Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

The Armed Forces after Bolsonaro

Adriana Marques, Assistant Professor, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro

[Editor’s Note: This is the third substantive post in the ICONnect symposium on the new Lula government in Brazil and the challenge of democratic erosion after Bolsonaro. For the introduction to the symposium, see here.]

On December 31, 2022, the acting president of Brazil, Hamilton Mourão – a retired army general who began his political career performing acts of military insubordination against two former presidents while on active duty – gave a speech in which he praised alleged accomplishments of his administration during the last four years and showed his concern for the image and prestige of the armed forces. He criticized the country’s leaders – which he did not name – for their “irresponsible” exposure of the armed forces, noting that some people have accused the military of encouraging protesters while others have accused them of not to do enough against such demonstrations. Mourão delivered the speech a day after the retired army captain who held the presidency from 2019 to 2022 flew to Florida to avoid Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva at his January 1 inauguration.

One week later, thousands of far-right supporters of former President stormed and vandalized three iconic buildings in Brasília that respectively house the Brazil’s Congress, the Supreme Court and the Presidential Palace. Most of the vandals who invaded the main symbols of the Brazilian Republic came from a coup camp located in Praça dos Cristais, in front of the army headquarters. The inglorious end of the Bolsonaro’s administration and the riot that took place on January 8 pose a set of challenges for the government of President Lula da Silva in the field of civil-military relations. After a decade of democratic regression, the military have taken a renewed role in Brazilian politics, held thousands of civilian positions in the government and elected dozens of lawmakers to the Senate and Lower House, mostly linked to the far-right.

The coup camps are the fulcrum of the assault on democracy that happened on January 8 and the military played a pivotal role in this phenomenon that deserves further discussion. Since the runoff, organized groups, mostly comprising retired military personnel, retired police officers and their families, built camps in front of army headquarters across the country asking for military intervention. These demonstrations derive from the disinformation campaign about the electronic ballot box led in recent years by the former president and his palace generals, Hamilton Mourão, Augusto Heleno, Luiz Eduardo Ramos, Walter Braga Netto and Paulo Sergio Nogueira de Oliveira.

In September 2021, the Minister Luís Roberto Barroso, President of the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) at the time, made a decision that had terrible consequences. He created the Election Transparency Commission (ETC) with the objective of increasing the transparency and security of all stages of preparation and holding of elections. For the first time, the military took part in the inspection and auditing of the electoral process. It should be noted that the armed forces usually help in the holding of elections by providing security and logistical support to deliver electoral material and equipment in hard-to-reach places, but the expansion of the missions carried out by the military in the last year reactivated a very widespread feeling in the Brazilian society during the 20th century  that the armed forces are political actors and should have the power to arbitrate electoral disputes.

The tactics of disinformation about the electoral system used in Brazil are very similar to those recently used in the United States. The former Brazilian president followed in the footsteps of his American idol, Donald Trump, and actively embraced all forms of denialism, including election denialism. The January 8 riot in Brazil undoubtedly is a grim echo of the US Capitol invasion two years ago but there are important differences between both events. While U.S military was always loyal to the political authorities and the democratic values, the commitment to democracy of the Brazilian military is much more tenuous.

Ensuring the political neutrality of the armed forces are premises of modern democracies. In Brazil that means the removal of thousands of militaries from government functions, its transformation into non-deliberative and non-partisan institutions that do not interfere in political affairs, as well as its subordination to elected authorities and the constitution. Nonetheless, achieving this goal in Brazil is not an easy task and will require a lot of political will, political skill and popular support.

Since the political crisis which culminated in the removal of Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian military has been gradually occupying more space in the political scene. General Villas Bôas – who commanded the army from Dilma Rousseff’s second term until the end of the Temer government (2015-2019) – had a key role in this process setting in motion a meticulous action plan. Instead of using old fashioned military “pronunciamento”, the 21h century generals became experts in digital media and political network. Under his command, the “great mute” spoke up again about matters concerning national sovereignty. Over the time the issues understood as being of national sovereignty increased greatly. In the 2018 presidential elections, General Villas Bôas went so far as to question the candidates on matters he considered to be important to Brazil. Also in 2018 he used twitter to give an opinion on a habeas corpus to Lula da Silva who, even thought arrested as a consequence of the “Car Wash” operation, led opinion polls to the presidential race.

The other pillar of Villas Bôas’s command was the strengthening of the army’s ties with right-wing and far-right wing politicians as well as with the judiciary. These so- called synergies between the military and important political actors are in the genesis of Bolsonaro’s administration. No wonder the former president thanked General Villas Bôas for his elections on several occasions. The General in turn declared that Bolsonaro was one of those responsible for saving the country from chaos. To overcome this situation is essential to stop the democracy erosion in Brazil.

In his third term, President Lula da Silva will face much greater challenges than those he faced in his previous terms. Twenty years ago, when he assumed the presidency for the first time, the pattern of civil-military relations in the country was different. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, his predecessor, carried out a series of institutional reforms including the promulgation of the first Brazilian defense document and the creation of the Ministry of Defense. Until the Temer’s administration, the ministry was headed by a civilian but in recent years the military took full control of the defense sector.  The new  government must demilitarize the defense sector and include civil society in the debate about the role of the military .

 A civilian-led Ministry of Defense is the first step in this process of demilitarization and democratization, but the whole defense sector must be reshaped. That doesn’t mean to start from scratch. The country has an institutional framework that can be mobilized for this purpose. The coordination of the defense sector in Brazil is defined by the central documents on national defense: the National Defense Policy, the National Defense Strategy and the White Paper on the National Defense. According to the Complementary Law 136, these documents must be updated every four years. The next cycle of updating the defense normative documents must have a broad participation of academia, social movements and other sectors of the organized civil society. A model similar to the one used in the process of preparing the White Paper on the National Defense – with open discussions in all regions of the country – can be adopted as a way of democratizing the formulation of these documents.

The only way to ensure that the military does not threaten the democratic regime is to make sure that they share the values of the society they are supposed to protect. In a democracy, professional ethics are not enough to effectively motivate the military. The soldier performs his duties because he is a professional with a sense of self-esteem and moral worth. He submits to civilian control because the society in which he is integrated recognizes and understands his tasks and responsibilities, there is an identity of values between civilians and soldiers. The defense document review could fulfill this role.

The legislative must also assume a more assertive role in reviewing defense documents and overseeing the implementation of the defense policy. The committees dedicated to monitoring defense issues in the Lower House and Senate must be more proactive. Despite the institutional advances made since the Collor government (1990-1992), the defense sector still needs a new generation of institutional reforms in areas untouched as military justice and military education. The level of autonomy that the armed forces preserved in these two areas is incompatible with the democratic rule and needs to be reviewed by the Brazilian parliamentary power. Other less intrusive forms of monitoring can also be used to observe military behavior, such as academic studies, reports from think tanks and other civil society organizations, as well as media coverage.

With regard to the Ministry of Defense, having a civilian at the head of the bureau is important, but not enough. The demilitarization process must be broader, which requires the creation of a civil career in defense and the review of positions that are currently held by military personnel in the ministry. Another important demilitarization measure is the reallocation of civilian programs that are run by military in the defense sector. Several of these programs can be reallocated to the Ministry of Regional Development. The creation of a National Public Security Force attached to the Ministry of Justice and Public to avoid routine use of armed forces in operations to guarantee law and order is other important initiative on the demilitarization front.

This process must be also extended to the Institutional Security Bureau. The January 8 riots showed the problems resulting from the concentration of activities in this bureaucracy.  The bureau should be reshaped to became similar to the French Military Staff, which was its original inspiration, or the Portuguese Military House.

The challenges for the government of President Lula da Silva in the field of defense are huge and will require support of the legislative, the judiciary and the public opinion for some necessary changes to be made. The reshape of the defense sector will take many years but the first steps can and should be taken now. The broad front which won the elections last year needs to remain attentive and unite in defense of democracy and the democratization of defense.

Suggested citation: Adriana Marques, The Armed Forces after Bolsonaro, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Feb. 14, 2023, at:


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