Leading Brazilian opposition leaders have called for President Jair Bolsonaro to be immediately removed from office to prevent his “authoritarian coup delusions” from becoming a reality.
“We cannot be spectators of this barbarism,” Congressman Marcelo Freixo said on Wednesday as parliamentarians demanded the dismissal of Bolsonaro for what they called his illegal attempt to co-opt the armed forces.
Bolsonaro’s decision to sack Brazil’s Defense Minister Gen. Fernando Azevedo e Silva – and the subsequent departures of the heads of all three branches of the military – sent a wave of political shock to the world’s fourth largest democracy..
“There is an attempt here by the president to stage a coup d’etat – it is already underway – and that is why we are reacting,” said Alessandro Molon, the leader of the opposition in the lower house, while the impeachment request was presented to Congress.
General Azevedo e Silva was dismissed from his post on Monday, members of the military establishment pushing the idea that he had been sacked for resisting Bolsonaro’s plans for a “coup adventure”. Hours later on Tuesday morning, the chiefs of the Army, Air Force and Navy were reportedly removed from their posts in a moody meeting after Bolsonaro discovered they were on the verge of resign in protest.
The sudden and dramatic rift between the far-right Brazilian president and the military who helped bring him to power in 2018 has yet to be fully explained. Some observers suspect that senior members of the armed forces had decided to abandon the crisis Bolsonaro administration – in part out of frustration over its calamitous handling of an out-of-control coronavirus outbreak that has killed nearly 320,000 Brazilians.
Others believe that military leaders may have genuinely tried to protect Brazilian democracy after Bolsonaro, a former army captain known for his admiration for dictators, attempted some sort of authoritarian move such as a coup state, by which a democratically elected leader assumes dictatorial powers. .
João Roberto Martins Filho, a leading military expert, said at least eight different explanations for the split were circulating and it was unclear which was true.
“We don’t even know what Bolsonaro has come up with yet. He’s crazy enough to come up with this stuff, but we just don’t know and it will be difficult to find out, ”said Martins Filho, adding that he was not convinced by the efforts of the ousted military commanders to position themselves as the defenders of democracy.
“They elected Bolsonaro, they supported Bolsonaro, they filled the entire government of Bolsonaro – and now they want to come out of it as Democrats,” he said. “If they were really in favor of the constitution, they would go back to their barracks and look after national security, as they do in European countries.”
Either way, few doubt that the drama of the week represents a pivotal and potentially dangerous moment in the modern history of a country that only emerged from two decades of dictatorship in 1985.
“This is a major moment for Brazilian democracy,” said Brian Winter, Brazil scholar and editor of Americas Quarterly.
Winter said he suspected Bolsonaro of trying to fill the top military ranks with more submissive figures who could help protect him from impeachment or come to his aid if he failed in his attempt to be re-elected next year.
Bolsonaro’s fears about his ability to secure a second term appear to have intensified in recent months, with polls showing his handling of Covid has begun to support and unexpectedly reemerge his political enemy Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Lula, a charismatic former union leader who ruled Brazil from 2003 to 2011, was barred from challenging Bolsonaro in the 2018 election due to a corruption conviction that was recently overturned. But the 75-year-old now looks likely to run against Bolsonaro in 2022 and has spent the past few weeks excoriating his rival’s ‘silly’ handling of the coronavirus.
“Bolsonaro is worried about the impeachment and he’s worried about Lula as well,” Winter said. “I don’t think you’ll ever see Jair Bolsonaro handing over the presidential belt to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva”
Arlindo Chinaglia, an opposition politician who also backs the impeachment demand – one of more than 60 filed against Bolsonaro – admitted that the president’s impeachment would only be possible if society mobilized against his “authoritarian crimes” . In the aftermath of this week’s political crisis, he urged citizens who cherish democracy – including those who voted Bolsonaro in power – to wake up to the threat.
“We have a president who is trying to pressure the armed forces to serve his authoritarian and hawkish delusions,” said Chinaglia, recalling the military coup that plunged Brazil into dictatorship exactly. 57 years old, April 1, 1964.
“Showing excessive tolerance for those who attack democracy day in and day out has never been the right way to behave,” he added.