Coauthor Ezequiel Raimondo
It will never be known who was more frustrated with the failed election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the first round: his partners of the Workers’ Party (PT) in Brazil or his admirers within the ranks of Kirchnerism in Argentina. The image of Governor Axel Kiciloff campaigning pro-Lula with a life-size photo of the Brazilian goes beyond the tactical bet to widen the network of containment of the self-styled leftist governments in the region.
It conveys Kirchnerism’s belief that the administrations of Lula and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner were twins, characterizing a governance model and a proposal for an identical political order, as opposed to Bolsonarism and similar movements on both sides of the border. But are Kirchnerism and Petism really as similar as Kirchnerism and Bolsonarism are different?
Contrary to what they would like to pretend, the current officialism in Argentina and Brazil are much more similar than they would admit. At least in terms of how they think about the functioning and role of society, as well as its composition and the role of institutions independent of the State.
Bolsonarism and Kirchnerism coincide in their instrumental vision of the autonomous state entities, conceived as pulleys for the transmission of orders from the Executive for which they must be colonized. Meanwhile, society is understood as composed exclusively of two elements: on the one hand, a plurality of organized interest groups, appropriators of monetary, communicational, and leadership resources, who are subdued, co-opted, or excluded, and, on the other, a relatively undifferentiated fragmented mass, which is pushed into clientelism and subordinated with favors and gifts, activating or demobilizing it, according to its needs. If this mass resists or does not align, it is made worthy of subjugation with ad hoc regulations, capricious and authoritarian controls, or punitive disciplinary action.
Bolsonaro and Fernandez — with different discourses — have taken great pains to apply the same recipe: the society’s dependency and the utilitarianism of state mechanisms of public governance. In Brazil, the militarization of ministries, secretariats, and public or mixed capital companies where the Brazilian State is a majority shareholder is an example. From a little more than 2,000 military personnel in public positions during the Temer administration, in a few years there were more than 6,500 and today there are more than 8,000.
This corporatism emulates the State’s colonization by Kirchnerist militants, sympathizers, and followers of the social movements, who are given formal executive authority in the various levels of governance of the State structure. According to data from the Argentinian Ministry of Labor, only in the first two years of the Fernandez administration, 134,300 people were added to the public employment staff at all levels, an increase of 4.2%, while the GDP remained stagnant, and private employment, in decline during that period. Despite the enlargement of the State machine during the Lula years, never have the Workers’ Party governments allowed such a process of militant or corporatism colonization on a similar scale.
This instrumentalization extends to the questioning and attempts to limit or subordinate autonomous powers. In the midst of the pandemic, Jair Bolsonaro sought the submission of the Unified Health System (SUS) to his prescriptions without scientific proof, while seeking the obedience of the health authority Anvisa, thus transforming his views on the country’s priorities in terms of immunity policy and endemic surveillance.
In addition, as soon as he took office, the Brazilian president threatened and sought to redefine the balance of power within the controlling judicial institutions, whether in elections (such as the Electoral Tribunal) or monitoring illegal financial activities, but always putting personal interests before those of society and the nation.
One of the consequences was the deactivation of the Lava Jato operation, instituted during Lula’s presidency, which symbolized the zenith of the autonomy of the public prosecutor’s office and the federal police to carry out their investigations, including the one that culminated in Lula himself being questionably imprisoned.
The parallelism with the interventions or abuses of Kirchnerism to entities independent of the State and with the capacity to regulate or shape the executive powers of the Government is very notorious. In Argentina, the National Institute of Statistics and Census (Indec) was forced to clean up the measurements of inflation, growth, and unemployment. And the judiciary is under siege by dozens of initiatives promoted in Congress to “democratize” Justice, that is, to domesticate it. The Workers’ Party governments never dared to do so.
Finally, the society’s dependency as a clientelistic mass and the enthronement of interest groups as privileged interlocutors and monopolizers of the society’s representation is another characteristic that unites Bolsonarism and Kirchnerism and distances the latter from the way in which Lula conducted his governments. In Brazil, faced with the electoral challenge of winning his reelection, Bolsonaro modified the social welfare system built by the administrations of Fernando Cardoso and Lula by increasing the allowance amount, beyond the genuinely existing resources and renouncing, to demand from its beneficiaries the civic counterparts of such assistance, such as sending their children to school or vaccinating them.
In Argentina, after the social crisis of 2001, when there was only one social plan (Jefes y Jefas de Familia), today there are 143 different types of assistance and 22 million beneficiaries, almost 45% of the population, which is the proportion of the poor. The social aid arrives without civic conditions.
It is likely that Kiciloff, with his life-size photo of Lula, dreams of a more respectable self-image of Kirchnerism as the one built by the Worker’s Party governments. But it is almost certain that he feels more comfortable and closer to the Bolsonarist practices in terms of social discipline and the political order implemented.
*Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva