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LATIN AMERICA | 29-09-2022 01:00

All eyes on Army as Brazil heads for elections

Experts say that while Jair Bolsonaro has the backing of some in the military, it is highly unlikely the institution would get involved in anything resembling a coup.

With President Jair Bolsonaro trailing in the polls and regularly alleging Brazil's voting system is plagued by fraud, all eyes are on the military and the role it could play in the country's deeply divisive October elections.

The far-right president, an ex-Army captain, has enthusiastically courted the military's support and has put it forward as a referee in the elections, raising fears he could seek an armed intervention if he loses.

However, experts say that while Bolsonaro has the backing of some in the military, it is highly unlikely the institution would get involved in anything resembling a coup.

Bolsonaro, who openly admires Brazil's 1964-1985 military dictatorship, has drawn the Army into politics on an unprecedented scale, naming more than 6,000 active-duty or retired service members to jobs in his administration, all the way up to Vice President Hamilton Mourão, an Army reserve general.

That mix of military and politics was on full display earlier this month as Brazil celebrated the 200th anniversary of its independence from Portugal with the 67-year-old commander in chief presiding over a combination of military parades and campaign rallies by his supporters.

"Bolsonaro believes it strengthens him to cultivate close ties with the armed forces and put on displays of military strength," said Carlos Fico, a military history expert at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

 

Enlisting the Army

Bolsonaro, who trails leftist ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2010) heading into the October 2 election, has never presented concrete evidence of electoral fraud.

But he has sought to enlist the military in his crusade against Brazil's electronic voting system.

The armed forces regularly provide logistical support for elections, but the president has pushed to expand that to new levels, insisting they act as referees.

When the Superior Electoral Tribunal (TSE) bowed to his wishes by inviting the military to take part in a special Election Transparency Commission, Bolsonaro hailed the move.

"The Armed Forces are responsible, they're credible in the eyes of the public and they're not going to play a merely decorative role in this election," he said. "They're going to do the right thing."

Hewing to Bolsonaro's line, the nine military members on the commission presented it with a list of nearly 100 points questioning supposed vulnerabilities in the electronic voting machines Brazil has used since 1996.

But in the end, the TSE concluded that most of the critiques were "opinions," and denied allegations such as the existence of a "dark room" where votes are tabulated.

 

'Political theatre'

However, experts say military support for Bolsonaro has its limits.

"There's not the slightest chance [the military] will play any role outside the one established in the constitution," said reserve general Maynard Santa Rosa, former secretary for strategic affairs under Bolsonaro.

Even though Bolsonaro enjoys close ties with top military figures, such as Defence Minister Paulo Sergio Nogueira, and has picked former defence minister Walter Braga Netto as his running mate, Fico, the military history expert, said those two "have no troops under their command."

"There is no generalised movement by active duty service members worried about verifying the electronic voting system," he said.

Fico added that any election-related unrest from the security forces was more likely to come from the police, a group "very influenced by 'Bolsonaro-ism.'"

Bolsonaro's campaign team has pushed him to tone down his rhetoric on the election system, fearful of alienating moderate voters.

But an aide close to the president, speaking on condition of anonymity, admitted Bolsonaro was unlikely to listen.

"It's part of his persona. It's political theatre," the aide said. "Without that, he wouldn't be Bolsonaro."

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by Marcelo Silva de Sousa, AFP

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