A leading candidate in Brazil’s presidential election, Jair Bolsonaro, was stabbed last Thursday at a campaign event. His attacker has been detained and claimed he was “on a mission from God,” reports the BBC. Bolsonaro, a former army captain and far-right politician whose popularity is on the rise, suffered a life-threatening wound but is now recovering. The attack has plunged Brazil’s most controversial presidential election in decades into further disarray and highlights endemic violence in the country.
Brazilian President Michel Temer commented: “We won’t have a rule of law if we have intolerance.” Ironically, this violent attack mirrors Bolsonaro’s far-right dogma and his posture towards tolerating difference. His rhetoric is based on a radical stance on public security, which praises the brutal military dictatorship that ruled the country in the 1970s. He has verbally attacked women, gays, black and indigenous people; and is facing court charges for inciting hatred and violence. This stabbing is a shocking demonstration of the emotions and actions that such rhetoric evokes.
According to Reuters, various media commentators have predicted the event could gain more votes for Bolsonaro. Professor of Political Science Carlos Melo, however, believes that voters who oppose Bolsonaro will not change their opinion. “Voters may be awakened to the thought that politicians who propose loosening gun laws [like Bolsonaro], for example, end up giving unbridled power to crazy people, like the man who carried out the attack (…) If the country was already mired in dismay, it just got worse.”
Brazil is currently suffering devastating violence, reporting around 64,000 murders in 2017; a murder ratio worse than Mexico. “Brazil has 30 homicides per 100,000 citizens, compared with five in the US and around one in England and Wales,” reports the Guardian. Around 42% of Brazilians are “very afraid” of being murdered. The stabbing of a presidential candidate reflects the generalized violence that has engulfed Brazil, polarising public opinion and bolstering the position of paramilitaries and punitive policies. The military has been deployed in response to the violence in Rio de Janeiro, the state with the highest homicide rate. President Temer put the military in charge of security there “following a rise in street crime and drug gang violence”, reports the Guardian. Rio de Janeiro left broke after the Olympics, was experiencing one truck robbery per day.
Insecurity is a longstanding issue for Brazil, linked to historical rich-poor gaps, poverty and associated social ills such as organized crime, drugs, and alcohol abuse. Security and poverty statistics improved over the early years of Luiz “Lula” da Silva’s rule, 2003-2011, when around 40 million moved out of poverty due to social programmes. An increase in prosperity is directly liked to reduced violence. However, following corruption charges against both Lula da Silva and the following president, Dilma Rousseff, as well as a reduction in worldwide commodity prices and the current recession crisis in emerging economies, violence has snowballed. The economic crisis has resulted in a massive reversal of state investment, a deterioration made clear in the appalling loss of Latin American history when the national museum burnt to the ground due to Rio de Janeiro state mismanagement.
With the nation starkly divided, a ‘strong-man’ leader who will ‘put the house in order’ has become increasingly attractive to voters. The ultra-conservative Bolsonaro has the second highest approval rating, trailing former President “Lula” da Silva who is currently incarcerated on corruption charges and barred from running in the election. The third and fourth placed candidates are both under investigation for corruption: a panorama which means any election result will leave many disenfranchised. Robert Muggah, from the Igarapé Institute, a Brazil-based thinktank focused on security and development issues, said the possibility of a strong-man rising to power is likely. “There is a risk right now that Latin Americans are seduced by this narrative of mano dura [iron fist]. [But] we will not solve this problem … by simply throwing more police, longer sentences and more prisons at it,” Muggah said.
The underlying poverty and inequality that drives violence in Brazil require a deep structural change that is difficult to accomplish and prone to setbacks. It is a poverty attached to global inequalities and political economic realities as much as domestic ones. One of the major differences between less violent nations and Brazil is the stability of institutions that manage political, judicial and social affairs. Weakening these instructions in Brazil through a military coup would be disastrous for long-term stability. There are better options aside from military control. “The punitive approach – more police, more prisons, more guns – has proved a very expensive failure. Initiatives in Colombian cities show tighter – not looser – firearms controls can help to cut violence,” reports the Guardian. Further, the introduction of military personnel in Rio de Janeiro has resulted in more shootouts which impact the poorest section of society. According to the Guardian: “Experts say militarised responses are associated with a rise in rights abuses rather than a drop in homicides”. The focus should not be on militarisation, but on redistribution and social justice, as the inequality gap needs to be addressed in Brazil to herald more security. Considering the magnitude of the violence, all those who have a stake in the country’s future need to find a new deal that will increase inclusiveness, not divide the population further.
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