Rising risks in Argentina
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On the evening of 1st September a man approached Vice-President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (CFK) outside her home in Buenos Aires, pointing a loaded gun at her head at point-blank range and attempting to pull the trigger. The gun apparently jammed and the man was tackled by CFK supporters who have maintained a vigil outside her home since prosecutors called for her to face a twelve-year prison sentence for corruption two weeks ago. Scuffles between supporters and opponents (often local residents) have been frequent, complicating security and possibly facilitating an attack that could have proved fatal. Following the apparent assassination attempt, President Alberto Fernandez declared the following day a national holiday to allow citizens to express ‘solidarity’ and support for democracy. In a televised speech, Fernandez blamed the “discourse of hatred” emanating from the opposition, the media and the judicial system for the rising threat of violence.
The demonstrations outside Government House the following day contributed little to reflections on peace and harmony. Predictably, many opponents of CFK cast doubt on the attack, believing it to have been staged by the vice-president and her backers in a bid to boost her support in the face of the pending corruption charges. Many supporters, in contrast, echoed Fernandez’s comments and blamed opposition and media hatred for spurring the attack and for the corruption charges looming against her. Hours before the attack, CFK’s son, Lower House legislator Máximo Kirchner, had accused opposition leaders of wanting to see “who would kill the first Peronist. These things end very badly.”
This was in line with CFK’s earlier call on the opposition to stop “competing to see who hates the Peronists the most”; earlier she had again described the corruption charges against her as political persecution (or ‘lawfare’, as she terms it), but warned this time that the persecution was aimed at "the Peronist movement as a whole". Since the prosecutors’ call for a twelve-year sentence last month, the judges in the case have also been subjected to threats (also a matter of potential concern, after the 2015 killing of the prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who claimed to have evidence implicating CFK, then president, in an alleged cover-up in the investigation of the 1994 AMIA Jewish community centre bombing).
Although the events of recent days have temporarily united the Peronist movement behind CFK, in practice the movement is far from unanimous in its support for her leadership or for the government; indeed, the recent appointment of “Super Minister of the Economy” Sergio Massa seems to have boosted his own authority more than it has boosted approval of a widely unpopular government, instead adding another potential competitor ahead of next year’s elections. With inflation reaching an annualised 71% in July (and expected to reach 100% by year-end), poverty rising (notably in areas that form the government’s key voter base) and a devaluation increasingly expected, Massa also faces divisions within the party over economic policy -- in particular surrounding an end to tariff subsidies and efforts to reduce the primary deficit, in compliance with the recent IMF deal.
The events also united the opposition to a degree, with parties and politicians across the political spectrum unanimously condemning the attack (although the right-wing legislator Javier Milei, like right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, himself the target of an assassination attempt in 2018, were slow to add their condemnation and did so only in the most tepid of terms). However, some, such as former Security Minister and presidential hopeful Patricia Bullrich, took the opportunity to criticise President Fernandez’s accusations against the media, the judiciary and the opposition, warning him against “playing with fire” by trying to turn “an act of individual violence into a political tactic”. Her comments have in turn prompted further rifts within the opposition.
Relatively little is thus far known about the assailant, his contacts or his motives, although reportedly he has a criminal record and is linked to extremist groups on social media. Although much was initially made of his Brazilian citizenship, he is the son of a Brazilian father and an Argentine mother, who has lived in Argentina since he was a small child; as such the case is unlikely to include a ‘Brazilian connection’ or affect bilateral ties that are already frayed between the current governments in Brasilia and Buenos Aires. However, such an attack on a high-level political leader may fuel existing fears of violence during the current election campaign in Brazil, where security for former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in particular has already been beefed up.
Severe political violence and attacks on political leaders have been rare since the return to democracy in 1983. An assassination attempt on the vice-president is an alarming warning of the risks attached to ever-escalating polarisation in a country torn apart by political violence, military dictatorship and the thousands of ‘disappeared’ whose fate remains unknown. Nor is Argentina the only country in the hemisphere where polarisation and some disenchantment with democracy have become increasingly concerning in recent years -- not least, close to home, in Brazil, where the president’s suggestions that he would not accept an adverse election result delivered by a voting system he claims is open to manipulation have raised fears of post-election violence and even some element of military intervention.
While there is little prospect of a return to the 1970s in Argentina, risks are nonetheless rising in a context of deepening socio-economic hardship and concerns over governability, where both government and opposition have radicalised their discourse against ‘the other side’ in recent years, casting them in terms of an ‘enemy’, and where neither the government nor any opposition leader commands majority support among civil society.
Deputy Director of Analysis, Oxford Analytica
Associate Fellow, Canning House
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This blog post was edited by Freddy Nevison-Andrews.