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Brazilian military caught in the crossfire after failed coup attempt against Lula’s government

The Armed Forces is facing a slump in popular credibility amid the requirement to punish those possibly responsible for backing an attempt to annul the result of the 2022 elections

Jair Bolsonaro
Supporters of the former president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, during the January 8 attempted coup in Brasilia.Joedson Alves (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Juan Arias

After the victory of Lula’s progressive government and the failed coup d’état promoted by former president Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian Army finds itself in a delicate situation. It is caught in a crossfire: that of how to maintain its image of respect for democracy, and how to punish those who participated in the attempted military uprising.

And all this while maintaining the respect the military has always been held in by public opinion since the end of the dictatorship, after which the Armed Forces, together with the Church, have always topped the polls of the most-valued Brazilian institutions.

The parliamentary investigations into the failed coup, and the revelations by the Military Police on the plot hatched by Bolsonaro to prevent Lula’s victory, have made the Army high command nervous at the same time as placing the new administration in an uncomfortable position.

It should also be noted that the military leadership is caught between a decline in popular credibility and the need to punish those possibly responsible within the Army for the attempt to overturn the result of the 2022 elections.

This climate of mutual distrust between the government and the military led Lula, on the eve of his international trip for the BRICS meeting in Johannesburg, to convene an urgent meeting with the commanders of the three branches of the Armed Forces. As the columnist Miriam Leitao, who was tortured during the dictatorship, wrote in O Globo: “Only a country in crisis holds a meeting, on a Saturday, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., in the presidential palace between the military commanders and the president.”

Skilled in political and union negotiations, Lula took advantage of the meeting to talk about the budget increase for a military that finds itself at a precipice, as on this occasion, it is not only facing a sharp drop in public opinion, but also the displeasure of Bolsonaro’s followers, as revealed in the polls, for not having adhered to the threatened military coup.

The military high command has confirmed that those found guilty of supporting the failed coup d’état will be punished according to the law, while trying to reassure the troops in general of the arrival of new financial backing from the government.

The confusion surrounding the possible support of the military for the coup attempt promoted by Bolsonaro is based in the 19th century. The Constitution of 1891 included article 142, which is still a source of debate today. It is what Bolsonaro termed the “four lines of the Constitution” and on which he relied when promoting a military uprising. Article 142 states that the Armed Forces are “the guarantee of constitutional powers.” It has always been a divisive provision, and one that Bolsonaro used during his four years as president to threaten the installation of a military state.

“We are in the 21st century but carrying the same distortion of the 19th century. That the Armed Forces are the guarantee of constitutional powers, despite being the greatest threat to those same powers,” wrote Leitao.

The latest popular polls on the military reveal that it has lost credibility among Bolsonaro’s followers precisely because it did not support a constitutional rupture to its conclusion, as well as among those who continue to support democracy because the military appears to be directly or indirectly involved in the failed coup attempt.

The military understands that some of its members are now suspected of being the authors or accomplices of an attempt to return the country to the era of the dictatorship, and at the same time it needs to pacify troops who find themselves discredited by a large section of society. The meeting of the military commanders with Lula indicates that this pacification will be based on special economic aid being offered to the Armed Forces.

The difficult issue facing the Lula government, which during the president’s past administrations rarely questioned the military, is how to reconcile an open dialogue with an Armed Forces that faces serious accusations of having supported Bolsonaro’s coup pretensions but at the same time seems unwilling to confront the former trade unionist, despite the offer of economic perks that provide the easiest path to quelling unrest in the rank and file.

It was precisely these same financial benefits that Bolsonaro offered that led to the brink of an institutional rupture and returned the military to the forefront of Brazilian politics.

Lula is aware of all this, a fact that is becoming more evident every day, and is trying to appease the three branches of the military while the government turns a blind eye to the possible involvement of the Army in the failed coup, in order to be able to govern in peace.

Lula’s government is eager to close the chapter to focus on economic reforms to improve the situation of millions of Brazilians living on the verge of poverty, while at the same time employing its international activism to place the country in the limelight as a fundamental piece in the new and difficult international equilibrium in the context of the ongoing war in Ukraine, the end of which nobody feels able to predict.

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