The Argentine Challenge

With the Right rising and Kirchnerism floundering, only fierce resistance will prevent further austerity.

Argentine presidential candidate Mauricio Macri celebrates with supporters after last weekend's elections. Horacio Rodriguez Larreta / Flickr

Argentines went to the ballot boxes last Sunday to elect their president, vice-president, and legislators. Despite being widely expected to prevail in the first round, Daniel Scioli — the candidate for the Peronist ruling party Frente Para la Victoria — failed to cross the necessary threshold. On November 22, he’ll face Mauricio Macri — a businessman and Buenos Aires’s head of government — in the country’s first-ever ballotage.

To avoid a run-off in Argentina, a candidate must either capture more than 45 percent of non-blank votes or garner more than 40 percent and best the runner-up by at least ten points. Surprisingly, given recent polls and the primary results, Scioli received only 37 percent (2 percent less than in the primaries); Macri garnered 34 percent (4 percent more than in the primaries), and the third runner-up, Sergio Massa, got 21 percent (1 percent more than in the primaries).

This is bad news for Kirchnerism (which takes its name from the pair that has ruled the country since 2003). Not only is Macri seen as the victor for forcing a second round, but the ballotage simply delays the impending austerity policies — likely in the face of growing economic crisis in Argentina — that will be pushed once the elections are over.

The steady growth of the Argentine right, as seen in several local and provincial elections throughout the year, is also apparent, if puzzling. Additionally perplexing is why proponents of Kirchnerism tapped Scioli to be their candidate, and whether he’s offering anything substantially different from Macri’s project.

The State of Kirchnerism

One way to parse the situation is with reference to the camps’ trajectories following the country’s 2001–02 crisis, as the Frente para la Victoria and the runner-up represent different political responses.

Macri (a businessman and a member of a family-owned industrial and contractor business group that ranks in the top fifty of Argentina) has successfully made the jump from local to national politics. Until this election, the PRO (Republican Proposal) — the leading party behind the Cambiemos alliance, which nominated Macri as its presidential nominee — had only held office as mayors of the cities of Buenos Aires and Vicente López. Last Sunday, they won the governorship for the province of Buenos Aires and several dozen mayorships.

PRO, which has grown spectacularly since its founding in 2005, is a party that can be defined as “neoliberalism after neoliberalism” — a systematic attempt to provide a different response to the crisis of 2001 from the Kirchnerist one. The party line argues that people from the private sector should “commit to politics” by bringing efficiency and transparency, and that the central issue is about “managing” more than “governing.”

Despite significant differences on several topics like privatization and immigration, 92 percent of PRO politicians agree that social protest should be more thoroughly controlled. This strategy differs from the Kirchnerist response, which has so far tackled unrest by negotiating, absorbing social movements, and selectively repressing.

A second way of looking at Scioli’s specificity is by comparing him to Massa, the third contender. While also a Peronist, Massa represents a pre-2001 Peronism, with top personnel from the administration of Eduardo Duhalde, the provisional president from 2002–03.

Massa’s approach to social protest was clear during his campaign, where he proposed in a TV ad to use the armed forces to fight drug trafficking in economically depressed areas (i.e. give the military jurisdiction within the country), something without precedent since the dictatorship. In a sense, Massa seems to promise a continuance (in a different context) of what made the Duhalde’s government fall: the homicide of two piqueteros in 2002.

Outside the mainstream parties, the far left has been increasing its presence, gaining a few national and provincial MPs since 2009. Last Sunday, Nicolas Del Caño, representing the coalition of the two largest Trotskyist parties (and other groups), took 3.27 percent of the vote.

Behind the far left came Stolbitzer (with 2.53 percent), the remains of the center-left of the Radical party (the right wing is now with Macri within Cambiemos) — which pressed for a return to family values and honesty (as opposed to Peronist corruption) — and, with 1.67 percent of the vote, Rodriguez Saa, a former provisional president and a representative of a small section of far-right provincial Peronism.

Most Kirchnerists are disappointed by the poor performance of their candidate and the loss of the province of Buenos Aires after twenty-eight years under Peronist administration. They are grappling with the growth of the Right in Argentine politics.

The choice of Scioli as candidate speaks volumes about the decay of progressive politics. An unwanted partner of Kirchnerism, Scioli represents a powerful but unsavory legacy of the conditions in which Kirchner came to power. Clashes over policy began when Scioli was Nestor Kirchner‘s vice president in the first term and continued later, when he was the only person who could guarantee winning the province of Buenos Aires.

Scioli’s electoral power as a right-wing alternative to the Kirchners came to the fore again this year when the insider candidate, Florencio Randazzo, saw the ground collapse beneath him after President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner announced a close adviser of hers would be Scioli’s running mate.

It was a pragmatic move that at the same time left unclear what would change under Scioli and what the new division of power between Kirchnerism and Scioli would be if the latter won office. Some of this tension had already been apparent when Scioli sidelined key figures of Kirchnerism in favor of more Catholic/conservative personnel for his shadow cabinet.

But the evaporation of progressivism is only an apparent paradox. The progressive measures of Kirchnerism — equal marriage, trials of historical human rights violations, a new law regulating media, some moderate expansion of social rights, and the growth of state expenditure in health and education — rested upon a tightly hierarchical and statist construction of power.

Kirchnerism relied systematically on restoring power to bureaucratic trade unions, reconstructing traditional territorial power, and building a fragmented citizenship with a centralization of social welfare through the neoliberal paradigm of conditional cash transfers. Kirchnerism’s progressivism wasn’t concerned with constructing popular power, but instead dismantling forms of popular power incipient in social movements by absorbing them into state politics.

This cooptation explains how such a seemingly sudden change of direction can take place without much resistance — every “progressive” Kirchnerist ended up accepting Scioli as a candidate.

A Future of Austerity?

These rapid political changes in the Southern Cone come after a deepening of the international economic crisis and the slow demise of the shield that high commodity prices provided for the region.

And if Scioli is apparently departing from Kirchnerism, the prospects for other pink tide governments are not looking any better. Suffering from an 8 percent approval rating, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is on the verge of impeachment and has devalued the real twice amid GDP contraction. Tabaré Vazquez in Uruguay and Michelle Bachelet in Chile are not faring much better, with only 30 percent approval rates.

As for Argentina, the Freudian slip by María Eugenia Vidal, the newly elected governor of Buenos Aires — “we changed future for past” — and Wall Street’s exuberant reaction to the election results (Argentine stocks rose 22 percent) seem to forecast a gloomy future for workers.

There will certainly be differences in the flavors of austerity to come. But this will depend more on the strength of resistance than anything else.