—Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, University of Brasília and National Council for Scientific and Technological Development
[Editors’ Note: This is one of our biweekly ICONnect columns. For more information on our four columnists for 2021, please see here.]
The statement that coups nowadays occur mostly from within the institutional framework, not by an external act of force, has become a pattern in comparative politics and constitutionalism. Books and papers on democratic crises, decays, or death with such a focus are best-sellers and largely cited in the field. More specifically on constitutional law, concepts such as “abusive constitutionalism,” “constitutional hardball,” and “constitutional erosion,” just to cite a few, have also been widely used. It is not anymore those classic coups where tanks roll towards presidential palaces or aircrafts bomb them, while military juntas take control of the government. It is rather the incremental subversion of democratic and constitutional tools for the benefit of would-be autocrats until there is no easy way back. But what about “hybrid coups,” a concept that Sergio Abranches, a Brazilian leading political scientist, recently coined to depict Bolsonaro’s strategy? Is Brazil undergoing a singular type of coup that mixes old-fashioned and modern tactics to destroy democracy? He is certainly moving in this direction. It does not follow, though, that he will succeed. In fact, “hybrid coups” may paradoxically be less efficient for such a purpose.
“Hybrid coup” means that both strategies to undermine democracy from within and by an act of force are happening simultaneously, in a mutual reinforcing process that, in the end, may bring the worst of the scenarios. In this case, would-be autocrats would face some institutional resistance to their project: co-optation of institutions and individuals occurs, but it is just not enough; a coalition in Congress is built, but it is not solid and not even majoritarian for some legislative proposals, let alone for constitutional amendments; court-packing or other forms of attacks on courts are on the radar, but the level of judicial autonomy and strength plays against those moves. On the other hand, the civilian control over the military may be less real than first thought, so there is leeway to adopt the military as a threatening force by the Commander-in-Chief if his or her plans on the other front are not working. One strategy feeds the other, so institutional resistance is counter-attacked with threats of an alleged strength by this backing of the military. Step by step politics is dominated by an increasing fear of the escalation of the crisis, and again and again there is a “normalization” of conflicts at previously unacceptable levels. In the end, there is no easy way back, not because the would-be autocrat was successful enough to subvert the institutional framework for his or her benefit by using constitutional tools, but because, to do so, he or she needed to resort to threats of a classic coup backed by the military. Institutions then increasingly accept a higher margin of negotiation with the executive in order to “normalize” their conflicts. When they realize that such a normalization has already gone too far, it is too late.
Hybrid coups would thus function as the institutional equivalent of shifts in the so-called “Overton window,” which was largely discussed, for instance, in the United States during the Trump administration. The “Overton window” is a concept Joseph Overton, a political analyst, coined that, in few words, means that ideas that are not inside such a window are commonly rejected in the public debate. It is a dynamic concept, so what was first “politically unthinkable can become mainstream.” For instance, Kelly M. Greenhill wrote for Foreign Affairs the piece How Trump Manipulates the Migration Debate: The Use and Abuse of Extra-Factual Information, which discusses Trump’s strategy to “[shift] the Overton window such that policies that were recently unthinkable – and even laughable – are now mainstream.” Incrementally, that window expands to other previously unthinkable subjects in a vicious cycle. Pedro Doria, a Brazilian journalist, recently associated such a movement with Bolsonaro’s and his acolytes’ attempt to “normalize” what was previously unacceptable by the public. Examples are the argument that the Brazilian civilian military-dictatorship (1964-1985) was not a dictatorship but a “strong regime” or that such dissenting “views” are just a matter of “semantics”. More serious, such a shift may embrace the argument that a coup against the democratic institutions is not a coup but a countercoup against the system that does not let Bolsonaro govern. Step by step, the “Overton window” expands its reach to the very idea that an act of force is acceptable, and the network of fake news and disinformation helps achieve such a goal.
Sergio Abranches wrote his Bolsonaro’s Hybrid Coup with the alarming message that a “coup is underway in the country” whose signs are everywhere. He sustains that “to execute his project successfully, Bolsonaro needs an extra-parliamentarian resource that enables him to domesticate parliament and, therefrom, also subjugate the judiciary.” The landscape is indeed quite sinister. Even though some controversies may arise whether the Armed Forces would support a coup – most analysts deny this hypothesis -, there is no doubt that Bolsonaro has significant support among the military, and that they have obtained significant benefits in his government. If not the military, security forces and militias may be used for this goal. Moreover, as Sergio Abranches puts it, “the mental model that drives Bolsonaro is that of a classic coup.” Brazil would be thus heading in the opposite direction of the current cases of democratic crises. It is so shocking that Adam Przeworski’s recent book Crises of Democracy may not apply so well for the Brazilian case, at least with regard to the “military issue”. Przeworski emphatically says that “the final but consequential difference between the past and the present, one that is encouraging, is that the military have pretty much disappeared from the political scene” and that “astonishingly [the military] is no longer a political actor, even in Latin America, and it all but disappeared from the pages of political science as well.” This was the case in Brazil just a few years ago. It is not the case anymore, to the astonishment of both Brazilian and foreign analysts.
This is not a classic coup, though, but the very threat of an act of force being used as a persuasion tactics to move forward with the project of undermining the democratic institutions from within. By simply using the legal and institutional framework, Bolsonaro has not been successful – at least not at the pace and breadth he needs until the next presidential elections in October 2022. The coalitional presidentialism and high party fragmentation in Brazil demand that presidents do politics and negotiate with various segments of the political realm, while Brazil’s judiciary features one of Latin America’s highest levels of autonomy and strength. Bolsonaro has had some difficulties in advancing his most authoritarian agenda in Congress, and the reaction by the judiciary – particularly by the Supreme Court and the Electoral Superior Court – has been fierce. He has been successful in co-opting some key actors and institutions that would check his government, particularly the Speaker of the House – who has the power to accept one of the several impeachment bids on his desk – and the Attorney General of the Republic – who has the initiative to prosecute the President. It does not follow, though, that he is not trapped, and this is why his threats and attacks against Congress and the Judiciary have intensified, even by appealing to a classic coup as a continuous strategic menace of last resource.
It is an upsetting scenario, especially for a big and, until a short time ago, stable and improving democracy like Brazil, whose civilian control over the military seemed until recently quite undisputed. A series of events have shown that such a premise does not seem to apply any longer. The most shocking one took place on August 10th, when tanks rolled in front of the Praça dos Três Poderes, the square that surrounds the Planalto Palace (the seat of the executive power), the National Congress, and the Federal Supreme Court in Brasília. The alleged reason for such a parade was simply to give President Jair Bolsonaro an invitation to an upcoming exercise by the Navy that would take place a few days later in Formosa, a city located in the outskirts of the capital. Such a military exercise takes place every year, but the parade in front of the Praça dos Três Poderes was totally unprecedented. The message could not be interpreted otherwise: Bolsonaro’s goal was to intimidate Congress when it was about to vote on a proposal for constitutional amendment that would radically change Brazil’s well-regarded and modern electoral voting system, adopting instead the troublesome printed ballot. It did not pass in the end – the reaction by various segments of society and especially by the justices of the Superior Electoral Court and the Supreme Court was fierce. It was grotesque at any rate, and possibly its best characterization was Tom Philip’s “Bolsonaro’s ‘Banana Republic’ Military Parade Condemned by Critics” for The Guardian.
If such a parade may depict graphically what a “hybrid coup” means, it is symptomatic that, instead of showing strength, it revealed Bolsonaro’s blatant weakness and the ridicule of an Army in steep demoralization. No congressperson took it seriously and both the government and the military were subject to public mockery – the memes of those tanks expelling black smoke went viral on the internet. This is one of the side effects of “hybrid coups”: they are adopted as a trade-off between political and military strength when neither is enough. When would-be autocrats do not have the first, they push for the latter, which they do not have either. It becomes so grotesque that the exhibition of strength tends to show even more weakness, which provides an institutional reaction that is even sharper. It might be the sign of our times, and it may bring back Przeworski’s words to be partially redeemed. The military have not “disappeared from the political scene,” but they are not as threatening as they once were. Living under a democracy for some decades matters. The society may even accept that the military participate in the government. It does not follow that it will support them as a means for an act of force against democracy.
Still, Bolsonaro always goes further in his conflictive strategy. Not satisfied that his proposal for constitutional amendment had not passed in Congress, he intensified his attacks on the Supreme Court, and particularly on two justices – Alexandre de Moraes and Luis Roberto Barroso – as both have more frontally challenged Bolsonaro’s most authoritarian impulses. Last week Bolsonaro presented an impeachment bid against Justice Alexandre de Moraes in the Senate. Moraes presides over an investigation on fake news and attacks on democratic institutions that directly affects Bolsonaro’s electoral strategy. Bolsonaro also promised that he will present another bid against Luis Roberto Barroso, who intensely worked to defend Brazil’s well-regarded electronic voting system. There is absolutely no chance that the Senate will embrace this claim, but it is perhaps even more symptomatic that Bolsonaro himself signed that bid. The Attorney General of the Union, who normally represents the President, seemingly declined to do so.
All these developments should be naturally taken as worrisome, alarming, and threatening. Political analyses are naturally popping up both nationally and internationally, perplexed at the pace and severity of such events. It should be noticed, though, that those analyses may fall into the grey zone where, depending on how those events are depicted, they may be fostering the self-reinforcing cycle of persuasion that is strategically helpful for “hybrid coups”, expanding thereby the “Overton window”. The need to show strength in such events and acts, catalyzed by a set of bluffs and intimidations, is part of the game. The impeachment bids are a clear example, as Bolsonaro certainly knows that they will not prosper. Despite that, they are reproduced over and over by the media and even political analyses, reinforcing thereby the analytical bias that is beneficial for such tactics.
Danger is in the air, but we should, instead, look closely to what will more likely define Brazil’s future. According to the latest polls, Bolsonaro will lose to any candidate in a second round – some by a large margin – in the next presidential elections, and there is a chance that he will lose to former President Lula da Silva in the first one. His disapproval rating has skyrocketed and is now over 61%. The economy is going backwards and inflation is again on the radar. More and more, Bolsonaro has been losing support from the finance industry and productive sectors, which can be a fatal blow for his electoral chances. The military are not immune, either: they have seen their popularity tumble as they have been increasingly associated with the government and its serious cases of mismanagements and corruption.
The truth is that, regardless of the type of coup – whether classical, stealth, or hybrid -, some objective requirements, especially the support by key sectors of the society, are needed for it to succeed. Bolsonaro does not have this support. Moreover, institutional design, even if flawed by some means, matters. Brazil’s coalitional presidentialism, with its high party polarization, has many dysfunctionalities but has served as a shield against authoritarianism, even if imperfectly; the country’s strong Supreme Court has, by the same token, growingly moved to adopt several tools to protect democracy; and federalism has played an important role by increasing political competition and establishing some coordination in favor of democracy. Finally, organized civil society is also mobilizing fast against the government, so protests are becoming more and more frequent.
Brazil and the world should be alarmed by the sequence of events that have taken place and will possibly escalate in intensity until Bolsonaro potentially leaves office in January 2023. He is currently operating in “desperation mode” and still has some support in the society and particularly among the security forces, including the military, police, and militias. The next event aimed at showing strength is scheduled for September 7 – Brazilian independence day -, in which Bolsonaro, members of his government and security forces have incited the society at large to an uprising against the country’s democratic institutions. As democrats, any such sequence of behavior is totally unacceptable, and must be denounced and combatted. As political analysts, though, we should not fall into the mistake of playing Bolsonaro’s game of displaying strength where there is practically none. After all, analytical bias is certainly pronounced in moments of political stress. The coming months will be ugly and chaotic, but the current empirical signs point towards the conclusion that there is no “hybrid coup” that will destroy Brazil’s democracy.
Suggested citation: Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, A “Hybrid Coup” in Brazil? Bolsonaro in Desperation Mode, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Aug. 25, 2021, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2021/08/a-hybrid-coup-in-brazil-bolsonaro-in-desperation-mode/
 See S. Levitsky and D. Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (Crown 2018) ; Y. Mounk, The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It (Harvard University Press 2018) ; T. Ginsburg and A. Z. Huq, How to Save a Constitutional Democracy (University of Chicago Press 2018) ; M. A. Graber, S. Levinson, and M. Tushnet, Constitutional Democracy in Crisis? (Oxford University Press 2018) ; Tom Gerald Daly, ‘Understanding Multi-directional Democratic Decay: Lessons from the Rise of Bolsonaro in Brazil’ (2020) 14 Law & Ethics of Human Rights 199, 199-226.
 David Landau, ‘Abusive Constitutionalism’ (2013) 47 U.C.D. L. Rev. 189, 189-260
 Mark Tushnet, ‘Constitutional Hardball’ (2003) 37 The John Marshall L. Rev. 523, 523
 E. P. Meyer, Constitutional Erosion in Brazil: Progresses and Failures of a Constitutional Project (Hart 2021)
 A. Przeworski, Crises of Democracy (Cambridge University Press 2019) 140
 See Aníbal Pérez-Liñan and Andrea Castagnola, ‘Presidential Control of High Courts in Latin America: A Long-Term View (1904-2006)’ (2009) 1 Journal of Politis in Latin America 87, 87-114; G. Helmke and J. Rios-Figueroa, ‘Introduction’ in G. Helmke and J. Rios-Figueroa (ed.), Courts in Latin America (Cambridge University Press 2011) 1-26; Daniel M Brinks and Abby Blass, ‘Rethinking Judicial Empowerment: The New Foundations of Constitutional Justice’ (2017) 15 International Journal of Constitutional Law 296, 296-331
 Przeworski, n. 5 supra.