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