Credit: SIPRISTOCKHOLM, Nov. 27 (IPS) – Autocracies are the global majority again. The 2020 report on democracy by the Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-DEM), “Autocratization is on the rise, resistance is growing”, triggers the alarm that, although the world was much more democratic in 2019 than it was in the 1970s, there may be an ongoing trend towards autocratization this scenario around.
Democratic institutions in countries as diverse as Hungary and Mali are weakening, which leads to consequences of previously unknown dimensions. One likely outcome is an increase in military spending: there is ample evidence that autocracies spend more than democracies on their military when everyone else is equal.
In this current SIPRI background, the possible consequences of increasing autocratization on military spending are discussed. Understanding the interaction between political regimes and military spending is of interest to both academics and policymakers as many of these autocratizing countries – such as Brazil, India, and Turkey – become increasingly important in the international security landscape.
It also examines the case of Brazil in the light of the results of the 2020 Democracy Report and examines how the recent autocratization of Brazil has affected military spending.
Is the world getting more autocratic?
The 2020 Democracy Report documents the global acceleration and deepening of autocratization. V-DEM defines any significant decline in its Liberal Democracy Index (LDI) as autocratization. Put simply, it refers to the erosion of liberal democratic institutions.
The LDI records the extent to which individual and minority rights are protected from a possible “tyranny of the majority” and the state. Institutional features such as civil liberties, separation of powers, a constitutionally restricted executive and a strong and independent judiciary are of particular importance for this index.
For the first time since 2001, autocracies – political regimes in which the influence and control of civil society over decision-making are limited and unevenly distributed – are the majority of the world. The number of liberal democracies has fallen from 45 countries in 2010 to 37 in 2019.
The level of democracy has fallen in all regions: as a population-weighted average, the democracy index in Latin America fell to 1992 levels in 2019, while Eastern Europe reached its lowest level since the end of the Soviet Union in the same year.
Hungary is a notable example. It is the first authoritarian electoral member of the European Union according to the V-DEM methodology and the most extreme case of autocratization of the decade 2009-19, followed by Turkey, Poland, Serbia and Brazil.
Why should autocratization affect military spending?
In short, the literature suggests two main hypotheses about the relationship between military spending and democracy. These hypotheses are by no means exclusive, but complement one another. In empirical cases, features are likely to be indicated according to both explanations.
The first hypothesis – the democratic control hypothesis – is that liberal democracies spend less on their military in order to avoid increasing awareness of threats and less resources available to other valued social goods.
For example, politicians seeking election or re-election may be more inclined to cut military spending, for example in order to allocate more resources to health and education. You would do this to please the constituents and thereby maximize their chances of staying in power.
Democratic institutions provide the channels through which civil society can express its preferences, reward politicians who abide by them, and sanction those who do not.
A second hypothesis – the autocratic-military hypothesis – concerns the pension-seeking behavior of the military. According to this theoretical approach, the competition for resources differs fundamentally between democratic and autocratic regimes.
In democracies, the military should not use force to secure resources. It has to compete on an equal footing with other state bureaucracies for budget allocation. Conversely, autocratic regimes tend to rely on the military for internal repression. In these regimes, the military can negotiate larger budgets in exchange for political support.
There is evidence that supports the link between military spending and democracy: Countries with well-functioning democracies tend to spend less on their military, both as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) – the military burden – and as a share of government spending.
For example, a study published in 2015 found that full democracies – those with the highest democratic quality – spend, on average, nearly 40 percent less than full autocracies – those with the lowest democratic quality – on their military when everyone else is equal.
There is also evidence that presidential democracies spend more on the military than on parliamentary systems. Among the autocracies, military regimes have higher military spending than one-party and personalist regimes. The link between political regimes and military spending is well established in the literature.
These results suggest that military spending is likely to increase if the current trend of autocratization continues. The effects are already being felt: some countries moving towards autocracy are either increasing military spending or changing budgetary practices. The following section discusses some preliminary findings on the relationship between autocratization and military spending in Brazil.
The Autocratic Boom in Brazil: President Bolsonaro’s Relationship with the Armed Forces and Military Spending
According to V-DEM’s 2020 Democracy Report, Brazil ranks fifth among the top 10 autocratizing countries in the decade 2009-19. The democratic level in Brazil began in 2014 after a corruption scandal in which the Labor Party of President Dilma Rousseff was involved. A political crisis erupted, which ultimately led to Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016.
The impeachment process was extremely controversial and raised serious doubts about the quality of democratic institutions in Brazil. Autocratization accelerated after right-wing extremist President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2018. Bolsonaro has made it clear on several occasions that his commitment to democratic institutions is weak, even claiming that the dictatorship’s mistake is to torture but not kill dissidents . referring to Brazil’s most recent military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985.
Bolsonaro is a former army captain and has appointed a retired army general to be vice president. He has populated the state bureaucracy with military personnel and relies heavily on the military to rule.
When Bolsonaro took office in 2018, fewer than 3,000 military personnel occupied civilian positions in the state bureaucracy. By 2020 that number had risen to over 6,000. Many key positions in government are or have been held by retired officers, such as the Minister of Health, the Minister of Mines and Energy, the Minister of Defense and the National Security Advisor.
The military has supported Bolsonaro against political opponents as well as against other branches of government. In May 2020, Bolsonaro National Security Advisor Augusto Heleno, a retired Army general, warned that ongoing Supreme Court investigations into the President’s supporters could lead to “unforeseen consequences for national stability”.
According to Helena, Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro – the son of President Bolsonaro – said that an institutional break, that is, a democratic break, was only a matter of time in Brazil.
The relationship between Bolsonaro and the military had ramifications for the allocation of state funds. The Presidency submitted a budget proposal to Congress in August 2020 calling for a 4.83 percent increase in the defense budget for 2021.
The Department of Defense successfully lobbied for 8.17 billion reais ($ 1.5 billion) to invest in arms acquisition programs, much higher than in previous years. The Ministry of Defense has even more ambitious plans to expand the military budget: the latest version of the National Defense Strategy, presented to Congress in July 2020, proposes to increase Brazilian military spending from 1.4 percent of the decade’s average GDP to 2 percent GDP.
Although the proposal is based on that of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) – since 2002, NATO member states have agreed to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on their military – the approach proposed by Brazil is fundamentally different from that of NATO. NATO’s 2 percent military burden is a political guideline, not a legal obligation.
However, the Brazilian proposal seems to aim to set national defense spending in the annual budget law at 2 percent of GDP. While the means to do this are not yet clear, the language of the document implies, or at least creates potential for, a legal mechanism that will ensure a minimum annual (2 percent of GDP) allocation for the military regardless of approval. If this is indeed the case, it would severely weaken democratic control over the budget process.
Discussions about increasing military spending in Brazil take place during exceptionally difficult times. First, since 2017, Brazil has been subject to a new tax system that limits government spending for the next 20 years.
The spending cap links an increase in primary federal spending to the previous year’s inflation and ensures that spending does not rise in real terms. The financial regime exacerbates the zero-sum game of resource allocation as government agencies now have to compete for shares in a much smaller pot of money.
If the proposal for a military burden of 2 percent is adopted, it would automatically reduce the resources available to other ministries.
Second, the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic hit Brazil particularly hard. In the six months after the first recorded case, Brazil reached 4.3 million cases and over 133,000 deaths. In June 2020, COVID-19 died an average of 1,000 people per day.
The COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed the Brazilian health system and strained public resources. The increase in military spending in the worst health and economic crises Brazil has ever experienced will severely limit the country’s ability to respond effectively to COVID-19.
Had the proposal for a military burden of 2 percent been approved in 2019, military spending would have grown from $ 28 billion to $ 40 billion annually. The $ 12 billion difference is more than a tenth of the 2020 budget allocated by the Brazilian government to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
This simple comparison provides a concrete example of the opportunity costs associated with increasing military spending in such a severe health crisis.
The quid pro quo between Bolsonaro and the military, to some extent, supports the hypothesis that autocracies rely on the military. Brazil is not a complete autocracy; It is still a democracy with functioning institutions.
However, it is clear that Bolsonaro relies heavily on the support of the military to rule, and therefore Brazil has some features of the autocratic-military hypothesis.
In addition, Brazil also fits the democratic control hypothesis. The proposal to set the military burden at 2 percent – if carried out without the approval of Congress – would be a significant setback to the ability of Brazilian civil society to influence public spending. In this sense it means a weakening of democratic control.
Military expenditure in autocratic countries
If the current trend of autocratization leads to higher military spending, the consequences would certainly be detrimental to international security and economic development. Higher military spending could lead to an increased awareness of threats and thus ultimately increase the likelihood of conflict.
Likewise, larger military budgets could mean fewer resources are available for spending on health and education, or could effectively support post-pandemic economic recovery. While some might argue that military spending could fuel economic growth, existing evidence suggests otherwise.
The impact of increasing autocratization on military spending is becoming increasingly evident in Brazil, where Bolsonaro intends to increase military spending to 2 percent of GDP. The government tabled this proposal amid a pandemic that has hit the country particularly hard and has a strict spending cap.
The Brazilian case could predict a trend: if other autocratic states like India and Turkey follow suit, we can expect increasing military spending. Examining the relationship between military spending and political regimes is of paramount importance in anticipating the changes autocratization can bring to international security.
This current background has only scratched the surface of that relationship. A deeper analysis of the Brazilian case as well as cross-country comparisons could provide a clearer picture of the problem.
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