This editorial does not aim to focus exclusively on either the distracting incidents or even the budget itself.
The deplorable incidents around Congress during the midweek Lower House approval of the 2019 budget would be no more than an irritating distraction from the real substance of the annual national balance sheet, were they not linked to issues underlying the Jair Bolsonaro phenomenon virtually certain to reach power in Brazil’s run-off tomorrow.
However, this editorial does not aim to focus exclusively on either the distracting incidents or even the budget itself – the former is a futile blame game while for the latter the proof is very much in the pudding, making any verdict premature. Assuming that Wednesday’s violence was the product of rent-a-mob tactics or miscreants rather than any spontaneous mass public outrage (as would be strongly suggested by the relatively sparse numbers), the question then becomes who was responsible. There are at least two conflicting versions here, both highly plausible. One is that, with the numbers against them once an understanding between the ruling coalition and inland Peronists had been reached, the Kirchnerite opposition’s best chance of blocking the budget was to manufacture incidents and then seek suspension of the session on the grounds of “police repression.” This theory has its logic (even if the far left seems a likelier culprit for extremist violence). Yet the scenes of mob terror outside Congress also fit so perfectly into the polarisation sought by the government’s spin doctors that it could become quite easy to conclude that everything was in fact designed by those spin doctors with agents provocateurs infiltrated into the march. Again, logical enough (although why should the government gratuitously jeopardise the tricky passage of a controversial budget?).
Only two things remain clear. Firstly, the notion that Congress has to be suspended every time there is a violent demonstration brutally repressed is plainly unacceptable because it is an open invitation to cripple parliamentary activity permanently by organising such protests – why then have all these overpaid legislators? But nor does this mean that the Argentine police does not face an extremely steep learning curve when it comes to crowd-control methods – this is equally clear.
Even less will be said here about the budget itself, which still awaits passage in a Senate where provincial lobbies are strong – better reserve comment for the final version. Criticisms abound of an austerity budget whose recessive consequences pose political as much as economic risks. The budget’s advocates should perhaps be explaining more fully the disastrous results of the alternative, irresponsible deficit financing, which are not clearly understood by most people here (nor by United States President Donald Trump, it might be added).
Turning to Brazil’s vote, the Bolsanaro landslide is usually attributed to a backlash against political graft but this seems insufficient – a purely anti-corruption vote could just as easily go to a Marina Silva or some other outsider. The real roots of the Bolsonaro vote are rather to be found in crime anxieties and therein lies the big danger. The decision to militarise crimefighting in Rio de Janeiro earlier this year could well prove the thin end of the wedge, making an ex-paratrooper like Bolsonaro more acceptable and opening the door to authoritarian, even quasi-military government. Here in Argentina the idea of militarising crime-fighting (espoused not only within government circles but by Sergio Massa) has its attractions – the military have both superior firepower to the police and less complicity with organised crime – but Bolsonaro should show where that can lead. Yet not only the stress laid on law enforcement with the Congress incidents but the growing prominence given to crime news by many media amid the current economic gloom feed just such a paranoid mentality.
Xenophobia is also a factor exploited by Bolsonaro and much was made here of Wednesday’s 27 arrests including four foreigners (two of them Venezuelan – will the Mauricio Macri government really deport them to a country whose human rights record it condemns internationally?). The government has no monopoly on xenophobia (just look at the so-called moderate Peronist Senator Miguel Angel Pichetto or the Kirchnerite Sergio Berni) but there is no space to explore this aspect – only to leave the question hanging as to whether Wednesday’s mayhem and Brazil’s vote tomorrow might be more linked than meets the eye.