If Brazil’s President Attempts a Coup, What Will the Police Do?


In Ukraine’s 2014 Orange Revolution, for instance, a decisive moment came when the country’s riot police force, having lost faith in the government’s ability to insulate them from prosecution or other consequences, refused to clear protesters from the square they had occupied in the capital. Their abandonment of the government turned out to be a tipping point, and it collapsed soon afterward.

During the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, by contrast, decisive action by the Capitol Police force protected members of Congress and their staff members, and eventually brought the unrest under control.

The police can also take a more direct role in election crises, of course. In Kenya, in 2007, for instance, the country exploded into violence after credible accusations of vote-rigging against the incumbent president. Later, an official investigation found evidence that the government had deployed 1,600 plainclothes police officers “to act as agents of the government in disrupting or otherwise being involved in the elections processes,” and that police officers had later killed more than 400 people and engaged in rape, looting and other crimes during the postelection violence.

In Brazil, Mr. Bolsonaro has spent years courting support among the country’s military police officers, heavily armed units that were once part of the military during the country’s years of dictatorship but now report to civilian governors, said Yanilda María González, a Harvard University political scientist who studies policing in the Americas. That has raised concerns that the police might back Mr. Bolsonaro in a coup attempt, refuse to act against an uprising of his supporters or go on strike if his opponent is declared the winner.

Adilson Paes de Souza, a retired lieutenant colonel of the military police who is now a researcher on police psychology, said that he believes the military police are, as individuals, mostly pro-Bolsonaro. But personal support does not necessarily mean that the police as an institution would participate, or refuse to intervene, in an uprising or coup after the election.

Over the last year, state authorities have taken steps to crack down on political activity among the police, who are barred from making public political statements. In August 2021, for instance, the governor of São Paulo fired a police commander who had posted a public call on Facebook for people to attend a Bolsonaro rally on Sept. 7, Brazil’s independence day. That same week, the country’s state governors raised the issue of police support for Mr. Bolsonaro at a meeting, and reiterated the importance of ensuring that they stayed within legal and constitutional limits.

The Supreme Court has also sent strong signals that it would not cooperate with any coup attempt by Mr. Bolsonaro or his supporters. The court has sharply expanded its own powers in recent years in an effort to counter Mr. Bolsonaro, though many experts now warn that the courts efforts have taken an authoritarian turn, undermining the legitimacy of a crucial institution of Brazilian democracy.

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