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

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On Sunday, Brazilians go to the polls to choose their next president. But for months, the question gripping the country has not been who will win, but whether Jair Bolsonaro, the country’s current leader, will attempt a coup if he loses.

Mr. Bolsonaro, who is trailing in the polls, has gone to great lengths to sow doubt about the validity of Brazil’s election, claiming, for instance, that the country’s electronic voting machines will be manipulated to sway the vote in favor of his leftist opponent, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Despite Mr. Bolsonaro’s friendly relations with the military, he seems to lack the institutional support that he would need to stage a successful coup. And if he loses by a large margin, he may conclude that it is more prudent to accept the result than to try to overturn it.

But many remain concerned about the possibility of a violent uprising by his supporters, similar to what the United States experienced on Jan. 6, 2021, but potentially on a larger scale.

And that has drawn attention to the potentially significant role of Brazil’s police force in any postelection uprising. If mass unrest occurs, the country’s so-called military police, a force of approximately half a million officers, would be called upon to restore order. The military police are separate from the federal police, a smaller force under the command of the Ministry of Justice. Despite their name, military police forces fall under the command of state governors rather than the armed forces.

Mr. Bolsonaro has spent years cultivating their support.

Policing the Crisis — or Not?

It can be easy to forget that the police are political actors at all. Militaries and high courts tend to get a lot of attention in speculation about whether coups might or might not be imminent. The police, by contrast, are usually seen as low-level municipal officials, important when it comes to questions of day-to-day law and order, but not deciders on questions of democratic survival.

That may be reasonable when it comes to traditional coups d’état, which nearly always require control over the military to succeed, and often also turn to high courts to reinforce their legitimacy. (There is a reason you hear a lot about “military coups” and not much about “police coups.”)

Police officers patrolling earlier this summer in the Brazilian Amazon.Credit…Victor Moriyama for The New York Times

But riots, popular uprisings and other forms of mass unrest are different from traditional coups. The police are usually the first line of response to such mass action. And that gives them tremendous power to affect outcomes, for one simple reason: They can decide whether or not to show up.

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.

‘They Pushed a Brake’

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.

Mr. Paes de Souza said that until last year, he had felt “totally sure” that if the far-right leader attempted a coup, the police would go along with him. But after the institutional pushback from governors and others, he has more confidence that democracy will prevail. “The authorities in these situations have woken up. And they acted as democratic institutions,” Mr. Paes de Souza told me. “They said ‘stop.’ They pushed a brake system.”

But if that brake system fails, the consequences could be catastrophic.

“Police forces, unlike the military, are spread out all over the country,” Ms. González told me. “They’re huge numbers. The São Paulo police alone is over 100,000 members.”

She added: “It’s a real concern of mine, the extent of harm that could be caused in a short order by police officers, if they were to participate in any kind of coup.”

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