Bolsonaro, Brazil And The Expanding Role Of The Military

The increasingly unpopular president is collaborating with dozens of current or retired soldiers as he tries to push through a controversial policy agenda.

President Jair Bolsonaro attends the commemorative ceremony of the 211st anniversary of the military in Brasilia
Elsa Llenderrozas and Marco Cepik


BUENOS AIRES — Jair Bolsonaro is in his third month as president of Brazil and two areas of continuing uncertainty stand out: relations between the executive and legislative branches, and the growing military presence in his administration.

As a candidate, Bolsonaro promised to govern Brazil following technical criteria and to interact with the National Congress without negotiating cabinet positions, budgets or policies. Now that he's taken office, the administration mixes political and ideological criteria but leaves unanswered the question of how this president will govern.

The picture with regards to political parties is a fragmented one. Bolsonaro's Social Liberal Party (PSL) went from having one legislator in 2014 to 52 in 2018 (rising to 55 in February). The socialist Workers Party or PT has gone from 69 to 55 seats. The two biggest parties thus have 110 of the 513 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house.

In Bolsonaro's first cabinet, only nine of 23 ministers have party affiliations, making it a "minority" cabinet in legislative terms. Indeed, it has a lower party-affiliation rate than did any of the last four administrations, and this could hinder its legislative capacities. And yet, given the legislature's center-right majority overall, the government is thought to have the support of 256 deputies and 37 senators. It might win (with deals and agreements on particular issues) the support of another 117 deputies and 27 senators. The opposition, in contrast, has just 140 deputies and 17 senators.

The new president doesn't have the majority he needs to implement constitutional reforms. But he does have the opportunity in these first months of his government to pass some projects. Which ones? That remains to be seen, in part because his parliamentary base is relatively inexperienced (52.24% of deputies are newcomers), and because his agenda of "Bible, bullets and beef" is highly controversial. Privatizations and cutbacks in social rights may have more support, but his hardline measures against crime are already losing ground in parliament.

Furthermore, corruption scandals and internal bickering have swiftly worn down Bolsonaro's image. His approval rating has fallen from 65% to 38.9%, making him less popular than predecessors Fernando Cardoso, Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff at the same point in their terms.

The arrest of the last president, Michel Temer (though he was later released), has worsened the legislative climate for approving the Social Security reform prioritized by the government. In the meantime, the PT and other center-left forces are separately starting to organize themselves against some of the administration's key issues: the president's moral-Evangelical agenda, anti-environmental policies, targeted privatizations and spending cuts.

Soldiers from the Ipiranga Special Border Platoon marching during a ceremony — Photo: Wikimedia Commons

"When the armed forces wish it"

Which leads to the issue of the military: What role might it play in the coming months given the risk of increasing social tensions and a cooling of public support for the government? Aside from the president and his vice-president, Gen. Antonio Mourao, soldiers occupy more than 100 strategic posts in ministries and state firms. As a corps, they distrust politicians, consider themselves a moral and technical reserve for the nation and believe they could stabilize the country without deviating it from the course chosen in 2016.

Too many soldiers (both retired and serving) in an administration will weaken democracy.

They support strong alignment with Washington, a relationship that was ratified in a recent meeting between Bolsonaro and U.S. President Donald Trump. The military also backs Justice Minister Sergio Moro's relentless, anti-corruption drive and Finance Minister Paulo Guedes's privatizing agenda. It's likely they do not, however, support the rising Christian agenda.

Beyond all that, there's the fact that given the military's natural authoritarianism, too many soldiers (both retired and serving) in an administration will weaken democracy. This is echoed in Bolsonaro's statement that "democracy and freedom only exist when the armed forces wish it."

The over-involvement of the armed forces could also harm national defense, as it distracts them from their primary role and responsibilities. What's more, the administration's close alignment with the Trump administration, and the red-baiting rhetoric of some U.S. officials, will create a bridge between the generals and Bolsonaro's most ideological backers. What implications would this have for Brazilian foreign policy?

It is unlikely the army would take part in any possible military intervention in Venezuela.

Some of the government's most radical postures — like wanting to move Brazil's embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, loosening ties with China, or forging an international league of right-wing states — are already fomenting tensions with the military sector, which considers these costly and irresponsible. Likewise, it is unlikely the army would take part in any possible military intervention in Venezuela. But the military does accept the weakening of the MERCOSUR regional trade pact and reduced Brazilian participation in multilateral organs in general, both of which coincide with U.S. interests.

The government is benefiting for now from the diatribes that Trump advisor John Bolton unleashes on Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. Bolton's discourse helps Bolsonaro unite various sectors and mobilize his base. But for how long will that continue to be the case? In the meantime, corruption scandals are prompting incipient talk of impeaching Bolsonaro, with a destabilizing effect. Brazil's usual political fare, in other words. Sadly.

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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