Bloomberg Línea — The assassination of Japan’s former prime minister Shinzo Abe has heightened fears that the political polarization in Brazil may lead to episodes of political violence. Abe, who was running for a Senate seat after having ducked out of politics due to health issues, was shot dead on July 8 while campaigning in the city of Nara.
According to Japanese TV station NHK, the alleged killer said he was “frustrated” with Abe, who was Japan’s longest-serving prime minister since 1945.
A conservative, Abe had failed to push through his constitutional reform agenda to allow Japan to operate an army as, since the end of World War II, the country has only had a “self-defense force” that is only permitted to act within the country’s borders, a rule Abe tried to change but who failed to garner support for the measure in Congress.
“Although he was a conservative, there are some radicals who think that Japan, under Abe, was very subservient to the interests of the United States, which they consider a humiliation,” according to Alexandre Uehara, a professor of International Relations at ESPM and coordinator of Asian studies research at Nupri/USP in Brazil.
Uehara says he is not worried about the event’s influence in Brazil, “because violence is already a reality here, regardless of what happened in Japan”.
“What worries me is that this seems part of an international context of violent actions in several places motivated by political issues. The international environment attracts attention, and this may even have inspired the Japanese citizen,” he aid.
Attacks on politicians have taken place in Brazil in recent years.
On July 7, a campaign event of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (of the left-wing workers’ party) in Rio de Janeiro was attacked with an improvised explosive device, and in recent weeks Lula’s campaign motorcase came under siege in Campinas (in São Paulo state), while a drone dumped manure on supporters of the former president at an event in Minas Gerais.
In 2018, a bus carrying Lula supporters accompanying him through the south of the country was targeted with gunfire, as was a protesters’ encampment in Curitiba, who were calling for Lula’s release from prison in 2018.
That year, Rio de Janeiro councilor Marielle Franco was executed along with her driver, Anderson Gomes. And President Jair Bolsonaro was stabbed during a campaign event in Juiz de Fora (MG) while a presidential candidate in 2018, on the eve of the first round of the elections.
At the end of June, the federal police assessed that the campaign of former president Lula, who is leading in the polls, is at maximum risk of suffering an attack, and assigned 27 police officers to the candidate’s security detail, according to a report on the Metrópoles website.
79 candidates murdered in Brazil
Between 2000 and 2016, 79 candidates were murdered across Brazil, according to a study by the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro (UniRio).
“[Abe’s] murder in Japan is not going to increase the risk of violence in Brazil, because the risk is already a fact. The respective campaigns should reinforce their security measures and be more cautious,” saccording to Christopher Garman, director for the Americas at Eurasia, a political risk analysis firm.
“What is striking is that Japan, unlike some of its neighbors, and Brazil, is not experiencing a moment of division in the country or political polarization,” he added.
The use of a homemade firearm in Abe’s assassination has drawn the attention of experts.
“It is rare for a crime of this nature to happen there, and even rarer for it to have been committed with a firearm,” ESPM’s Uehara said.
Japan has strict firearms controls, and for a civilian to register firearm possession they must first take a course, pass a theoretical test, a practical test, and have a 95% success rate in target shooting, as well as undergoing a psychological evaluation and a criminal and financial background check, according to Guns Policy, a database on global public safety maintained by the University of Sydney in Australia.
In Brazil, anyone who wants to own a gun can register as a hunter, sport shooter, or apply for a registration with the federal police. Potential gun owners must hand over a series of documents and pass a psycho-technical and criminal background check. In the case of civilians, they need to demonstrate their “effective need” to own a gun.
However, since 2019, following a federal government decree, the proof of “effective need” is presumed, and the federal police can only deny the registration if it detects a problem with the applicant.
In 2020, there were 192,000 firearm registrations in the hands of civilians in Japan, including legal and illegal, while in Brazil, in November 2021, there were 1.6 million firearms in civilian possession.
Deaths caused by firearms are decreasing in Japan, with only nine in 2018, down from 23 in 2017 and 25 in 2016, according to World Health Organization (WHO) data compiled by Gun Policy.
In Brazil there were 41,100 deaths caused by firearms in 2018, according to the Atlas of Violence, which is drawn up by the Brazilian Forum for Public Safety and the Institute for Applied Economic Research (Ipea).
“It is something radical for a person to be killed by a firearm in Japan,” according to economist Igor Lucena, a member of the Chatham House political analysis group and an expert on Japanese politics.
“For politicians, campaigning is becoming a risk. The assassination of a candidate is not just a murder, it is the elimination of a project of a country and a vision of the future. This has to be seen as an attack on democracy itself,” Lucena said.
“If it happened there [in Japan], where this was unimaginable, the chance of it happening here is even greater.”
He said that the lesson to be learned is that politicians need to “start taking seriously” the possibility of suffering an attack.
“The Brazilian intelligence services and security forces need to treat this as ra eality. A candidate cannot suffer an attack, because that would be the interruption of a possibility for the future of the country,” he said.
And according to Christian Lynch, a political scientist and professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (Uerj) and president of the Brazilian Institute for the History of Law (IBHD), the attack against Shinzo Abe is evidence of the risks that politicians face.
Translated from the Portuguese by Adam Critchley