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Lula looks to reduce role of armed forces in Brazilian politics

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Brazil’s president-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has named a civilian to the important post of defence minister, against a backdrop of protests outside barracks calling for the election to be overturned and unrest in certain quarters of the armed forces.

The veteran left-winger’s appointment last week of José Múcio Monteiro — the first non-soldier to the post in almost five years — signals an intention by Lula to roll back the political influence the military gained during the tenure of his defeated rival, the far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro.

Active or retired officers holding government and ministerial positions in the South American nation more than doubled to 6,000 under the former army captain, who counts members of the forces — known as militares — as a bedrock of his nationalist conservative movement.

Bolsonaro supporters argue the regimental presence offers a bulwark against the corruption that stained the previous 13-year rule of the Workers’ party, or PT. But to critics, it has amounted to a creeping militarisation of the Brazilian state.

“Civil-military relations in Brazil suffered a strain due to the engagement of reserve and active-duty military in Bolsonaro’s campaigns and government, which is healthy neither for democracy nor for discipline in the armed forces,” said Eduardo Munhoz Svartman, president of the Brazilian Association for Defense Studies. “The immediate task will be pulling the military out of the political stage.”

There will be a fine line to tread for the incoming president and his 74-year-old defence minister. Múcio is a career politician who is considered a pragmatic choice.

A member of a rightwing party, he held a cabinet role in a past Lula government and was most recently head of the federal audit authority.

“The depoliticisation, and more, the non-partisanship of the armed forces is absolutely necessary for the country,” Múcio told local media.

As the new administration seeks to reduce the number of officers in civilian roles, he will have the delicate job of establishing good relations with senior generals.

Following Lula’s narrow election win at the end of October, pro-Bolsonaro activists who claim — without proof — that the ballot was rigged have staged road blocks and camped outside army bases, urging military intervention to prevent the leftwinger assuming a third term in office on January 1.

The protesters have denounced the country’s supreme court and top electoral tribunal, accusing them of biased rulings against Bolsonaro’s campaign. They have also labelled a judicial clampdown on social media misinformation as censorship.

“They are forcing anti-democratic authoritarianism on our country,” said Jorge Lopes, 61, who was among hundreds of people dressed in the national colours of yellow and green outside the Southeastern military command in São Paulo. “We want the army to take back our rights. It wouldn’t be a coup d’état, but a counter-coup.”

Violence erupted in the capital Brasília on Monday night, as rioters set vehicles on fire, attempted to invade a police building and clashed with law enforcement following the arrest of a pro-Bolsonaro demonstrator, according to media reports.

While few in Brazil believe there is serious risk of a military-backed putsch, unease remains over the degree of support the wider movement commands among some militares.

This was compounded by a public letter signed by the heads of the army, air force and navy last month, which condemned any undue restrictions of the protesters’ rights (as well as any “excesses” committed by them) in carefully worded terms.

Before the election, Bolsonaro sought to enlist the military’s backing for his claims that Brazil’s electronic voting system was vulnerable to fraud.

Even so, the top brass has not always acceded to the outgoing president’s attempts to co-opt the troops for personal political gain.

One political figure experienced in dealing with the armed forces, who asked not to be named, said they had been “fundamental for maintaining democracy” in recent times.

After a previous defence minister was fired last year amid reports of growing tensions with Bolsonaro, the three commanders of all branches of the forces stepped down the following day, in apparent protest at the president’s attempts to politicise the military.

“Bolsonaro tried to involve the forces in an authoritarian project, but in the end they didn’t go along with it,” said the politician.

The bigger concern is rank-and-file servicemen, where Bolsonaro’s hardline positions on everything from family values to law and order resonate strongly, said Svartman at the Brazilian Association for Defense Studies.

“So far there is no significant contestation of the election results or the legitimacy of the elected president coming from the high ranks. The most reasonable top military are expecting the return to a more traditional and less prominent role for their services,” he said.

“The novelty might come from the lower ranks, where so-called bolsonarismo may endure for a while,” he added.

Alongside reports of active-duty personnel breaching internal regulations to participate in demonstrations, another hotbed is army reserve officers, who are mostly retired and older.

A group of more than 200 reservists, including generals, recently signed a statement requesting military action and condemning the electoral court, which last month rejected a legal challenge by Bolsonaro’s party to reverse the election result.

Lula has remained sanguine, saying he is a known entity to the military command because of his two previous stints as president between 2003-10. Yet he has insisted Brazil will return to “normality in the relations between the armed forces and the government”.

Given the PT’s lack of strong ties with the military and antipathy among conservatives towards the leftwing party, it is hoped that Múcio will prove an adept interlocutor. Bolsonaro’s vice-president and former general Hamilton Mourão, has said he should be well-regarded by his comrades.

“[He] has a discreet profile, he is moderate and with a reputation of a good negotiator. These are important skills,” said Vinicius de Carvalho, a professor at the department of war studies at King’s College London.

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