccine doses by the Ministry of Health during the COVID-19 epidemic. Any authoritarian adventure would sound highly unpopular in virtually all segments of society, particularly among the powerful economic elites.
2. Lack of support in the National Congress — Contrary to 1964 and the years that followed the last coup d’état in Brazil (specially 1968, year in which the Institutional Act #5 was decreed), there is absolutely no space for peaceful coexistence nor interest by contemporary congresswomen and -men to adhere to such abrupt change in the country’s political system. Back then, at least during the first five years of the newly established regime, there was enough political articulation and dialogue between military dictators and parliamentary leaders. Today’s scenario would be quite different. Members of the Chamber of Deputies and Senators would certainly not be comfortable or willing to jeopardize the intangible benefits and material gains (licit or illicit) they have while legislating in an open, representative, democratic, and decentralized political environment.
3. Lack of majority support within the Armed Forces — Considering over six thousand army, navy and air force officials have been taking part in the current Bolsonaro administration (representing an increase of 122% if compared with the previous presidency of Michel Temer), it is hard to believe that any interference by these military groups could be seen as a source of hope or salvation amidst a context of political turmoil or institutional instability in the first place. From an internal standpoint, the majority of Armed Forces officials are strict followers of the Constitution and have no impetus of interventionism. The most reasonable and democratic leaderships have already been trying hard to prevent the increase of politization and polarization among officials and to step away from the frequent mismanagement accusations and corruption investigations that have been impacting members of the military.
4. Lack of international support — Brazil is currently one of the most politically isolated countries on the global stage. Former allies and traditional trade partners such as the US, the European Union, China and Argentina all have outspoken problems with Bolsonaro. Environmental issues, an ideologized diplomacy and recurring insults led to this situation. Anyone knows that international affairs play a major role when it comes to legitimizing any coup d’état, which would certainly not happen in Brazil’s hypothetical case. Looking for foreign endorsements would be inevitably fruitless, while immediate economic sanctions would end up suffocating Brazil’s economy and social wellbeing.
5. Defeat of the printed voting receipt proposal — The constitutional amendment proposal (aka. PEC) #135/19 should be voted by the National Congress in August or September 2021 (12 months prior to the presidential elections) and there are very high chances it will be defeated. The imposition of such condition by president Bolsonaro for elections to take place is not only unconstitutional, but also based on unproven fraud allegations. 11 parties, out of the existing 33 in Brazil, have already formally positioned themselves against the proposal. Together, these parties represent 326 members of the Chamber of Deputies, totaling 63.5% of the votes in the house. Failing to approve this constitutional amendment (three-fifths majorities are required in both houses of Congress) will significantly weaken Bolsonaro and his political group even more.
6. Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court will most certainly react — Although position statements and institutional reactions to recurrent rhetoric attacks have been belated and quite mild by all 11 judges of the country’s Supreme Court (aka. STF) for the past two years and a half, there are high expectations that the most prominent guardians of the Constitution should play an active role in preventing any democratic rupture. Judges Luís Roberto Barroso and Luiz Fux have been especially vocal in the past few months, trying to draw the line in terms of blocking any verbal attempt to exceed the constitutional limits and subvert the balance of powers between the three branches of government as well as its respective checks and balances principle.
7. Judge Alexandre de Morais will be leading the Supreme Electoral Court in 2022 — STF judge Alexandre de Morais will take over as the next president of the TSE as of May 2022 and already made clear that he won’t tolerate acts against democracy and the rule of law. He assured the 2022 electoral process will be free and fair just like in previous experiences and noted that the implementation of printed voted receipts won’t contribute to Brazil’s democracy. Judge Morais has been particularly impacted by rhetorical attacks by president Bolsonaro and death threats by partisan and radicalized cyber militias whose judgement he oversees in the context of ongoing investigations that indicate the existence of a so-called “Cabinet of Hate” inside the very structures of the Presidency of the Republic. Jair Bolsonaro’s son number #03, Rio de Janeiro’s city councilor Calos Bolsonaro, has been considered the mastermind behind such crimes.
14 months away from the 2022 presidential elections, Jair Bolsonaro isn’t even worried about being affiliated to a political party. He left PSL in November 2019 and has been governing the country independently since then. The formal deadline for this to happen is 4th April 2022 and negotiations have been taking place with several political groups. Hopes are that democratic normality continues in Brazil, but institutions need to be prepared to react in case Bolsonaro tries anything stupid. The increasing (and intended) politization of Armed Forces officials and fractions of state-level police corporations is sufficiently threatening. Furthermore, the number of firearms owned by Brazilian civil population has virtually doubled (97,1%) in just three years as a direct consequence of president Bolsonaro’s flexibilization of gun laws. Stakes are high the future of the nation could be in danger.