Lightning never strikes twice, it is said, but it has struck twice almost on the same date if not in the same place – last weekend’s invasion of Brasilia mirrored the rude start to 2021 given by another rightist mob overrunning Capitol Hill in Washington. But the question then arises if it is indeed lightning in both cases. In the United States, the storming of Congress by extreme Donald Trump partisans denying his defeat preceded the new administration and not only proved to be a flash in the pan but was followed in the US midterms two months ago by a broad rejection of Republican denialist candidates turning the expected “red tide” into a trickle. But in Brazil it remains too early to tell whether last weekend’s onslaught against an already installed presidency was lightning or a gathering storm.
The opinion polls in the immediate wake of last weekend’s invasion of the centres of all three branches of government show a majority of Brazilians to reject both the mob violence and its underlying denial of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s narrow election victory but by underwhelming margins of between 53 and 56 percent. These surveys also show ex-president Jair Bolsonaro’s support halved from 40 to 21 percent virtually overnight but that other extremist half welcoming the coup attempt remains worrying because democracy continues under threat while a significant minority scorns its rules – Bolsonaro’s tropical fascism winning no less than 58 million votes last October cannot be so comfortably consigned to the past.
While it would be absurd to equate the presidential offensive against the Supreme Court here with last weekend’s mayhem in Brasilia (or even the stoning of Congress by demonstrators against pension reform in late 2017), as some opposition politicians have argued, the mood in Argentina is not as distant from its giant neighbour as one might think. Pollsters do not ask the same questions here as in Brazil but the responses point in a similar direction. That offensive against the Supreme Court might seem to be losing steam with the impeachment of the justices already postponed a week, only a minority of provincial governors in favour and many even within government ranks fearing that the price might be too high in terms of economic stability but a recent opinion poll shows that no institution inspires deeper mistrust than the judiciary (not even a highly unpopular government) with 83 percent expressing dissatisfaction – President Alberto Fernández might thus have some of the numbers on his side after all. That same opinion poll also showed the two main coalitions commanding no more than 43 percent support between them (with even Javier Milei’s libertarians already losing novelty value down to 10 percent). There is thus huge potential for anti-system rage here on a par with Brazil (or Peru where the protests of the last five weeks have claimed around 50 lives).
Since the start of this year Argentina and Brazil have increased their convergence by both now having centre-left governments, even with uncertain horizons for differing reasons, but the last few years have also seen them growing more alike in their socio-economic matrix. Both have historically combined manufacturing centres (the Greater Buenos Aires factory belt and the powerful São Paulo industrial lobby) with a vast agricultural hinterland but the balance has been different – whereas Brazil has become an industrial power with a more successful import substitution model capable of renewing its own capital, the farming sector has always been the more competitive in Argentina. Yet this balance changed under Bolsonaro – if his constituency has been neatly defined as the three Bs from the first letter of his name, “beef, bullets and Bible,” more attention is usually given to the latter Bs, his authoritarian style and evangelical support, but perhaps the huge boost he gave to agro-business was the most important, taking it up to 40 percent of Brazilian economic output. Brazil has thus moved closer to Argentina with a similar tension between urban populism and rural economic clout, creating uncertainties for both.
Our giant neighbour changed its government at the start of this year and the opposition showed its teeth within a week – should there be a change of government here at the end of this year, it remains to be seen in what form a Peronist opposition will show its teeth.