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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Bolsonaro’s new ally in questioning Brazil’s election: The military

President Donald Trump speaks to the press during a dinner with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, center left, Robert O’Brien, national security advisor, center right, and Ivanka Trump at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., on March 7, 2020.

By Jack Nicas

President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil has for months consistently trailed in the polls before the country’s crucial presidential race. And for months, he has consistently questioned its voting systems, warning that if he loses October’s election, it will most likely be thanks to a stolen vote.

Those claims were largely regarded as talk. But now, Bolsonaro has enlisted a new ally in his fight against the electoral process: the nation’s military.

The leaders of Brazil’s armed forces have suddenly begun raising similar doubts about the integrity of the elections, despite little evidence of past fraud, ratcheting up already high tensions over the stability of Latin America’s largest democracy and rattling a nation that suffered under a military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985.

Military leaders have identified for election officials what they say are a number of vulnerabilities in the voting systems. They were given a spot on a transparency committee that election officials created to ease fears that Bolsonaro had stirred up about the vote. And Bolsonaro, a former army captain who filled his Cabinet with generals, has suggested that on Election Day, the military should conduct its own parallel count.

Bolsonaro, who has spoken fondly about the dictatorship, has also sought to make clear that the military answers to him.

Election officials “invited the armed forces to participate in the electoral process,” Bolsonaro said recently, referring to the transparency committee. “Did they forget that the supreme chief of the armed forces is named Jair Messias Bolsonaro?”

Almir Garnier Santos, commander of the Brazilian navy, told reporters last month that he backed Bolsonaro’s view. “The president of the republic is my boss, he is my commander, he has the right to say whatever he wants,” Garnier Santos said.

With just over four months until one of the most consequential votes in Latin America in years, a high-stakes clash is forming. On one side, Bolsonaro, some military leaders and many right-wing voters argue that the election is open to fraud. On the other, politicians, judges, foreign diplomats and journalists are ringing the alarm that Bolsonaro is setting the stage for an attempted coup.

Bolsonaro has added to the tension, saying his concerns about the election’s integrity may lead him to dispute the outcome. “A new class of thieves has emerged who want to steal our freedom,” he said in a speech this month. “If necessary, we will go to war.”

Edson Fachin, a Supreme Court judge and Brazil’s top election official, said in an interview that claims of an unsafe election were unfounded and dangerous. “These problems are artificially created by those who want to destroy the Brazilian democracy,” he said. “What is at stake in Brazil is not just an electronic voting machine. What is at stake is maintaining democracy.”

Bolsonaro and the military say they are only trying to safeguard the vote. “For the love of God, no one is engaging in undemocratic acts,” Bolsonaro said recently. “A clean, transparent, safe election is a matter of national security. No one wants to have doubts when the election is over.”

Brazil’s Defense Ministry said in a statement that “the Brazilian armed forces act in strict obedience to the law and the Constitution, and are directed to defend the homeland, guarantee the constitutional powers and, through any of these, of law and order.”

Bolsonaro’s tactics appear to be adopted from former President Donald Trump’s playbook, and Trump and his allies have worked to support Bolsonaro’s fraud claims. The two men reflect a broader democratic backsliding unfolding across the world.

The riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, has shown that peaceful transfers of power are no longer guaranteed even in mature democracies. In Brazil, where democratic institutions are far younger, the military’s involvement in the election is heightening fears.

Garnier Santos told the Brazilian newspaper O Povo that “as a navy commander, I want Brazilians to be sure that their vote will count,” adding, “The more auditing, the better for Brazil.”

A Brazilian federal police report detailed how two generals in Bolsonaro’s Cabinet, including his national security adviser, had tried for years to help him uncover evidence of election fraud.

And Friday, Brazilian Defense Minister Paulo Sérgio Nogueira sent a 21-point missive to election officials, criticizing them as not taking the military’s points about election safety seriously. “The armed forces don’t feel properly acknowledged,” he said.

So far, Bolsonaro’s comments have gone further. In April, he repeated a falsehood that officials count votes in a “secret room.” He then suggested that voting data should be fed to a room “where the armed forces also have a computer to count the votes.” The military has not publicly commented on this idea.

Some U.S. officials are more concerned about the roughly half-million police officers across Brazil because they are generally less professional and more supportive of Bolsonaro than the military, according to a U.S. State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

Any claim of a stolen election could face a skeptical public unless the race tightens. A survey of 2,556 Brazilians in late May showed that 48% supported former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, compared with 27% for Bolsonaro. (If no candidate captures half of the vote, the top two finishers will go to a runoff on Oct. 30.)

That same poll showed that 24% of respondents did not trust Brazil’s voting machines, up from 17% in March. Fifty-five percent of respondents said they believed the election was vulnerable to fraud, including 81% of Bolsonaro’s supporters.

The Biden administration has warned Bolsonaro to respect the democratic process. On Thursday, at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, President Joe Biden met with Bolsonaro for the first time. Sitting next to Biden, Bolsonaro said he would eventually leave office in “a democratic way,” adding that October’s election must be “clean, reliable and auditable.”

Scott Hamilton, the United States’ top diplomat in Rio de Janeiro until last year, wrote in the Brazilian newspaper O Globo that Bolsonaro’s “intent is clear and dangerous: undermine the public’s faith and set the stage for refusing to accept the results.”

Bolsonaro insists he is simply trying to ensure an accurate vote.

“How do I want a coup if I’m already president?” he asked last month. “In Banana Republics, we see leaders conspiring to stay in power, co-opting parts of the government to defraud elections. Here, it’s exactly the opposite.”

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