Weekly Report - 14 July 2022 (WR-22-28)

Brazil’s election race rocked by violence

Even before President Jair Bolsonaro took office, political violence had taken centre stage in Brazil. In fact, some would argue that it was the stabbing by a left-wing fanatic during the 2018 campaign that won the former army captain sympathy votes and ultimately the country’s top job. Ever since, the nation has remained deeply divided. From Sunday barbecues with family and friends to neighbourhood chat groups online, the political rifts have permeated everyday life. That underlying tension surfaced this week in a wave of political violence that even the highest authorities agree could undermine Brazil’s electoral process and shake the very foundations of its democracy.

First, there was the explosive device that went off near the stage in Rio de Janeiro where former leftist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011), the frontrunner in the October general election race, was to hold a rally. Then there was the attack on Judge Renato Borelli, who ordered the arrest of President Bolsonaro’s former education minister, Milton Ribeiro, on corruption charges. Borelli’s car was hit by an unknown offender with eggs, animal faeces, and dirt when he left his house. Finally, on 9 July, a Bolsonaro supporter shot dead the treasurer and former candidate for deputy mayor of Lula’s Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), Marcelo Aloizio de Arruda, in the southwestern border town of Foz do Iguaço in Paraná state.

Amid the heightened tensions, the supreme court (STF) has decided to postpone the swearing-in ceremony of its new chief justice, Rosa Weber, by three days, until 12 September, out of concern that Bolsonaro supporters might stage protests around the celebrations on Independence Day, Sete de Setembro, taking place on 7 September.

These are not isolated cases. In the first six months of the year Brazil recorded 214 cases of political violence, 23% more than during the same period in 2020 when there were more candidates because of the municipal elections, according to the quarterly bulletin released this week by the Observatório da Violência Política e Eleitoral, an election watchdog linked to the federal university of Rio de Janeiro state.

“Since 1989 presidential races have been polarised, but the novelty of this polarisation is that it’s being charged with a discourse of violence against political opponents as a campaign strategy,” Felipe Borba, the coordinator of the observatory told a podcast of O Globo media group. “The episode in Foz do Iguaço wasn’t isolated, that type of violence is likely to increase during the election campaign,” he added.

One way to react to growing violence is to beef up security, which is what the police force, political parties, and candidates are doing. The federal police, for example, are looking to nearly double the security detail for Lula, who after 50 years of political life has now started wearing a bullet-proof vest at public events for the first time.

Others, such as the two leaders of Brazil’s congress, have urged Lula and Bolsonaro themselves to help de-escalate tensions. Rodrigo Pacheco, the head of the senate, said on 11 July that it was incumbent on Bolsonaro and Lula to ensure a peaceful environment for the election. “People are killing each other for ideological, for political reasons,” Pacheco said. He described the weekend shooting of Arruda as “repugnant”, “a tragedy that victimises democracy”, and “a sign of the political times of so much hate and intolerance”.

The leader of the lower chamber of congress, Arthur Lira, was not quite as forceful in his choice of words but he insisted that “democracy presupposes a broad debate of ideas…tolerance and freedom of expression”. He added that “the electoral campaign is only just getting going”, while appealing for “peace to make our political choices and to vote for the projects that we believe in”.

But for Bolsonaro, whose entire political career has been built on fuelling discord and controversy, this approach has proven difficult, and even supporters have been disappointed with his lukewarm condemnation of the weekend assassination, abnegating all responsibility and blaming the press and leftist politicians for the violence. His campaign coordinator and son, Flavio, was more emphatic in denouncing acts of violence, but on the same day that footage of the shooting emerged, the president’s other son, Eduardo, posted pictures showing his daughter and an unusual present he got for his 38th birthday: a gun sprinkled with 38 caliber bullets.

“The Bolsonaro government publicly encourages attacks on institutions and violence against political opponents,” the Observatório para Monitoramento dos Riscos Eleitorais no Brasil (Demos), another election watchdog, argued in its accusation against Bolsonaro before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

Eager to produce more concrete and immediate results, opposition parties on 13 July filed a petition before the Tribunal Supremo Eleitoral (TSE), the top electoral authority, to prohibit Bolsonaro from using language that promotes violence or hate by imposing a R$1m (US$186,000) fine on him and his party for every infraction. Opposition parties also proposed to the TSE that the right to bear firearms, one of the main banners that got Bolsonaro elected in 2018, be suspended on the day that he seeks his re-election.

Ramping up spending

Bolsonaro, meanwhile, languishing Lula in the polls, is focused on pushing through congress a bill to try and buy his way to re-election. Brazil’s lower chamber of congress approved a constitutional amendment (PEC) for a R$41.25bn (US$7.6bn) pre-electoral spending package in an initial and final round of voting held on consecutive days on 12 and 13 July. It includes doubling the R$53 subsidy for cooking gas currently benefitting 5.7m families, a 50% increase to the Auxílio Brasil cash transfer to R$600, and cash handouts for lorry and taxi drivers.

  • ‘Secret’ spending

In a minor setback for Bolsonarista legislators, the lower chamber also approved the 2023 budget guidelines without making around R$19bn of so-called ‘secret’ spending – a type of discretionary slush fund – an obligatory outlay for the government. The mechanism is highly controversial and considered illegal by several constitutional lawyers.

Not only does the “Kamikaze PEC”, as critics dubbed it, open a dangerous precedent to circumvent spending caps in an election year, it also increases the financial burden and inflationary pressure, argued O Globo newspaper in an editorial on 14 July. “The PEC gives with one hand what it takes with the other,” the editorial reads.

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