Argentinians march for Cristina Kirchner after vice-president survives assassination bid

<span>Photograph: Mariana Nedelcu/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Mariana Nedelcu/Reuters

Tens of thousands have taken to the streets across Argentina to protest against political violence and show support for vice-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the day after she survived what appeared to be a failed assassination attempt.

Political leaders around the world and Pope Francis condemned the attack, as marchers flooded cities across the country in solidarity with a political leader who, like Juan and Evita Perón, dominates Argentina’s political landscape.

The attack late on Thursday was broadcast live, as television cameras caught a man pushing through a crowd of supporters and raising a gun to Fernández de Kirchner’s face.

Related: Cristina Fernández de Kirchner: arrest after attempted shooting of Argentina vice-president

The assailant was quickly arrested and named as Fernando Andrés Sabag Montiel, a 35-year-old Brazilian citizen who has lived in Argentina since 1998.

Police have not speculated on a motive for the attack, which comes against a backdrop of political tensions and economic crisis, but President Alberto Fernández described it as Argentina’s gravest incident since the country returned to democracy in 1983.

Governments across the hemisphere decried the attempted assassination, while Buenos Aires-born Francis said: “I pray that social harmony and respect for democratic values will prevail in beloved Argentina, against all kinds of violence and aggression.”

On Friday, the central Avenida de Mayo in Buenos Aires was bursting with protesters waving light blue and white Argentine flags and huge banners representing the country’s powerful social movements.

Some clutched framed portraits of Fernández de Kirchner wearing the presidential sash. In the background, a huge banner of her face hung next to the image of Eva Perón on the Ministry of Social Development building.

Supporters of the vice-president in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires.
Supporters of the vice-president in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. Photograph: Emiliano Lasalvia/AFP/Getty Images

The sounds of brass bands and drums filled the air as protesters chanted: “If they touch Cristina, what mayhem we’re going to cause!”

Juan Pablo Fort Flanagan, a 51-year-old primary school teacher, described the assassination attempt as a “fascist attack”.

“What happened yesterday was a shame on our democratic institutions,” he said. “You can think like her or you can not think like her, but you must respect democracy.”

Peronist leaders said that the assailant may have been encouraged by the growing level of violent discourse against Fernández de Kirchner, a polarizing figure who is facing potential corruption charges.

“It must be made clear that this is in no way an isolated incident by a mentally unbalanced person,” said Buenos Aires governor Axel Kicillof. “It happened in a context [of increasing political confrontation] and that is where we have to act.”

In central Buenos Aires, Graciela Jacob, 81, said she was marching on behalf of a generation decimated by the country’s military dictatorship.

“First, I was stunned [when I heard about the attack]. Then, angry, and afraid that this was possible,” said Jacob. Like many others, she blamed the attack on a fervid political atmosphere stoked by opposition politicians and press.

Tango singer Eduardo Torres, 49, said: “We knew that something like this could happen. There’s a pretty tense social climate.”

Torres listed the coronavirus pandemic, runaway inflation, and the cost of living crisis exacerbated by the war in Ukraine as factors in growing political polarization in the country.

“It’s all generated a kind of social violence, and the split [between left and right] has got a lot bigger,” he said.

Torres added that he views Cristina as the most important Argentinian politician in the past 30 years. “I think she’s the only one who embodies the hope of the people.”

But while Fernández de Kirchner has many such supporters, she has also become the focus for vitriolic hatred from those on the political right.

In March, a group of protesters attacked the vice-president’s senatorial office, causing extensive damage, while opposition activists often chant “Death to Cristina” during marches.

Last week, opposition legislator Francisco Sánchez – an admirer of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro – prompted outrage when he called for Fernández de Kirchner’s execution after she was charged with corruption.

“These kind of crimes should be considered treason. They deserve the death sentence,” he tweeted on 22 August.

“It’s a message of hate,” said TV newscaster Daniel Navarro who compiled a number of such death references for a segment in his Amanecer program Friday morning.

“Many of these statements and tweets talk of of death, killing, that she must die, it’s a superlative level of hate.”

The attack has also sent shockwaves through neighbouring Brazil, which is just a month away from a presidential election in which Bolsonaro will face his bitter rival, the leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

In 2018, Bolsonaro notoriously called for supporters to “machine-gun” their leftist opponents, and tensions have risen severely in recent weeks.

Bolsonaro supporters have twice attacked Lula, throwing faeces, urine and a crude explosive device at the former president’s supporters, and shooting dead a prominent Workers’ party official.

On Friday, Lula warned that politicians across the world should be prepared to face a climate of violence stoked by populist figures.

“I think all of us who are politicians have to be aware of the violence provoked by those who do not know how to live democratically,” he said.