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Explained: Why resignation of military chiefs spells trouble for Brazil

The united exit of the commanders is said to be unprecedented for the Latin American country and is being seen as a protest against Bolsonaro’s efforts to exert greater influence over the military.

Since coming to power, Jair Bolsonaro has staffed retired as well as serving military figures to important positions in his cabinet since coming to power in January 2019. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

Many are on edge in Brazil after the chiefs of all three branches of its armed forces jointly resigned on Tuesday after embattled right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro appointed a new, like-minded defence minister as part of a major cabinet rejig.

The united exit of the commanders is said to be unprecedented for the Latin American country, which saw its last dictatorship end in 1985, and is being seen as a protest against Bolsonaro’s efforts to exert greater influence over the military.

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Critics allege that Bolsonaro, who is currently facing increasing disapproval among voters for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, is seeking a more pliable military leadership that will stand by his side should he lose the next general election in 2022.

Bolsonaro is said to be especially jittery since his formidable left-wing rival, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who had to sit out of the last election, will now be able to run against him next year.

Bolsonaro’s flirtations with the military

Brazil, Latin America’s largest country both by area and population, has had a long history of military dictatorships, with the last such spell lasting between 1964 and 1985, when thousands were tortured and killed.

Bolsonaro, a far-right populist, is the most radical occupant of Brazil’s top office since the return of democracy, and holds extreme views on a range of subjects, including on the role of armed forces in politics. A former army captain during the dictatorship, Bolsonaro speaks glowingly of that period.

In 2016, during impeachment proceedings against former leftist President Dilma Rousseff, who was jailed and tortured during the dictatorship era, Bolsonaro dedicated his vote to the colonel who tortured her. He has also repeatedly praised a book by a dictatorship-era torturer accused of whipping and giving electric shocks to victims during interrogation sessions.

Since coming to power, Bolsonaro has staffed retired as well as serving military figures to important positions in his cabinet since coming to power in January 2019.

So, what led to the resignations?

Since the return of democracy, Brazil’s military has sought to stay away from partisan politics. So, although Bolsonaro did warm up to the armed forces, its top brass remained wary of his political designs, experts say.

As per an Associated Press report, it was a spat between Bolsonaro’s newly-appointed defence minister and the three commanders over the same issue on Tuesday that led to their exit.

The new defence minister, Gen. Walter Souza Braga Netto, shares Bolsonaro’s warmth for the dictatorship period, and has credited the country’s then-military rulers for “assuming the responsibility for pacifying the country, facing the challenges to reorganise it and secure the democratic liberties that we enjoy today”.

Braga Netto stands in contrast with his predecessor, Fernando Azevedo e Silva, who in his resignation letter said that he had “preserved the armed forces as state institutions,” in reference to his (self-proclaimed) effort to keep the military away from politics.

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Why are the resignations serious?

Bolsonaro has been facing intense criticism for his handling of the pandemic, with the country’s daily death toll currently the highest in the world, and total deaths crossing 3.2 lakh, behind only the United States of America.

The maverick leader, who dismissed Covid-19 as “the sniffles” and asked Brazilians to “stop whining” over the disease, has since seen his popularity slide in national polls with 18 months to go for the 2022 presidential polls.

Adding to Bolsonaro’s challenges is former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose ineligibility to run in 2018 was said to be the biggest beneficial factor for the incumbent leader in securing victory. Da Silva, or simply Lula as he is popularly called, had been disqualified in 2018 due to corruption convictions, but had his political rights reinstated last month after the Supreme Court annulled the rulings. He is now expected to enter the fray in 2022, and pose a formidable challenge to Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro’s opponents are now worried that should he lose the general election and reject the results like former US President Donald Trump, a pliable military leadership could come to his rescue, upending Brazil’s hard-earned democracy.

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