Political violence: Democracies screaming for help 

In July 2022, Brazil received news of the murder of Marcelo Arruda in the city of Foz do Iguaçu. According to inquiries, Marcelo, who was connected to the Worker’s Party (PT), was killed by a Bolsonaro supporter, which could be considered a political crime. This fact was later highlighted by the District Attorney Office, which filed the complaint based on a politically motivated crime.

It is not new that the country has been suffering from political violence. According to data from the survey conducted by the organizations Global Justice and Terra de Direitos, 327 illustrative cases of political violence were mapped from January 1, 2016, to September 1, 2020. In this period, 125 assassinations and attacks, 85 threats, 33 assaults, 59 offenses, 21 invasions, and 4 cases of arrest or attempted arrest of political agents were registered, with violence being a practice that reached representatives of different political acronyms in all Brazilian regions. 

The problem of political violence is also international. In Colombia, according to data from MOE Colombia, between March 13, 2021, to June 13, 2022, 751 cases of violence against political, social, and community leaders were registered in the country. The study brings the increase in lethal cases by 3.8% compared to the 2018 elections.

In Mexico, according to a survey by the organization Data Cívica through the project “votes between bullets”, from 2018 to 2022, 749 attacks, aggressions, and threats were recorded against people active in the political, governmental sphere, as well as against government or party facilities. In the United States, the scenario is similar. In the last few years, the country has experienced rising rates of political violence, which peaked with the invasion of the Capitol in 2021.

Far from being, therefore, an isolated problem of a single country, it is natural to question this scenario. Why is political violence on the rise? To reflect on the answer, I suggest that the starting point is another problem, that of falling support for democracy.

It is not new that democracies are being challenged, according to data from the latest Latinobarómetro surveys. Social discontent combined with various other factors such as poverty and the lack of effective political responses to public ills make people wonder whether the democratic system – as they know it – is really the best model. There is notoriously a democratic fatigue that challenges even the permanence and recognition of political rights since even the right to vote is being considered a burden.

What can be seen in this context is that the increase in political violence is a clear sign, in my opinion, of the lack and even abandonment of current democratic values, such as the right to dissent and tolerance. In times when freedom of expression, a symbol of liberal democracies, is being used precisely to attack democratic systems, a lot is out of order.

Thus, the increasing levels of violence mirror the need for urgent action on behalf of democracy. It is a cry for help that we see before us and that, unfortunately, we still do not treat with the seriousness we should.

However, the existence of cases of political violence does not come without attempts to justify their occurrence, as if there were some kind of “provocation” to the opposing party that would prevent antagonistic positions from living together in the same time and space. We often see the exchange of accusations between the affected sides, always one accusing the other of the facts that, in the end, compromise the most basic freedoms. At each aggression, murder, or threat, there is not just one victim, but a group of people who see themselves as impacted by the facts.

Political violence becomes even more difficult when it targets women, black people, indigenous people, LGBTQIA+ people, etc. Here, the aggression comes with the burden of discrimination, of an oppressive discourse showing that these people should not be in politics and that, for their daring to participate in it directly, they must risk their bodies and their mental health. Nothing could be further from the democratic ideal that has been built in the last decades.

The institution’s posture also does not seem to be up to the gravity of the facts. In some cases, we see institutional protection mechanisms simply not working, either because of a lack of institutional capacity or even because the violent ideology may have contaminated them as well. Their occupants, many times, are adepts of violent practices, which makes the institutions also an aggressor of disproportionate size.

Thus, the democracies that try to resist the threats have to deal with increasingly fractured societies, incapable of dialogue, that deny politics and allow themselves to be enchanted by the simplistic songs of populist promises, indicating miracles for essentially complex problems.

Is there a solution to such a negative framework? Perhaps the beginning of this way out is also in the field of democracy, more specifically in the holding of elections. Some contemporary examples show that societies, tired of violence, seek in democratic elections a form of social pacification.

Electoral processes were, in fact, conceived in this context. What is voted for is chosen, not imposed, providing a more horizontal relationship – at least in appearance – among everyone. After all, each person has the right to only one vote, and at this moment we can say that we all have “equal weight”, even with all the existing divergences in this expression.

The last elections held in Latin America can give a clue to this reasoning. In very polarized processes and involved in a violent context, as occurred in Chile (2021); Honduras (2021); and Colombia (2022), there seems to have been the prevalence of a broad social agreement around democracy, around elections, which culminated in a post-electoral moment of pacification. Of course, this pacification could have been more prolonged or not, because the expectations of the electorate for the winning option also depend on this. However, the pre-electoral climate of tension that existed was refuted by society itself, which wanted to hold elections, wanted to vote, and which said through the ballot box what it wanted to prevail at that moment.

This may be a romantic view of elections, but I believe they are the most powerful antidote to nurturing democracy and confronting violence. Violence seeks to get people not to vote, to be afraid, and not to participate. Elections preach the opposite.

It is in fostering elections that the strategy for safeguarding democracy can begin. Periodic, free and, fair elections, based on universal and secret suffrage as an expression of the sovereignty of the people, with a plural regime of political parties and organizations, as well as with the separation and independence of powers, as stated in the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva

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