By Anthony Boadle
BRASILIA (Reuters) - Efforts by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to turn an Independence Day military parade into a political event for his re-election campaign has become a test of the armed forces' loyalty, retired generals and analysts said.
Bolsonaro is calling on supporters to attend a rally on Sept. 7 - less than a month before the presidential election - along Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana Beach. He also ordered the military to parade there instead of their usual downtown route.
That has stoked concerns that the far-right former army captain is dragging the military into politics to compensate for his sagging popularity – a complaint heard increasingly from both civilian critics and former military brass.
"As commander in chief, he has every right to change the military parade venue, but not to link it with an election campaign activity," said retired general Paulo Chagas. "It's unheard of. The military have to stay out of politics."
Copacabana's beach-front avenue is not an appropriate route for troops and armored vehicles, said Chagas, a cavalry officer who has paraded four times on horseback along the usual President Vargas Avenue in downtown Rio.
The role of the armed forces in politics is particularly sensitive given that Brazil was under a military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985.
Last year, Bolsonaro sacked his defense minister and the top three commanders of Brazil's armed forces over resistance to making public demonstrations of their political support, according to people familiar with the matter.
"Bolsonaro plays with the fantasy that he embodies the will of the people identified with the armed forces," said Christian Lynch, a professor at the Rio de Janeiro State University, comparing his use of the military's prestige to a "parasite."
Neither Bolsonaro's office nor the Ministry of Defense responded to requests for comment.
Bolsonaro's efforts to blur the lines between military and political power also come as he ramps up attacks on Brazil's top courts and criticism of the country's electoral system.
Bolsonaro has made baseless allegations of fraud in recent elections and threatened to ignore the results of the Oct. 2 vote, which polls now show him losing to his leftist rival, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
The president got some army officials to echo his doubts about the integrity of Brazil's electronic voting system, adding to friction with the Superior Electoral Tribunal, which runs the country's elections. Bolsonaro has also proposed a parallel tally of the vote by military observers.
"The army is on our side," he told a political rally last week.
But political analyst Andre Cesar said that is not so clear.
"The barracks are divided on Bolsonaro. There is criticism of him both among active duty and retired officers," said Cesar, a founding partner at Brasilia-based political consultancy Hold Assessoria Legislativa. "They are increasingly uncomfortable with his behavior."
Carlos dos Santos Cruz, a retired general who served in Bolsonaro's cabinet in 2019, said Brazilians may recoil at the president's efforts to co-opt the holiday marking national independence from Portugal 200 years ago.
"If the president wants to give it a political connotation, it will backfire. The Brazilian population knows that it should not be used for political campaigning," said Santos Cruz.
Not everyone sees the idea of a joint military and civilian celebration so fraught.
Paulo Kramer, a politics professor at the University of Brasilia, played down the risks of democratic rupture involving Brazil's current military leaders.
"If you talk to colonels and generals today, they don't want to know about a coup," said Kramer. "Brazil's armed forces took so long to recover their reputation (after the dictatorship) and today are among the country's most valued institutions."
Yet Bolsonaro, who was discharged from the army in 1988 amid allegations of political agitation and insubordination, has built his political identity around nostalgia for Brazil's dictatorship and disdain for certain democratic institutions.
On Independence Day last year, he organized street demonstrations where he called the 2022 election a "farce" and threatened to disobey Supreme Court orders. Many of his supporters called for the closure of the top court and a military takeover of government.
On Tuesday, Bolsonaro urged his supporters to turn out again en masse for his Sept. 7 rally this year.
"Nobody wants a coup. There will be an election. But we want transparency," he said in a radio interview.
(Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Brad Haynes and Angus MacSwan)