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Brazil is bracing itself for the second round of a murderous election season, while Argentina is reeling from the attempt assassination of its vice-president. Is democracy under threat?

In a marked shift, Brazilian incumbent president Jair Bolsonaro adopted measured tones after a stronger-than-expected performance in the first round of the country’s general election. “I know there's a desire to change from people but there are certain changes that can be for the worse," he said. "We tried to show that during the campaign but clearly that didn't get through to the most important layers of society." Whether it was electioneering, it came in stark contrast to the polarising rhetoric he has employed during his electoral campaign. He’s spoken of his supporters as an “army”, and his rivalry with left-winger Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as a showdown between “good and evil”.

Along with relative calm on polling day, his change in stance has raised hopes of a peaceful transition of power should Da Silva seal victory in the second round on 30 October. But it doesn’t detract from what has been a fractious, violent election season in Brazil this year – with attacks on supporters and politicians of both sides, and both candidates resorting to wearing bulletproof vests. A report from the Observatory of Political and Electoral Violence at the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro states that 40, mainly local politicians were murdered during the first half of 2022, while 170 were attacked or verbally threatened. Coupled with the failed assassination attempt on Argentinian vice-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner on 1 September, it raises a troubling picture of a rising tide of South American political violence that doesn’t bode well for democracy on the continent.

Why is the current wave of political violence especially alarming?

South America has long had a reputation for political violence, fuelled by deep inequality and riven ideological responses to it. But what is notable these days is how permeated the sense of grievance in certain countries has become, with ordinary citizens attacking and murdering each other over political differences. In September, two Da Silva supporters were killed by Bolsonaro supporters, and perhaps one Bolsonarista by a follower of Da Silva’s (the motivations in this case are unclear). 

“The polarisation we’re facing this year is different from just a political polarisation,” Felipe Nunes, CEO of Quaest Research Institute told CNN. “This year we are seeing an affective polarisation – where different political groups see each other as enemies, not as adversaries.” After the axe murder of farm worker Benedito Cardoso dos Santos in a town in Mato Grosso state, Da Silva denounced “a climate of hatred in the electoral process which is completely abnormal”. 

Argentina is not in an election year, but a similarly polarised political atmosphere may have contributed to the attempt on Fernández de Kirchner’s life. Rightwing opposition is hardening as President Alberto Fernández continues to struggle with economic challenges, including rising poverty and an inflation rate closing on 100%. Argentinian intelligence officers are currently investigating possible links between the vice-president’s would-be killer Fernando Sabag Montiel – whose gun failed to go off – and far-right groups.

What are the issues fuelling this rising tension?

Many South American countries face similar issues in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, which hit the region hardest both in terms of per capita deaths and the economic damage inflicted. As inflation builds due to supply chain difficulties and the Ukraine war, millions are being pushed into poverty, eroding faith in having recourse through democracy. "There's a lot more extremism," independent Argentine pollster Mariel Fornoni told Reuters. "And I think that reflects the inability of many governments to address citizen demands."

Brazil’s economy is growing again following the pandemic, and it has largely managed to contain inflation – though at the cost of hiking up interest rates (to a 13.75% base rate in August). So the prospects for future growth remain uncertain, in a time when suspicion of the country’s political class remain strong. Bolsonaro came to power as an anti-corruption candidate, but his policies have benefited plutocratic business interests. Brazil remains a highly unequal and divided society, with the seventh highest violent crime rates in the world – further fuelled by an explosion of gun ownership on Bolsonaro’s watch. In other words, a powder keg for those looking to inflame tensions.

Argentina’s current inflationary spiral is stoking social discontent, as the government looks for ways to reduce its fiscal deficit, a requirement of its $44 billion loan from the IMF. It has promised to stop printing money in order to avoid exacerbating the inflation crisis – but resorting to public spending cuts is not likely to increase confidence in the Peronist coalition in power when ordinary people are struggling to buy food and medicine. Similar to Brazil, Colombia, which saw an increase in political violence in the run-up to June’s presidential elections, is ramping up central interest rates in bid to protect a stagnating economy. 

Divisive politicians find a fertile breeding ground in such tense circumstances, as former Costa Rican president Carlos Alvarado pointed out in a recent interview: "The most simplistic messages, including populist ones, grab our attention and really call up people's emotions in a context where there's a high level of frustration, uncertainty, inequality and inflation. Right now, a call to conciliation or negotiation doesn't usually gain as much support."

How could political violence in Brazil affect the wider region?

As South America’s largest country, Brazil acts as a weather vane for political and social trends on the continent. Should Da Silva win, then it would strengthen the resurgence of the so-called “pink tide” of leftwing governments currently washing, as in the early 2000s, across several countries including Chile, Colombia, Honduras, Peru and Bolivia. 

But if Bolsonaro wins and intensifies his authoritarian grip, or loses and refuses to accept the election results, or attempts a Trump-style coup, then it could serve as a enabling green light for extremists to resort to violence and subvert democracy elsewhere in South and Central America. (Though the example of Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro is a reminder that tyranny can come from both sides of the political spectrum.)

El Salvador and Guatemala are two particular countries of concern: the former’s president, Nayib Bukele, has announced plans to run again for election in 2024, despite a constitutional ban on consecutive terms. Meanwhile, Guatemala is sliding gradually into authoritarianism under President Alejandro Giammattei, with key red flags being the arrest of several anti-corruption judges and prosecutors and, recently, the detention of newspaper magnate José Rubén Zamora.

The US remains alert to democratic backsliding and threats to the rule of law in South America, especially with China – far less demanding on the human-rights front – lining up to provide investment in the continent. On his recent weeklong South American trip, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with the Columbian, Chilean and Peruvian presidents to further efforts to build “a more democratic and equitable hemisphere”. 

But the mixed reception he was afforded shows that toeing the democratic line is not necessarily top priority in an increasingly turbulent geopolitical landscape. The largest three Latin American economies, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico, for example, refused to sign a US-backed resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at a summit for the Organization of American States attended by Blinken. Authoritarian eyes around the world will be on Brazil to see, after its ill-tempered election season, whether it drifts further from democracy’s camp.

Written by: Olivium staff.


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