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Military Decline


Electoral competition and the incentives it unleashes form a key
source of the dynamism that has marked civil-military relations in Brazil in the period
following the country’s redemocratization. The policies that have resulted from these
incentives have gradually shifted the balance of civil-military power in favor of
By Wendy Hunter

What impact does democratic government have on the military’s ability to exercise
decisive influence over issues of broad social and political significance? Are electoral
politicians under democracy likely to preserve or diminish the military’s sphere of
involvement? What resources can and will the armed forces deploy to defend and advance
their claims?

This chapter discusses competing theoretical approaches that claim to provide answers
to these questions. The first section presents and probes the central analytic issue of
the book: whether and for how long the "pacted" or negotiated nature of the
transition to democracy in Brazil inhibited democracy’s consolidation. Did the military
governments’ firm guidance of the transition, which allowed the armed forces to maintain
ample institutional powers and play an influential political role in the initial
phase of the new regime, create a legacy of extensive military influence? Or did the rules
and norms of democracy eventually lead elected civilians to rein in the political
activities of the military? The framework I present and endorse in this section suggests
that the competitive dynamic of democracy unleashes irresistible incentives for civilian
politicians to contest a military prone to political interference and endowed with ample
institutional prerogatives, and that the popular support certified by electoral victory
enhances their capacity to do so.

The second section examines and analyzes the effect of two conditioning
factors—civilian political institutions and broader power alignments—in shaping
the strategies of democratically elected political actors to extend their power and
influence over the military. I argue that the weak institutionalization of Brazil’s
political system and multiple constraints on the use of military force for domestic
political purposes in the current era reinforce the pressures created by democratic
competition to reduce military influence.

While recognizing that the definition of democracy is a subject of intense debate, I
conceptualize democracy as a system of governance in which an inclusive adult population
is free to engage in individual and collective forms of political action and in which
rulers are selected through open, competitive, peaceful, and regularly scheduled
elections. This is similar to what Robert Dahl calls "polyarchy." Such a
minimalist, formal-procedural definition of democracy is necessary because I seek to
investigate the impact that democratic procedures have on a substantive issue (the
influence of the military in politics). My study would be condemned to uncovering a
tautology if it included in the definition of democracy the absence of interference by
unelected officials, such as military officers.


"Confining Conditions" Inhibit Civilian Sovereignty

Many analysts, including Alfred Stepan, Frances Hagopian, Guillermo O’Donnell, and
Terry Karl, posited that Brazilian democracy would suffer from a serious "birth
defect." They claimed that the negotiated nature of the transition to civilian rule
would provide the military, along with other important actors from the authoritarian
period, with long-lasting political clout. More specifically, they contended that
institutional privileges the armed forces retained in the transition process would give
them a strong and indefinite foundation of political leverage. The military would be able
to exercise undue influence in nonmilitary spheres as well as resist civilian direction
over defense issues. The concern of these authors was not that the armed forces would
launch a frontal assault on democracy by waging a coup d’état, but that they would impede
democratic consolidation by continual tutelage, causing democracy to die a "slow
death." In line with the view that "patterns of politics established in periods
of transition have a very real and strong potential to become semipermanent features of
the political landscape," Hagopian contends, "[t]he advent of civilian rule in
Brazil did not erode military authority, though it may have disguised it." O’Donnell
saw Brazil as vulnerable to the development of a democradura, a civilian government
controlled by military and authoritarian elements. The considerable political interference
of the army in the first three years of the civilian regime seemed to provide empirical
verification for this theoretical expectation.

Tenets of "historical institutionalism" informed the development of this
rather pessimistic view. The influence of branching tree models, such as Krasner’s model
of "punctuated equilibrium," is particularly observable. These models claim that
stable institutional patterns structure political life. By creating vested interests that
promote their own persistence, institutions gain considerable autonomy and strength to
withstand shifts in the broader political and socioeconomic environment. Even a challenge
drastic enough to upset established institutional patterns is conditioned in its impact by
the institutional setting in which it occurs. Historical institutionalists therefore view
political development as a path-dependent process: following one path channels further
development down the same path and precludes other options.

According to this view, significant political change only takes place at "critical
junctures" or "turning points," when institutional patterns are challenged
by strong socioeconomic or political pressures. Such moments present rare opportunities
for political actors to reshape the political landscape by founding new institutions.
Periods of regime transition—when the rules of the game are in flux— constitute
such moments. If change is to occur, quick action must be taken before the transition
period comes to a close and patterns and practices inherited from the previous regime have
a chance to congeal. After these windows of opportunity close, stability prevails and
profound political change, which would reshape the institutional framework, is unlikely.
If left unchallenged during the regime change, previous institutional patterns are
believed to be reaffirmed and given a strong foundation to persist. A historical
institutionalist perspective would predict that the armed forces would be able to preserve
their power and set limits to popular sovereignty in the new democracy if they and other
conservative elites managed to retain strong institutional prerogatives throughout a
transition from authoritarian rule.

Electoral Competition Leads Civilians to Contest the Military

In contrast to the view described above, my research on postauthoritarian Brazil
suggests that countries that return to civilian rule through elite-led negotiations need
not be constrained indefinitely by the balance of forces that prevailed in the transition
and immediate posttransition period. Civil-military relations in postauthoritarian Brazil
have displayed much greater dynamism than a historical-institutionalist framework can
account for. The firm hand the armed forces exercised over the transition and the
institutional prerogatives they retained did strengthen their political clout in the
immediate aftermath of the transition. The army’s interference in civilian decision making
was considerable and often met with success in this initial period. But as the
authoritarian past receded further into the distance, the advantage that military elites
could reap from factors stemming from the transition began to erode. Within roughly three
years, elected officials began to take gradual yet significant steps to check the
military’s political interference. Politicians first confronted the military over issues
that directly affected their popularity and electoral standing. Later, their actions
included efforts to diminish the military’s institutional basis for political involvement,
for example, by forming civilian-led organs to replace the former National Security
Council (Conselho de Segurança Nacional or CSN) and the National Information Service
(Serviço Nacional de Informações or SNI). At the same time, while some of the
military’s institutional prerogatives remained in existence, leading officers appeared
increasingly unable to use them to wield actual political influence.

How do I explain this unanticipated result? I argue that electoral competition creates
incentives for politicians to reduce the interference of a politically powerful and active
military, and that electoral victory enhances their capacity to do so. This claim rests on
two premises: that politicians are first and foremost interested in their own political
survival, and that the broad institutional context in which they operate structures their
behavior. These premises suggest that politicians will contest the military when military
actions conflict with politicians’ opportunity to gain widespread electoral appeal. Thus,
in contrast to the view that political arrangements that are founded or reaffirmed during
regime transitions will remain entrenched even as the political landscape around them
changes, I contend that broad political and institutional shifts—in this case, the
unfolding of the rules and norms of democracy—can disrupt patterns and practices put
in place under a different set of circumstances. Rather than creating a static framework,
democracy unleashes a competitive dynamic conducive to change.

This analysis is inspired by the literature on rational choice, which focuses on actors
and their intentions and explains political action with reference to rational interest
calculation. Strategic interaction among individuals maximizing their self-interest is
seen as the foundation of politics. In the rational choice perspective, institutions
result from this kind of interaction among individuals; they are created by actors
pursuing their own preferences in instrumental ways. Once established, institutions set
parameters for individual actors and their interest calculations, but they are always open
to further modification.

These are the explicit premises of arguments that authors such as Barry Ames and
Barbara Geddes advance to explain politics and institutional change in Latin America.
These ideas are also reflected in Douglas Chalmers’s concept of the "politicized
state," which differs fundamentally from Krasner’s model of "punctuated
equilibrium." Whereas Krasner stresses the stickiness of institutions and confines
the possibility of change to rare but major moments of reorientation, such as regime
transitions, Chalmers emphasizes the ever-present fluidity of Latin American politics,
marked by frequent incremental shifts in the balance of power among self-interested actors
and the institutional arrangements they establish.

Both historical institutionalism and rational choice focus on the relationship between
actors and institutions but differ in their views concerning the malleability of
institutions and the direction of the causal relationship between actors and institutions.
Historical institutionalism sees institutional arrangements as resistant to change, except
during rare crises, and focuses on the constraints that institutions impose on actors. By
contrast, rational choice sees institutions as more mutable and underscores the capacity
of actors to shape institutions and modify them once they are created. Rational choice
theorists recognize that actors are conditioned by their institutional setting, which
establishes a strategic context for decision making, but hasten to emphasize that this
framework itself is the product of interaction among self-interested individuals.

Insofar as my empirical findings show that self-interested actors began rather quickly
to reshape institutional arrangements and to alter the balance of political power in their
favor, my study bears out the guiding principles of rational choice and diverges from
those of historical institutionalism. The rules of democracy in Brazil have fostered
political competition and thus induced and enabled politicians to undermine the terms of
the conservative pact made during the transition from authoritarianism. In particular,
politicians have begun to remove important constraints on popular sovereignty by
contesting the institutional prerogatives of the military and reducing their political

Political Incentives

What, more specifically, are the factors that induce and enable civilian politicians to
undermine military tutelage over the new democracy? Why do many efforts by politicians to
enhance their electoral chances conflict with positions the armed forces hold? And how do
politicians gain the force to advance their preferences even against opposition from the
armed forces?

Democratization gives rise to two types of incentives for electoral politicians:
particularistic and programmatic. Particularistic incentives concern the use of resources
to build and maintain politicians’ personal support networks. Programmatic incentives
involve the credit given to politicians for advances in public policy (e.g., health,
education, welfare, and economic reform). Both types of incentives are operative in
Brazil, as in most democracies. And in different ways both generate strong and specific
pressures against the persistence of military involvement in politics.

First, democratization in Brazil has reinforced particularistic incentives associated
with political clientelism, often at the armed forces’ expense. Heightened electoral
competition since the early 1980s has motivated politicians to search ever more
energetically for economic assets to distribute as political pork barrel, thereby
improving their chances of reelection. The dream of clientelist politicians is to build
roads, schools, hospitals, sanitation systems, and other public works projects in their
electoral districts. These benefits are targeted toward specific, regionally delimited
groups of people. The extent to which legislators support local pork barrel projects, and
the prevalence of logrolling in congressional voting patterns, strongly suggest that many
Brazilians still vote largely with considerations of patronage in mind, or at least that
politicians think they do.

Beyond seeking to distribute particularistic patronage, politicians also pursue
"categorical patronage." Such benefits are targeted to specific industries
and/or categories of people. In principle, benefits are defined in general terms, but the
beneficiaries unfailingly "happen" to be concentrated regionally. The rather
narrow and regionally concentrated nature of the given categories qualifies these benefits
as patronage and not as an integral part of programmatic strategies. The purpose of
providing categorical patronage is for politicians to win regionally based electoral
support, not to advance universalist goals. Examples of categorical patronage include
subsidies for Brazil’s sugar alcohol program and coffee sector, and social security
provisions for specific types of workers and pensioners, especially those who are
concentrated in the country’s most developed regions.

The rampant pursuit of patronage resources by politicians not only clashes with the
long-standing positivist impulse within the military to "rationalize" the public
bureaucracy. It also leads them to enter into direct competition with military elites over
state resources. Politicians are tempted to shift budget shares away from the military to
civilian ministries better suited for pork barrel. Similarly, where military officers hold
key posts in large state enterprises—strategic positions from which to build
political allies by distributing jobs and other benefits—patronage-seeking
politicians will seek to replace them. The competition for patronage resources unleashed
by democratic competition thus generates strong pressures against the continued
entrenchment of the military in the political and economic fabric of the country.

Second, in addition to unleashing particularistic incentives associated with political
clientelism, democratization reinforces programmatic incentives that frequently work
against the armed forces. In Brazil, winning elections often depends on gaining the votes
of the country’s impoverished yet increasingly mobilized majority. Besides seeking to rise
from their own poverty, some of Brazil’s poor have visions, albeit often vaguely defined,
of a more egalitarian society. Politicians of diverse ideological leanings suggest
increasingly in their conduct that they feel pressured to respond to this pool of voters
in a symbolic, if not effective, way. This is especially true of politicians who need to
appeal to urban electorates; they would quickly be turned out if they merely defended the
interests of the privileged. Politicians tend to portray themselves as sympathetic with
the plight of the country’s poor, despite the deeply conservative tendencies of Brazilian
politics. They do so in rhetorical ways; for example, the successor of the government
party during military rule, ARENA (the National Renovating Alliance or Aliança de
Renovação Nacional), renamed itself the Democratic-Social Party (Partido Democrático
Social or PDS). Similarly, Brazilian politicians frequently make reference to mudança
(change) and to a novo Brasil (new Brazil). They also try to gain standing with the
mass citizenry by supporting policies that recognize popular desires for change, at least
in some highly visible areas, such as labor legislation. Insofar as many of the policies
that (even conservative) politicians are tempted to support in order to appear progressive
do not ensure universal social rights or effective interest representation for the
disadvantaged, they are more "populist" than "programmatic" in nature.
Nevertheless, they often run counter to the military’s goal of maintaining social order
through restrictions on popular mobilization. The military’s ultimate fear is that
politicians with populist leanings will encourage Brazil’s historically quiescent lower
classes to become more assertive, thereby jeopardizing political stability and a model of
accumulation propitious for Brazil’s rapid economic advancement.

In addition to unleashing "populist" tendencies, democracy makes politicians
accountable for the success of more strictly programmatic policies. These include social
reforms as well as economic measures like privatization, stabilization, and adjustment.
Given the importance of performance for public support, politicians seek maximum control
over events and processes that occur within their jurisdiction, territorial and
functionally Large bureaucratic organizations like the military can compromise this
latitude. And unlike alliances with other established groups and institutions, close
relations with the armed services rarely enhance a politician’s electoral chances. While
Brazilian legislators clearly rely less on taking policy stands and more on providing
particularistic services, Brazilian presidents depend on enacting public policies that
meet the public’s approval. They are thus especially concerned with maintaining political
autonomy from groups that could interfere with this goal. The constitution bans immediate
presidential reelection, but former Brazilian presidents often reenter politics at lower
levels. They can also compete for the presidency again after one term has lapsed.

These seeds of conflict that democracy plants between civilian and military interests
create strong pressures for elected politicians to reduce the military’s sphere of
influence. This does not mean that ideology is irrelevant or that all politicians will
follow this course of action all of the time. But at the very least the framework
presented here suggests that conflict will invariably develop between electoral
politicians and soldiers, and that the survival interests of politicians are sufficiently
compelling to prompt efforts to contract the military’s domain over time.

Political Capacity

If electoral competition unleashes incentives for politicians to diminish military
influence, the popular support that electoral victory certifies enhances the capacity of
politicians to do so. A military organization would incur great risk and cost in taking
forceful measures against a government with solid popular backing. The greater the mandate
a given government enjoys, the less likely military elites will be to aggressively
counteract civilian attempts to diminish their political role. All things being equal, a
politician’s capacity to take measures prejudicial to the armed forces is also enhanced to
the extent that the armed forces do not form a united front opposing the measures in

In Brazil, capturing 53 percent of the valid vote in the 1989 presidential election
(the first direct presidential election in twenty-nine years) helped President Fernando
Collor face down the armed forces in the initial stages of his government. Concrete
policies to narrow the military’s sphere of influence, as well as symbolic gestures such
as Collor’s frequent references to himself as "commander in chief," met with
little resistance. A poll conducted in the spring of 1991, which revealed the three
military ministers to be among the least known of anyone in the cabinet, attested to
Collor’s ability to defuse the military. Rarely did Collor appear at public events
alongside his military ministers, a sure sign that the armed forces had lost their place
in the inner circle of power.

By contrast, Collor’s predecessor, President José Sarney (1985-90), was far more
beholden to the armed forces. The military ministers, especially Army Minister Leônidas
Pires Gonçalves, were featured regularly in the press commenting on wide-ranging topics
and criticizing civilian authorities. Sarney was the rather colorless vice presidential
running mate of president-elect Tancredo Neves, who died in 1985 shortly before assuming
office. Neves himself was selected by an electoral college rather than by popular vote.
The weakness of Sarney’s mandate—beginning with the nonelectoral route by which he
came to power—deprived him of the necessary authority to stand strong against the
military. Notably, however, even President Sarney made some modest efforts to contain the
military in the initial stages of his government. These efforts took place at roughly the
same time that Sarney pursued a populist line on economic policy. But after his popularity
plunged beginning in December 1986 with the failure of the Cruzado Plan, an economic
stabilization plan intended to break inertial inflation, President Sarney became captive
to the armed forces.

President Itamar Franco suffered from the same basic weakness as President Sarney.
Replacing President Collor in the wake of the December 1992 vote of impeachment, former
vice president Franco did not come to power with an electoral mandate of his own.
Moreover, during his presidency Franco never gained sufficient popularity among the
citizenry to defy any established group or organization. President Franco therefore
manifested much greater timidity than his predecessor in taking steps to increase civilian

The dynamic described above suggests that civilian politicians will be motivated to
oppose a politically active military as a natural outgrowth of democratization. Even in
the absence of a deliberate, principle-driven strategy to remove the military from
political roles, the imperatives of electoral competition, together with the legitimation
that popular elections confer on winning candidates, set the stage for civil-military
conflict and the subsequent adoption of measures to reduce the military’s sphere of
influence. Some politicians who support the reduction of military prerogatives undoubtedly
do embrace the ideal of civilian control over the military. Many, however, appear to be
motivated less by principles and more by instrumental considerations of electoral
advancement. That former members of ARENA, the government party under authoritarian rule,
have been among those who have contested the armed forces attests to the strength of
pragmatic calculations. President Collor himself, who launched the most direct attack on
the armed forces since 1985, was himself a son of the military regime.

Presidents versus Legislators: Differences in Incentives and Capacities

Both presidents and legislators seek to extend their own power and influence. A
military that interferes regularly in politics will invariably constitute an impediment to
this goal. The more the armed forces impinge on the electoral interests of executive and
legislative politicians, the more they set themselves up to be contested. Beyond the basic
interest that presidents and legislators share in their own electoral advancement, a
slightly different set of incentives and constraints applies to the two categories of

Presidents seek to remain in good standing with the electorate even though most Latin
American countries bar immediate presidential reelection. In many countries, it is not
unusual for former presidents to strive for the presidency anew after sitting out one or
more terms. In Brazil, they often seek election to lower political offices. To maximize
their long-term influence and chances of reelection, presidents must do three things:
govern effectively, build a political organization with strong personal loyalties to them,
and survive in power. The presence of a powerful and politically active military can pose
a threat to all three of these objectives. A military prone to political meddling is an
especially vexing problem for presidents.

The future careers of presidents, more than those of legislators, depend on achieving
programmatic goals that resonate well with public opinion. If reelection is at all a goal,
presidents must gather cross-regional support. The programmatic incentives facing
presidents include a host of public-policy initiatives over which military influence could
be problematic and electorally costly. The following constitutes an example of military
interference limiting a president’s latitude to enact reforms that could boost his
government’s popularity. The hierarchy’s relentless pressure on the Franco government to
award higher salaries to the military (which, if granted, would compel the government to
provide salary increases for civilian public employees as well) threatened the austerity
requirement of the Franco government’s economic plan, the Plano Real. President Franco had
a vested interest in the plan, an eleventh-hour development that could improve the
reputation of his beleaguered government. The success of the plan was also critical to
Finance Minister Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who used it to launch his campaign for the

While more attentive than legislators to broader policy concerns, presidents also need
to build and finance personal support networks. They rely on the distribution of
large-scale patronage to win support for their programs in the Congress and bureaucracy,
and among governors and mayors. Presidents’ reliance on patronage is also designed to lay
the groundwork for future political candidacies to which they aspire. Thus, presidents too
face pressure to direct public funds to where they have the greatest electoral payoff.
Having to spend patronage resources on the armed forces in order to ward off the prospect
of a coup interferes with this goal. When threatened with imminent military intervention,
Latin American presidents have historically redirected vast amounts of patronage resources
to the armed forces. But this leaves them with fewer resources to finance social and
economic programs essential for maintaining general popularity and legislative support.

In short, through policies as well as electoral patronage, presidents can enhance their
long-term influence and subsequent reelection. A politically inclined military is likely
to interfere in the dual processes of policy making and patronage distribution. It thus
stands to reason that presidents would be motivated to contest the military and push them
back from the political sphere. Moreover, by virtue of the impressive administrative
powers that Latin American presidents have at their disposal, their ability to enact
reforms to contract military influence greatly exceeds that of individual legislators.

But the aspiration of Latin American presidents to contain military influence in order
to advance their electoral interests is often counterbalanced by the desire to survive in
office. Antagonizing the military remains a widespread concern among Latin American
presidents. In the event of a military coup, a prospect that occurs to all Latin American
chief executives at one time or another, the president is usually the main target of
overthrow. In the decades before the installation of the bureaucratic-authoritarian regime
of 1964-85, the military spearheaded several "moderating coups," whose central
purpose was to replace one civilian executive by another.

Presidents can be counted on to court the military—even at the cost of political
autonomy—when deep economic and political crises put in doubt the survival of their
governments. Discretionary funding and other concessions to the armed services are key
ways by which debilitated presidents try to secure their governments. Obtaining military
support has two objectives: the first is to reduce the likelihood that the armed forces
will try to overthrow the government; the second is to enhance governability by fortifying
the government. For example, a president who enjoys military backing is better positioned
than one who does not to intimidate an uncooperative Congress or an unruly labor movement
into becoming more supportive (or at least less defiant) of his administration.

In short, while the desire to extend their own power and influence constitutes a strong
motivation for presidents to contest and contain the military, the instinct to protect
themselves from overthrow also exists, constituting a countervailing source of pressure.
Given the extensive powers of their office, Latin American presidents can affect
decisively the civil-military balance depending on which logic and corresponding course of
action they follow. As discussed below, in addition to a president’s electoral mandate,
broader power alignments and the overall political climate can tip the balance in one
direction or the other.

Legislators are also constrained by the presence of a powerful and politically active
military. In order to improve their chances of reelection, they too want to extend their
own control over resources and broaden their latitude over decision making. Compared to
executive politicians, however, electoral support for legislators depends less on what
programs they support and more on their ability to satisfy constituents through the
provision of particularistic services and categorical patronage. As a general rule, the
broader policy concerns of legislators will be more important to urban constituencies, who
are better informed and more mobilized than their rural counterparts. But even in states
with major urban agglomerations, such as São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Minas Gerais, the
provision of categorical patronage is important to getting elected. As individuals,
legislators can only gain by doling out huge amounts of patronage. Presidents, by
contrast, bear a disproportionate burden for relying excessively on patronage for
electoral ends. For a president, the costs of pursuing such a policy range from
antagonizing the military to ruining the economy.

Legislators also have a strong interest in not antagonizing the military. But a
collective action dilemma, which the organizational weakness and fragmentation of Brazil’s
political party system exacerbates, often prevents them from supporting budgetary and
other policies that reflect this interest. For example, legislators cannot be assured that
fellow members would contribute to the collective good of safeguarding democracy by
satisfying the military’s budgetary demands. The moderation of an individual legislator’s
hunger for patronage resources would barely affect the armed forces’ budget share. But by
sacrificing patronage, a crucial weapon in electoral competition, the individual
politician might risk his or her political future. Thus, the incentive structure militates
against an individual legislator’s making a contribution to this cause on his or her own.
This suggests that the Congress might be the most likely institution to impose political
and organizational costs, as well as budgetary restrictions, on the armed forces. The fact
that military reprisal is generally directed more clearly at presidents than legislators
reinforces this expectation.

The Brazilian Congress has indeed taken bold steps to challenge military power. But
Congress’s ability to enact reforms aimed at subordinating the military to effective
civilian control in the long term hinges on acquiring collective support. Gathering
support to promote the common goal of establishing civilian supremacy over the military is
difficult where legislators direct their time, energy, and political capital to issues
that yield more concrete and immediate political benefit. In short, the problem is that,
as individuals, presidents have the greatest capacity to downgrade the military’s
institutional powers, but they are often inhibited by fear; legislators are less concerned
than presidents about antagonizing the military but face greater organizational barriers
to bringing about reforms that would advance civilian authority in the long term. Yet
despite these constraints, political elites in postauthoritarian Brazil have in fact
challenged the military over specific policy decisions as well as certain institutional

While democracy provides universal inducements to pushing back military influence, the
strength of the incentives and the capacity of politicians to act on them vary across time
and across countries. Institutional differences—for example, electoral rules and
internal party procedures that shape politicians’ strategies for electoral
advancement—explain some of the variation among democratic countries. So do broad
domestic and international changes that affect the degree to which politicians view
military restiveness as a serious threat. As elaborated below, both
factors—institutional differences among politics and broader power alignments in
society—condition the process by which civilians contest the military. While the
weakly institutionalized nature of Brazilian politics heightens the incentives for
political elites to contest the armed forces, the lack of domestic and international
support for military intervention in the post-cold war era removes a previous
disincentive. Together, they render politicians more likely to push back military


Institutional Rules

Institutional rules condition politicians’ strategies for pursuing reelection, which in
turn shape their conduct toward the military. The system of government (presidentialism
versus parliamentarism), rules governing elections, the party system, and internal party
procedures have an important impact on these strategies. Brazil’s political system
contains numerous features that impel politicians to act in accordance with electoral
exigencies. Under the short time horizons that this system encourages, politicians are
especially motivated to adopt policies that impose organizational, political, and
budgetary costs on the armed forces.

Comparatively speaking, Brazilian politics is highly personalistic and weakly
institutionalized. The party system is extremely fragmented. Parties themselves lack
internal cohesion. The 1989 presidential race provided strong testimony to the weakness of
party affiliation and the negligible role that parties play in structuring Brazilian
politics. Fernando Collor de Mello created a new party, the PRN (Partido de Reconstrução
Nacional or National Reconstruction Party), for the sole purpose of running for president.
The runner up, Luis Inácio (Lula) da Silva, came from the Workers’ Party (Partido dos
Trabalhadores or PT), whose representatives comprised a mere 3 percent of the Congress.

Several institutional provisions elevate the importance of personalistic leadership and
populist appeals. Presidentialism, coupled with a fractionalized multiparty system, is a
foundation for highly candidate-centered politics. The independent basis of power that
presidents enjoy allows them (more than prime ministers) to circumvent parties. And
because a multiparty system creates special difficulties for the creation of stable
majorities, presidents facing this situation are especially likely to try to govern above

The unique combination of proportional representation and open-list candidate selection
gives Brazilian parties limited influence over which candidates are elected. Because
candidates effectively compete against members of their own party (as well as other
parties), open-list proportional representation systems place a high premium on a
candidate’s personal characteristics (rather than his or her links to a political party)
and on a candidate’s ability to dole out patronage.

Further weakening the strength of Brazilian parties is the absence of an entry barrier
to the formation of a political party (a certain minimum percentage of the national vote
that parties must obtain in order to win representation in the legislature). Brazilian
politicians thus form new parties when it is opportune to do so, and because no
legislation prohibits it, they frequently leave their old parties for other already
established parties. Between 1987 and 1990, 40 percent of all federal deputies switched
parties, mainly during the Constituent Assembly of 1987-88. Given the electoral importance
of patronage, it is not uncommon for legislators to join and abandon given parties based
on party connections to clientelist networks, especially those sustained by the
government. Many politicians previously of ARENA have switched into centrist or even
somewhat progressive parties, mainly to improve their electoral prospects.

It should not be surprising that levels of party identification and loyalty among
voters are extremely low in such a system. Because most Brazilian parties have no
"reservoir of support" among their followers, politicians are beholden to rank
and file demands. The conditional nature of the electorate’s support and the high
electoral volatility present in weak and fragmented party systems make politicians
especially sensitive to immediate electoral considerations.

The ultimate result of Brazil’s weak party system is the personalization of politics.
Such a system renders the political landscape ripe for the emergence of populist leaders.
Prone to demagoguery, they appeal to voters on the basis of diffuse popular images and
political patronage. The fluid nature of Brazilian politics and the nonprogrammatic
orientation of political parties not only provide politicians with incentives to behave
this way, but also offer them great latitude to endorse political platforms in response to
shifting public opinion. The weak institutionalization of Brazilian politics selects for
those politicians who shun institutional constraints on their rule, whether these
constraints assume the form of a stronger party system or a military that is embedded in
the state and armed with a broad array of institutional prerogatives.

There is a double edge, however, to the organizational characteristics of the Brazilian
political system and their effect on civil-military relations. In weakly institutionalized
systems, civilians are more likely to support policies that effectively lead them to
challenge the military. When electoral opinion and military preferences come into
conflict, politicians are likely to side with the former since few politicians enjoy the
reservoir of support that would allow them to act otherwise. But at the same time,
politicians in such a system are less likely to build collective support for measures
aimed at institutionalizing civilian control over the armed forces. In other words, while
the system’s fluidity creates special incentives for politicians to contest or challenge
the military when their electoral fortunes are at stake, the organizational weakness of
political parties militates against efforts to permanently defuse the armed forces as a
political actor. The reason for this is twofold.

First, the fragmentation of political parties and the short time horizons of actors in
a weakly institutionalized political system create an environment of imediatismo
político (political immediatism), which makes it difficult to translate the long-term
collective interest in gaining civilian supremacy into collective action of
the kind necessary to develop lasting mechanisms of civilian control over the military.
Stronger parties, more suitable for overcoming collective-action dilemmas, would help
coordinate members around a more deliberate and persistent strategy of gaining civilian
control over the military. A less politicized system would enable politicians to look
beyond the most immediate crisis and focus their attention on the development of
legislation aimed at solving the problem of military interference in a more enduring

The second general factor limiting a weakly institutionalized political system from
going beyond contesting the military to subordinating them permanently concerns the
broader impact of such a system on governability. The short-sighted political calculations
that drive the actions of clientelist and populist politicians against the military are
likely to undermine other goals, such as responsible economic policy. As the economy
deteriorates and political turmoil arises, the standing of civilian politicians, most
notably the president, is undermined. When these problems erupt into acute crises,
presidents, who are held most accountable for the overall condition of the country, risk
losing their positions. Under this threat, and because they lack organized bases of
civilian support, the capacity of presidents to keep the military out of politics
diminishes. They may even turn to and expand the role of the armed forces in order to keep
the crisis from spiraling out of control. Thus, the goal to survive in office may
eventually induce politicians under threat to restore military power.

Notwithstanding this possibility, military influence has declined overall since 1985
and can be expected to diminish further as Brazilian democracy becomes more consolidated.
The dynamic normally unleashed by democratic competition and reinforced by the fluidity of
Brazil’s political system is for self-interested politicians to contest the military. The
countervailing dynamic described above unfolds only under exceptional conditions, stalling
or temporarily arresting this process. The dynamic that has transpired in Brazil in the
postauthoritarian period suggests that military interference in politics will decline
overall with time, notwithstanding certain short-term deviations from this trend. But
because the characteristics of a weakly institutionalized system will motivate civilian
politicians to continuously challenge the armed forces but not go further and
institutionalize control over them, ongoing civil-military tension and conflict can be

The Credibility of Military Force

If characteristics of Brazil’s political system strengthen the incentives that lead
politicians to contest the military, features particular to the current era and their
effect on power relations in the broader society reinforce this tendency. Politicians need
to respond to electoral incentives in a democracy, but they must also respond to power
relations, which vary across time and national borders. Since basic threats to the
socioeconomic and political order are absent in most of post-cold war Latin America, the
use of military force for domestic political purposes lacks widespread support and renders
civilian politicians less fearful of upsetting the military. The awareness of Brazilian
officers that the current political climate is unsympathetic to strong-arm tactics tames
their reactions to challenges that they view unfavorably but that do not threaten core
corporate interests. Rarely in recent years have the military closed ranks and frontally
resisted civilian initiatives to diminish their influence over extramilitary matters. The
navy and air force have tended to be more liberal and internationalist, more concerned
than the army is to meet narrower professionalist and technological needs and less
inclined to combat developments that diminish their overall clout. Even within the army,
not all officers have supported a continuation of the institutions influence over broad
political, social, and economic questions. Officers’ tendency to exercise restraint
emboldens politicians to respond more to public opinion than to military opinion. In
short, electoral considerations gain in importance and take precedence over considerations
of military power when the basic political and economic order is not in question. In the
1990s, winning votes, not military support, is clearly the first principle of political

The basic analytical issue at hand concerns whether and to what extent the armed forces
can transform their central power capability—organized coercion— into influence
over outcomes. The potential impact of an actor’s central power capability (e.g.,
financial strength, expertise, force, etc.) is a key determinant of how seriously it is
regarded by others. It is indeed the case that an actor’s potential power is "the
price of admission to the political arena," even though the armed forces’
institutional prerogatives may help them articulate and realize their preferences without
having to constantly invoke their ultimate weapon, the capacity for physical intimidation.

Organized coercion, the military’s central power capability, can be an impressive
political weapon. A wide range of military actions—from "shows of force" to
pronunciamentos, rebellions, and coups d’état—rest on the military’s
potential to inflict violence. The coup d’état represents perhaps the most outstanding
instance of this. Stated starkly by Samuel Huntington, "while other social forces can
pressure the government, the military can replace the government."

But the distinction between an actor’s potential strength and how likely it is to bring
the full force of its power to bear is also critical. Rarely is there a perfect congruence
between power as measured by basic capabilities and power as measured by actual effects.
Power is not a static attribute, but one that is conditioned by context. Some contexts
increase the likelihood and capacity of political actors to transform their potential
power into actual influence over outcomes. Others reduce them. When viewed from this
perspective, the military’s central power capability—organized force—suffers
numerous restrictions.

The degree of political influence the armed forces can wield by virtue of their
coercive potential depends very much on how willing they are to employ force and,
relatedly, on other actors’ perceptions of how likely they are to do so. Force can prevail
and the military can constitute the ultima ratio if military leaders are willing to assume
the costs of unleashing it. Rule by the military as an institution constitutes the
clearest expression of the military’s willingness to incur the risks of coercive action.
Lesser manifestations of military power also carry risks.

The armed forces can indeed overplay their cards by invoking coercion when they lack
societal support. Excessive threats and displays of force can erode the reserve of
societal good will that the armed forces need to retain long-term credibility. In the
words of Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe Schmitter, "beyond a certain point, kicking
or even pounding the table may be counterproductive. It threatens one’s allies almost as
much as one’s opponents, and the committed players may well join forces to eliminate the
obstreperous one."

Many South American militaries, including (perhaps especially) the Brazilian, strive to
project an image of respect for the public’s wishes. Never have the Brazilian armed forces
undertaken a major intervention without first seeking civilian support. History has
demonstrated the value of civilian allies as a key determinant of the success of military
interventions. Even during the height of military rule, the regime went to great lengths
to legitimate itself by publicizing its developmental accomplishments and keeping the
Congress open (at least in a formal sense). In the postauthoritarian period, the energy
the Brazilian army devotes to public relations provides strong testimony to its commitment
to projecting an image of responsiveness to public sentiment. If the military’s claim to
represent "the national interest" or "the will of the people" is to
have any credence, intimidation must be used selectively. If the armed forces do not
reserve saber rattling for exceptional circumstances, their chances of gaining domestic
and international civilian support at critical moments will be reduced. In the absence of
substantial societal backing, the use of strong-arm tactics for domestic political
purposes can also adversely affect corporate unity, a key military concern. Recent
examples of this took place in Venezuela and Thailand, where military commanders ordered
soldiers to fire on demonstrators in 1989 and 1992, respectively, provoking internal

At various moments, the armed forces in Latin America have chosen to assume the risks
of using coercion for domestic political purposes. Over the course of this century,
Brazil’s military have wielded force in various forms and degrees. Two factors have
generally inspired their forceful intervention in politics: strong objections to the
extant economic and political order, accompanied by a vision of change; and core corporate
concerns, such as unity among the officer corps, obedience to hierarchy (especially
between officers and enlisted men), autonomy of the rank and seniority system from
political interference, a monopoly of the armed forces over paramilitary organizations,
and budgetary resources sufficient to maintain training, education, and equipment.

Developments of the early 1960s constituted a challenge to core corporate principles as
well as the military’s preferred political and economic order. Labor organizers’ efforts
to unionize enlisted men and President Goulart’s pardon of mutinous sailors put in
question the military’s corporate preservation. The mobilization of urban and rural
popular sectors raised concerns among military officers as well as societal elites about
maintaining their privileged socioeconomic positions. The political polarization of the
1960s rendered the domestic use of military force more acceptable and lent credibility to
military saber rattling. Conservative and center-right politicians allied with leading
officers although it diminished their political independence. Under conditions of high
politicization, even populist politicians with ample popular backing could be overthrown
by the armed forces.

Does postauthoritarian Brazil present conditions similar to those that led the military
to rattle their swords, gain the backing of societal elites, and intimidate civilian
politicians in the past? By and large it does not. The demobilization of the anti-system
left, the demise of communism worldwide, and the general consensus about democracy and
capitalism as preferred political and economic systems have calmed the military and other
elites. The armed forces’ survival is not currently in question. Since the return to
civilian rule, the Brazilian military have experienced no fundamental challenges, such as
the existence of a parallel armed institution or the operation of subversive groups
seeking to undermine internal discipline.

Certain trends, such as the decrease in defense expenditures and the privatization of
military industries, have adversely affected force levels, military training, and
re-equipment plans. And certainly the military do resist moves to reduce their influence
in some areas more than others. For example, they made no concerted effort to retain
control over the SNI, but have challenged civilians over budgetary expenditures and
defense projects in the Amazon. The variation of military response rests on how closely
the issue impinges on central corporate functions, on the (self-defined) raison d’être of
the institution, and on the organization’s ability to justify itself to others. With
reference to the above examples, spying on citizens of one’s own country is not easily
justifiable as a corporate military function. Demanding greater resources to defend
territorial integrity in the Amazon is. Many recent developments that contract the
military’s jurisdiction and competence and meet with resistance do not strike at the heart
of corporate preservation. Thus, they have not prompted leading officers to go beyond
routine complaining and the occasional issuing of rhetorical warnings.

Only with respect to one matter—the legal prosecution of military personnel for
human rights violations committed in the authoritarian period—have Southern Cone
militaries considered the stakes high enough to warrant forceful action. The issue of
corporate autonomy lies at the heart of the armed forces’ visceral reaction to efforts by
civilians to prosecute them for measures conducted in a context they liken to war.
Rebellious factions of the Argentine army reminded civilians that they constituted a power
to be reckoned with, effectively putting an end to the trials initiated by President
Alfonsín. In Chile, where the military have essentially remained immune from prosecution,
efforts to hold officers accountable for past violations met with shows of strength. In
Brazil, the self-granted amnesty of 1979 has never come close to being rolled back.

Just as Latin America’s new democracies have basically safeguarded corporate military
concerns, the broader political, economic, and social climate of the contemporary period
does not threaten elite sectors that backed military activism in the past. Research
suggests that only a small percentage of Brazilian industrialists feels threatened by the
left in the new democratic regime, and that the overwhelming majority has adapted to the
democratic system. Industrialists do not regard the military as necessary for protecting
their interests on a regular basis and have responded to existing dissatisfaction by
demanding greater participation in economic decisions. In fact, their significant economic
power and ties to key decision makers have enabled business groups to exert more influence
over economic policy making than any other single social group. International condemnation
of military solutions in the post-cold war era—manifested, for example, in response
to the attempted coup in Guatemala in 1993—doubtless contributes to the use of
nonmilitary forms of influence on the part of Brazil’s business elites.

In light of the current climate, the armed forces in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin
America have exercised notable restraint after retreating from power, save their
uncompromising stance to preserve immunity from human rights prosecutions. The rigorous
distance Brazil’s military maintained from the investigations, demonstrations, and other
events leading up to President Collor’s impeachment was unprecedented in light of their
interference in every other major political crisis of the twentieth century. Further
testimony of change was the military’s nonintervention during the lowest point of the
Franco government, when widespread corruption, hyperinflation, and low morale among the
ranks led many observers to draw parallels with the pre-1964 environment.

To return to the terms of the earlier discussion, despite the military’s basic power
capability, constraints on the leadership’s willingness to use strong-arm tactics limit
its influence over actual policy outcomes. Given the array of factors inhibiting the
unleashing of force, coupled with the widespread perception that the military are
reluctant to call upon their basic power capability, saber rattling has come to lack
credibility. Military elites can bluff only so many times before civilians call their
bluff. Armed forces that develop a reputation for making threats that are never carried
out lose credibility over time. The practice of not taking military claims seriously
remains more evident among legislators than presidents. At the risk of exaggeration,
conditions of the 1980s and 1990s have rendered the Brazilian military somewhat of a paper


This chapter has sought to address three questions posed at the outset: What is the
impact of electoral competition on the political role of the military? How do specific
political institutions condition the way in which civilians contest the military? How can
the armed forces defend their claims? Contrary to the prevailing view that democracy in
Brazil has remained and will remain restricted by virtue of the strong position the
military enjoyed at the onset of democracy, my rational choice approach suggests that the
installation of democratic competition tends to bring about a gradual expansion of popular

Using the strategic calculations of politicians as a point of departure, this chapter
has argued that electoral competition and the incentives it unleashes form a key source of
the dynamism that has marked civil-military relations in the postauthoritarian period. The
policies that have resulted from these incentives have gradually shifted the balance of
civil-military power in favor of civilians. This general trend of eroding military
influence is subject to fluctuation depending on the strength of governments and the
electoral relevance of issues. Politicians, both executive and congressional, are more
likely to challenge the military under governments with widespread support and over issues
where military interference threatens their own ability to win elections.

Specific institutional features condition the manner in which civilians contest the
armed forces. How democratic competition works to alter the balance of civil-military
power depends partly on politicians’ strategies of reelection and on the institutional
rules that govern these strategies. In a weakly institutionalized political system, as in
Brazil, the feebleness of political parties induces politicians to attract voters through
the constant provision of patronage and endorsement of popularity-enhancing platforms,
practices that are likely to be at odds with military preferences. Such a system also sets
the stage for the emergence of politicians who seek to enhance their political autonomy
and therefore challenge tutelage by an independent and bureaucratic military.

But while the institutional characteristics of Brazil’s political system reinforce the
general incentives that electoral competition unleashes and provide special impetus for
elected officials to challenge the armed forces, they militate against the development of
conditions and measures conducive to ensuring long-term political stability and civilian
control. Effective civilian governance, arguably the best antidote to the armed forces’
intervention in politics, is more difficult to achieve in a weakly institutionalized party
system. Moreover, given the potential of such a party system to produce high levels of
politicization, institutionalized mechanisms to break the political role and autonomy of
the military are less likely to be enacted and consistently observed by civilians.

The legitimacy and credibility of military force as a domestic political instrument
also conditions the willingness of politicians to contest the armed forces. Widespread
consensus in favor of democracy and the relative paucity of threats to the military’s core
political and corporate interests in the post-cold war era inhibit the armed forces as a
whole from countering civilian efforts to downgrade their prerogatives by invoking
coercion. The cost-benefit calculation made by military elites has generally pointed in
favor of accepting their declining political fortunes rather than putting up resistance at
the risk of provoking serious civil-military conflict. But simply because the military’s
actual bargaining power suffers serious limitations in the current period does not mean
that the military cannot and do not extract occasional budgetary benefits or other
concessions in exchange for supporting the government.

That civilians have contested and managed to reduce military influence in Brazil is
especially noteworthy since the military entered the new democracy from a highly
auspicious position. Chapter 2 analyzes why the officer corps enjoyed such strong standing
in 1985. To explain this strength, the chapter goes back in time and analyzes developments
that took place within the institution during the bureaucratic-authoritarian period, and
between civilians and the military governments in the transition to democracy. By
establishing where Brazil’s armed forces stood in 1985, Chapter 2 offers a baseline from
which to judge their post-1985 evolution.

Excerpted from Eroding Military Influence in Brazil—Politicians
Against Soldiers by Wendy Hunter, The University of North Carolina Press, 1997, 244

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