Brazil’s Military Coup, 55 years later

Fifty-five years ago, in 1964, Brazilian president João Goulart was overthrown and substituted by Castelo Branco, a military president. Until 1985 the country was governed by military presidents. To this day people are still debating the coup (some even denying that there was a coup), much because the victims and perpetrators are still commanding the debate. In light of that, I’d like to offer some thoughts about 1964 here.

In 1789, only thirteen years after the American Revolution, a small group of Brazilian discontents planned an independent attempt in the region of Minas Gerais. The movement failed miserably, leaving one infamous victim, Tiradentes, who would much later be considered the patron of Brazilian independence. In the following years Brazil saw many other revolts and independence attempts, but in 1808 a significant change of events took over the country: instead of fighting in Europe a war against Napoleon he believed he could not win, Dom João VI, the Portuguese prince-regent, decided to move his capital from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro. However, some years later Dom João had to choose between staying in Brazil or losing his crown. He decided to go back to Portugal. His son, Dom Pedro I, remained in Brazil as a new prince-regent. Legend has it that, when embarking back to Europe, João turned to Pedro and said, “make the independence of this country before someone else does.”

And he did: on September 7, 1822, Dom Pedro I proclaimed Brazil’s independence and became the country’s first emperor. His son, Dom Pedro II, would succeed him in 1840 and rule until 1889 when the monarchy was overthrown, and the republic established. Now, just imagine if the king or prince of England or Spain proclaimed himself emperor of America. Well, that’s what happened in Brazil. It seems to me that people forget how absurd this scenario really was.

Fast-forward: Dom Pedro I followed his father’s steps in 1831. He had to choose between staying in Brazil or jeopardizing his family’s position in Europe. He went back to Portugal but left his son to become emperor in Brazil. Because Dom Pedro II was still only four years old, that wouldn’t happen until almost a decade later. And so, the 1830s were a very turmoiled time in Brazilian history. The country was ruled by several regents and was about to be torn apart. This favored speeding up Dom Pedro II’s coronation. Although he was only 14 years old, his rise to power helped to heal several wounds and bring a union to Brazil. The country’s subsequent history, at least until the proclamation of the republic in 1889, was lived under the shadow of the 1830s. To a high degree the Brazilian elites were afraid that without a strong central power, represented by the emperor, the country would fall apart, much like Hispanic America. On top of that, Brazilian economy was majorly dependent on African slaves, and the same elites were afraid that the Haitian Revolution of 1803 would be emulated in their country in the absence of a strong centralized government.

These are in my view the basics of Brazilian history in the 19th century. To prevent regional fragmentation (as in Hispanic America) or a slave revolution (as in Haiti) a very strong and centralized government was established. Liberal on the surface, but very far from that in reality. I don’t question that in the absence of this choice Brazilian history might have been quite different. However, I think that it is important to notice that Brazilian political history didn’t have a very democratic beginning.

As I already mentioned, the monarchy in Brazil ended in 1889. Dom Pedro II suffered a textbook coup d’état: some economic elites colluded with the military (mostly the army) and took over the power. The first forty years of Brazilian republic were notoriously oligarchic, ruled mostly by the coffee elites of the states of São Paulo and Minas Gerais. These elites, however, tasted their own medicine when, in 1930, Getúlio Vargas took over power by force. He would be the country’s dictator until 1945.

Vargas deserves special attention, both because of his long time in power and his enduring influence. On many occasions, he has been classified as a fascist, or something close to that. Populist is also a label that has been associated with him. I prefer to label him as “getulist”. To be sure, Vargas had some resemblance to fascists in Europe and populists in Latin America, but I understand that this is mainly so because all these governments share in their anti-liberalism, centralization of power and tendency to extreme violence.

Vargas peacefully stepped down from power in 1945, only to come back (democratically elected!) in 1951. He committed suicide in 1954. The whole period of 1945-1964 was lived under his shadow. Many tried to be his successor. Juscelino Kubitsheck, president from 1956 to 1961, began his political career as Vargas’ protégé and remained faithful to the mentor until Getúlio’s death. Leonel Brizola, governor of Rio Grande do Sul (1959-1963) – Vargas’ home state – also tried to continue Getúlio’s legacy. Even more so did Brizola’s brother in law, João Goulart, president from 1961 until the 1964 coup.

Even more than Juscelino Kubitsheck, João Goulart began his political career as a protégé of Getúlio Vargas, but never achieved the political brilliance of his mentor. Jango, as he was called, was not a communist by any means. Very much like Vargas, his ideology was a confused mix of positivism, laborism, populism and any other -isms. Very pragmatic. However, above all, Jango was a fool. He was unable to understand that the World had changed. What was successful for Vargas in the 1930s could not be reproduced in the 1960s. Because of that, amid the Cold War scenario he was mistaken for a communist by some. Others, more pointedly, realized that he was too oblivion to the communist threat Brazil was facing.

Communists had been trying to come to power in Brazil (rarely democratically) since the 1920s. The Cold War only intensified this threat. After the Cuban Revolution of 1959 many feared that Brazil would be the next domino to fall.

And this is in short, the scenario in which the military came to power in Brazil in 1964. As late Brazilian economist Roberto Campos very lucidly pointed, democracy was sadly not an option for Brazil in 1964. The country had to choose between a right-wing or a left-wing dictatorship. I believe they chose correctly. The communists took power in Cuba in 1959. They are still there. The military seized control in Brazil in 1964. They pacifically laid over power 21 years after and never tried to come back. I am not saying that a right-wing dictatorship is a good solution against leftism. Anyone who reads this here is reading his prejudices solely. What I am saying is that Brazil sadly has little democratic tradition and had even less 55 years ago. Therefore, we should not be surprised that the military took over power in 1964. Surprisingly would be if things happened in any other way. I don’t celebrate the military government of 1964-1985. Just the opposite: as with so many things in Brazilian history (or in life!) it is not something to celebrate. Just to accept and live with it.

Nightcap

  1. Have we ever been modern? Anthony Pagden, Cato Unbound
  2. Missing the elephant in the room Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  3. Why celibacy matters Ross Douthat, New York Times
  4. A reflection on Tito and Franco Branko Milanovic, globalinequality

Nightcap

  1. The extraterrestrial next door Adam Hadhazy, Space.com
  2. Reporting reports: colonial medical institutions Jonathan Saha, Colonizing Animals
  3. The best way to defeat totalitarianism? Treat it as a joke Anna Aslanyan, Spectator
  4. Bureaucrats in the Defense Department: An ethnography Jonathan Wong, War on the Rocks

Nightcap

  1. Zombie history: a bleak vision of the past and present Sophie Pinkham, the Nation
  2. Pakistan’s elections and the precarious future of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Andrew Small, War on the Rocks
  3. Populism in less developed countries is somewhat different Pranab Bardham, 3 Quarks Daily
  4. The BRICS hit the wall Guy Sorman, City Journal

Nightcap

  1. How sanctions feed authoritarianism Peter Beinart, the Atlantic
  2. Four ways of looking at a constitution Stephen Cox, Liberty Unbound
  3. Mining minerals in outer space: Luxembourg leads the way Justin Calderon, BBC
  4. Europe’s dependence on the US was all part of the plan Claire Berlinski, Politico

Turkey at the start of one-man rule

1. Yesterday (Monday) Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan took office under the system of executive presidency, which gives him arbitrary personalised powers, based on the claim that a system of such extreme powers for one person is the most democratic system if that person is elected. The changes came about as the result of a referendum last year, which gave a narrow victory for the constitutional changes. It seems to me, and many others, that rigging allowed victory in the election. For the first time in Turkey, all ballot papers unstamped by an electoral officer were counted, allowing unlimited fraud. There are other issues about intimidation and irregularities, but this is not the moment to go into further detail, but I will just point out that radical changes to the constitution were ‘legitimised’ by pseudo-democratic fraud.

2. The constitutional changes enable the President to: legislate by decree, appoint most Constitutional court judges, appoint the army chiefs, appoint police chiefs, appoint all higher level members of the bureaucracy, appoint government ministers and vice-presidents without reference to the National Assembly. There is no Prime Minister. The President, Vice-Presidents, and Ministers are not obliged to answer questions in the National Assembly. In principle the National Assembly can reverse decrees as laws, but to allow the President to legislate in such an unaccountable way in the first place undermines all understanding of what a national assembly is for and what the limits on the head of government or head of state (now the same person) should be in a state which is constitutional and democratic.

3. Ministerial appointments have most notably included the elevation of Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, to the Ministry of Treasury and Finance. Albayrak is a major businessman whose rise in business and then politics have taken place since Erdoğan became the most powerful man in Turkey in 2002.

4. Other appointments have given business people ministerial posts for areas of the economy in which they have a dominant market position. Erdoğan’s own family doctor who owns a medical business is health minister. The education minister owns a private college.

5. The appointments of business people and a son-in-law show carelessness about propriety in the separation of the administration of public affairs from private and family interests, to put it in the mildest way possible. It also suggests that Erdoğan thinks he is too big for the party which brought him to power, AKP. It has been clear for some time that the most powerful people in the AKP are this son-in-law and one of the sons. That is, the AKP exists as a vehicle of one family, and its businesses associates. In this case, it is hardly a properly functioning democratic party.

6. The appointments were preceded by a presidential decree on the appointment of the governor and vice-governors of the central bank, which reduces its autonomy and makes it more vulnerable to Presidential pressure. Erdoğan has clearly been struggling to live with central bank decisions to raise interest rates in response to inflation and the falling value of the Turkish Lira. Anyway, the currency lost 20% of its value and inflation is at nearly 16% though the central bank’s target is 5%.

7. Market confidence in Turkey, even of a very minimal kind, was resting on one man, Mehmet Şimşek, who has western training in economics and is the last remnant of the days when the AKP appeared to many to be a centre-right reformist party, and did manage to behave in part like such a party. Şimşek appears to have been increasingly unhappy with his situation, putting a rational face on polices he knows are going in the wrong direction, occasionally winning battles to raise interest rates. One of Erdoğan’s main obsessions is that interest creates inflation. He has found it necessary to curtail that belief on occasions. Şimşek apparently wanted to resign from government recently, but no one ‘betrays’ Erdoğan in that way. Şimşek was bullied into staying and has now been sacked. His replacement is Erdoğan’s son-in- law. The markets have been spooked and the lira fell very sharply yesterday evening.

8. The Erdoğanists do have a solution to lack of international market confidence in Turkey. It is to create a Turkish ratings authority which will rate Turkish government credit as the government wishes! This absurd proposal, which will only reduce the credibility of the lira and government debt, shows the depths to which economic policy run on political paranoia has sunk in Turkey. Political paranoia because low credit ratings are due to foreign conspiracies!

9. Going back to last month’s election, about 2% of ballots cast have been declared invalid by the Supreme Electoral Council. HDP (Kurdish rights and leftist party) has pointed out that most ‘invalid’ ballots are from polling stations where it did not have observers. The HDP is defined as ‘terrorist’ by the followers of Erdoğan and its presidential candidate is in prison on ‘terrorism’ charges. This is all based not on credible evidence of co-operation with the PKK, which does have common roots with HDP, but on absurdly broad definitions of terrorism which take in people who do not oppose the PKK enough or which offer any criticism of state policy towards the PKK.

10. Based on point 9, it looks very much like 2% of votes cast were spoiled to take votes from the HDP. It hardly seems likely that would be the limit of fraud. As mentioned in point 1, all ballots were counted which did not have the basic security guarantee of a stamp from an electoral official on the ballot itself or the envelope containing the ballot. It is inherently difficult to arrive at accurate figures in this matter, but it looks very much like at least 4% of the ballot was fixed (that would merely double the most obvious form of rigging, which I do not think is an extravagant assumption, after all most rigging will take place in very hidden ways). If I am correct then the pro-Erdoğan electoral list for the National Assembly did not get a majority of votes and Erdoğan did not get a majority of votes in the presidential election.

11. The government-state machine extends claims that the HDP is terrorist to the main opposition party, CHP, on the grounds that the CHP has offered some criticisms of the detention of the HDP presidential candidate, and that some CHP supporters voted HDP to help it overcome fraud and reach the 10% of votes necessary to enter the National Assembly. CHP provincial leaders have been banned from attending the funerals of soldiers killed by the PKK, soldiers who in some cases will be CHP supporters, showing the kind of spite, vengefulness, and abuse of state power driving the AKP.

12. The Istanbul municipal government has announced that public transport will be ‘only’ half price during next month’s Kurban Bayram (Sacrifice Festival; religious festival and public holiday) instead of free as has been normal for a long time. This shows the strains that public finances are under in Turkey. The AKP are specialists in providing ‘free’ benefits to electors, along with favours for individuals and families, building up a base in local government in this way before they came to power nationally. The Istanbul news is a small thing in itself, but is suggestive of a decline in the capacity of the AKP to use public money to buy votes.

13. Given increasing personal indebtedness, rising inflation, the falling value of the currency, the decline of foreign investment and the credibility of government debt instruments, we could see some very difficult economic times in Turkey. It is clear that this process was important in holding the recent election 18 months early. The loyalty of the AKP and Erdoğanist base is intense, but was formed at a time of economic growth and expanding public services. We see going to see what happens to loyalty in less happy circumstances.

Turkey after the Election

Grim Facts

Turkey held National Assembly and Presidential elections last Sunday (24th June). Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan won an overall majority of votes and retained the presidency without a second round of voting. The pro-Erdoğan electoral list of his AKP (Justice and Development Party/Adelet ve Kalkınma Partisi) and the older (the second oldest party in Turkey) but smaller MHP (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi/Nationalist Action Party) took a majority of votes. The MHP took more votes than the breakaway Good Party (İYİ Parti/IP), though IP’s leader (Meral Akşener) is more popular than the MHP leader (Devlet Bahçeli) and the IP has more members.

The MHP broke through the 10% barrier to entry into the National Assembly in the votes cast for it, within the joint electoral list, though it was mostly expected to fall short by a distinct margin. Since the more moderate elements of the MHP joined IP, MHP forms part of a presidential majority in the National Assembly, with its authoritarian monolithic variety of nationalism unrestrained.

The main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi/CHP, a centre left and secularist-republican party), lost about one tenth of its National Assembly votes. The third party in the opposition electoral list, SP (Saadet Partisi/Felicity Party), a religious conservative party with the same roots as AKP, failed to get up to 1% in either the presidential or National Assembly elections, thus failing to increase its vote significantly and failing to take any notable fraction of the AKP vote.

CHP and then IP leaders failed to live up to promises to demonstrate outside the Supreme Election Council building in Turkey to protest against likely electoral rigging. Opposition data on voting gathered by election monitors ended up almost entirely coinciding with ‘official’ results (strictly speaking official results will not be available until 5th July) and earlier information is preliminary only.

Qualification of Grim Facts 

The above gives the bare facts about the results with regard to the most disappointing aspects from the point of view of the opposition. This is a disappointing result for anyone opposed to the authoritarian regime of Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan, which began by appealing to supporters of reform in a country with rather limited liberalism in its democracy.

Erdoğan has since made it clear that he regards democracy as the unlimited power of one man who claims to represent the People against liberal, westernised, secularist, and leftist ‘elites’ and ‘marginals’, along with foreign and foreign manipulated conspiracies against the Nation.

One qualification to the bad news above is that the opposition during the election is fighting against bias, exclusion, threatening accusations, harassment, violence and legal persecution from the state apparatus, state media, private media effectively under state direction (which is most of the private media), and gangs of thugs, some armed. At the very least the opposition held its ground in terrible circumstances, which have been getting continuously worse for years.

Another ‘optimistic’ aspect is that while there was certainly some vote rigging of a kind it was difficult for opposition monitors to capture. This includes pre-marked voting ballots. As in last year’s referendum vote, videos of pre-marking of ballots have been circulating on social media.

In the referendum campaign the electoral authorities broke the law by accepting ballot papers which had not been stamped by a polling station official. This was legalised in time for the election and broadened to allow counting of ballot papers in unstamped envelopes.

Legal changes have also made it easier for state authorities to move polling stations and remove ballot boxes from polling stations to be counted elsewhere. On a less official level, reports indicate harassment of voters by armed gangs and some employers requiring evidence from a phone camera photograph of voting for the government.

There have been problems for decades with polling stations (especially in areas where the opposition does not send monitors because of a small local base) ignoring opposition votes and recording ‘100%’ for the party in control of the state at the time.

It is very difficult to know what the overall number of votes is changed by these malpractices. It is, however, clear that the southeast of the country (that is the Kurdish majority region) is much more vulnerable to such practices because of the atmosphere created by PKK (far left Kurdish autonomy terrorist/insurgent group) and the security-state counter operations.

The main Kurdish identity party, the leftist HDP (Halkların Demokratik Partisi/Peoples’ Democratic Party), competes with the AKP for first place in the southeast. It is regularly accused of supporting PKK terrorism and even of being an organic part of the PKK in government oriented media and legal cases opened by highly politicised state prosecutors.

There is certainly overlap between PKK sympathisers and HDP supporters, but ‘evidence’ that the HDP supports terrorism consists of statements calling for peace, criticising security operations against the PKK and it’s Syrian partner (PYD), and criticising state policy towards the PKK. Whatever one might think of the HDP’s policies and statements, these are not evidence that it is a terrorist organisation. The idea that it is legitimises official harassment (including imprisonment) and less officials forms of intimidation and vote rigging. It also legitimises less widespread but very real harassment of the CHP on the grounds that some supporters voted HDP to get is past the 10% thresh hold and, in a limited and very moderate way, the CHP has expressed some sympathy for persecuted HDP leaders and activists.

I can only make guesses but I think it is reasonable to estimate that 1% of votes have been historically manipulated and that this has increased along with the strengthening grip of the AKP on the state and parts of civil society, and also with its increasing demonisation of opposition.

I’ll estimate 3% for the votes manipulated.

Election evening results indicated just over 53% for Erdoğan as president and for the electoral list backing him. This has however been going down as later ‘preliminary’ results so it may now be about 52% for both votes. In this case, if 3% of votes are manipulated (a very sober estimate in my view) then we could be looking at 49% for Erdoğan and his supporters. This might still give a slight majority in the National Assembly, as distribution of seats is biased towards rural and small town conservative areas, and since 100% of votes are not represented by seats in the National Assembly in even the most pure form of proportional representation (because there are always some micro-parties which get some votes but do not enter the National Assembly).

A run-off for president after Erdoğan gets 49% seems very likely to still set up Erdoğan as the winner in the second round. It is of course wrong in principle to rig at this level but it doesn’t change anything important presuming rigging is at the level I’ve suggested. I will have a clearer idea about this when all results are officially released on 5th July.

On further relatively good news, the CHP vote in the presidential election was at 30%, about one fifth higher than before.

The presidential candidate Muharrem İnce turned out to be an inspiring campaigner and public speaker able to appeal to a variety of sections of Turkish society. He seems like a natural fit for the leadership of CHP, though so far the incumbent, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has been slow to step down and clear the way.,

The final results seem likely to show at least a slight decline for Erdoğan since the 2014 presidential election. IP is new and has no local government base. As there are local elections at the end of March next year, they should be able to establish local strongholds and build on that nationally.

The AKP does not have a majority in the National Assembly for the first time since 2002. MHP makes up the majority at present and as stated above seems likely to behave in a very nationalist-authoritarian way. However, its vote seems to have been increased by disaffected AKP voters (particularly in the southeast) who are not ready, so far, to vote against Erdoğan and a pro-Erdoğan electoral list. This makes their support rather unstable and the MHP is likely to see advantage in turning away from Erdoğan at some point, or at least cause him trouble by asserting its independence. Erdoğan is not someone to welcome, or live with, this kind of division in his support bloc and a conflict of some kind seems likely at some point.