Argentina’s New Cycle

Lucas Villasenin
Nicolas Allen

Argentina's recent legislative elections fortified an insurgent right eager to conquer the political landscape.

Mauricio Macri in 2011. Mauricio Macri / Flickr

On October 22, Argentina’s four major political forces competed in legislative elections. The race went largely as predicted, mirroring long-term trends for the nation’s principal political parties.

For President Macri’s Cambiemos, the election was occasion for the center-right party to take another victory lap, having already won handily in the recent August primaries. In fact, since its upset victory against the incumbent centrist candidate Daniel Scioli in the 2015 presidential race, Cambiemos has only grown stronger: the party that began by capitalizing on growing anti-Kirchner sentiment has evolved over the last two years — with great success — into a civilizational crusade against “populism.”

With an inner circle made up of CEOs and free-market zealots, the party is still an anomaly on the left-leaning Argentine political landscape. Its potential lies in capitalizing on that landscape’s institutional fragmentation. As old alliances crumble, Cambiemos can assimilate their orphaned parts to its ambitious new project. Having already absorbed Argentina’s oldest existing party — the centrist Unión Cívica Radical — Cambiemos threatens to do the same with its most historically significant: the Partido Justicialista (PJ).

As the party of former president Juan Domingo Perón, the PJ and by extension Peronism was once described by Eric Hobsbawm as “a popular movement that organized workers better than the socialists and communists, hence its longevity.” Once Argentina’s dominant political force that pulled support both from the Right and the Left, the PJ today is a mere institutional power-broker. As the old party fragments, Cambiemos stands ready to pick up the pieces. The conservative wing of the PJ in particular is susceptible to cooptation from Cambiemos, although larger swathes of the party may be forced to the negotiating table if they find themselves in the no-man’s land between Cambiemos and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s “hard opposition.”

Cristina, or “CFK,” is the undisputed opposition candidate. After her husband Nestor left the presidency in 2007, Christina ran for the seat and won; their combined twelve years of governance under the banner of the Partido Justicialista came to be known as Kirchnerismo, the modern heir to Peronism. This year, however, Christina broke ranks, establishing her own electoral vehicle, Unidad Ciudana, in order to run for senator in the Buenos Aires province. According to CFK, the decision to opt out of the PJ primary race and run unopposed on her own ticket was meant to preserve unity in the opposition camp. Whatever her intent may have been, the effect has been to contribute to a growing polarization that splinters, rather than unites, the opposition. This plays right into Cambiemos’s hands. In the long term, CFK’s move may in fact allow for a left realignment of Kirchnerismo; but in the short-term it means that CFK has abandoned the strategic alliances — many of them conservative — that allowed her and her husband, Néstor Kirchner, to govern over the last twelve years.

The Trotskyist Frente de la Izquierda (FIT) coalition did manage to grow its overall vote count, though this may reflect  its prioritization of electoralism over a broader set of tactics aimed at building a mass opposition to Macri’s neoliberalism. What the current scenario calls for is a new popular majority capable of turning the tide on the reactionary offensive. As it stands, the landscape is bleak: Macri’s administration is an eager pupil of Brazil’s Michel Temer and the more neoliberal currents of neighboring Chile. As the Left shifts and regroups, it’s the Right that is in position for a sustained offensive across the continent.

Below, a report on October’s legislative elections and their impact on Argentina’s broader political landscape, translated exclusively for Jacobin.

Macrismo Comes Out Ahead

Last month’s legislative elections was one more victory for Macri’s neoliberal government and a major defeat for the most conciliatory forces within the nominal “opposition.” Thirteen of the twenty-four congressional seats in the lower house went to Argentina’s governing neoliberal party, as did four of the eight senatorial seats available in the upper house of the National Congress.

Macrismo is now the dominant political force in the country’s five most densely populated regions: the Buenos Aires Province, the City of Buenos Aires, Santa Fé, Cordoba, and Mendoza. The most vital victory for Macri’s Cambiemos party was in the province of Buenos Aires, the nation’s most important electoral base, where ex-president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (CFK) was narrowly defeated.

While the ruling party swept the elections, the opposition was left divided between sectors of Peronism that either support or reject CFK’s leadership. Given the division, Macrismo now enjoys a powerful electoral minority and will be seeking to build a full majority going forward.

Cambiemos ran on a campaign of deepening the socioeconomic transformations that the party first unleashed when it came to power in 2015. The government has managed to sell the electorate on the idea that its harsh austerity policies were necessary in order to offset the Kirchner government’s budgetary indiscretions.

Macri’s government has sought to polarize the nation by appealing to the idea of two opposed camps, those in favor of and those opposed to some vaguely defined “change” (reflected in the party name, “Cambiemos,” or “let’s change”). With a rhetoric of past versus present, populists versus liberals, the official discourse of “change” is intended to consolidate a conservative power bloc around the Cambiemos machine, uniting disparate and often latent expressions of conservatism under the banner of Argentina’s first openly right-wing political party.

The election took place amid a number of warning signs that Argentine democracy is under serious threat. A week before the election, indigenous leader and political prisoner Milagro Sala was abducted from her house, where she had been temporarily placed under house arrest. During the same period, government and media were responsible for wild speculations regarding the disappearance of indigenous rights activist Santiago Maldonado, who was last seen at an indigenous Mapuche encampment facing violent repression from the military police. Government officials dedicated months to absolving themselves of any blame for the young man’s disappearance until his lifeless body appeared just days before the election.

The combined handiwork of judges and media has conspired to damage CFK’s chances of winning office, evoking comparisons to neighboring Brazil, where the judicial branch has relentlessly persecuted leading progressive figures.

Fresh off of Sunday’s victory, President Macri announced at a press gathering that the country would be entering a state of “permanent reformism.” Cambiemos may not have won an outright majority in the upper and lower houses of Congress, but they achieved sufficient margins to enact, as never before, their most reactionary policies. Petrol prices were raised by 10 percent that same Monday, while natural gas prices are scheduled to go up 40 percent and electric utility bills will be 20 percent higher by December. A number of neoliberal labor reforms are already in the offing, with cuts to social spending and regressive tax reforms also expected in the days to come.

The Non-Opposition

The real victims of the election were the sectors of the opposition that had adopted a conciliatory stance towards the Macri government over the last two years. This should serve as a lesson going forward as some begin to call for a center-oriented realignment.

Martin Lousteau’s candidacy in the City of Buenos Aires represents an illustrative example. Appointed by Macri as the Argentine ambassador to the United States, he renounced his post in order to compete in Buenos Aires against Macri’s municipal electoral platform, PRO, in the recent elections. Back in 2015, when Macrismo was still consolidating power, Lousteau narrowly lost the governorship race in a runoff with the Macrista candidate. By contrast, this year he barely achieved double-digit percentages. Cambiemos too was quick to make an example of Lousteau, holding him up as a demonstration of their zero-tolerance policy towards internal party debate or dissent.

The Peronist candidates who had lent support, at one time or another, to the government’s neoliberal project also saw heavy losses. Former congressman Sergio Massa, for example, ran on his record of trying to construct a more conservative Peronism outside the traditional Partido Justicialista apparatus or CFK’s personality. Back in 2015, he was so popular, many believed him to be the Peronist presidential successor to CFK. This time out Massa won only 11 percent of the vote in the Province of Buenos Aires. By leaning towards Macrismo, he dissolved his own base.

CFK’s absence was sorely felt among the ranks of the historical Partido Justicialista, which put in a dismal performance. Florencio Randazzo, ex-minister from the Kirchner administration, refused to join with CFK in the elections and managed only 5.2 percent of the vote in the Province of Buenos Aires. Conservative Peronist governors in the hinterland were also routed by Macrismo.

Punished at the polls, the conservative wing of the opposition sought without much success to find a middle ground, selectively denouncing certain government policies while piggybacking Cambiemos’s idea that Kirchnerismo is a thing of the past.

Cambiemos for its part will still need to find an opposition force that can guarantee it full political control, a future shift in the overall political panorama that remains elusive for the time being.

CFK, Still Fighting

The ex-president was defeated at the polls by 4 percent. Despite her loss to Cambiemos candidate Esteban Bullrich, starting December 10 CFK will take a congressional seat as senator for the Province of Buenos Aires.

CFK’s decision to establish her own party was particularly noteworthy. Unidad Ciudadana has sought to separate itself from the traditional PJ apparatus while incorporating its more progressive factions. The centerpiece of the new platform was a rejection of austerity politics and a new set of political leaders. The list of candidates included academics, trade unionists, and human rights leaders. Women were heavily represented, as were the demands put forward by Argentina’s powerful women’s movement.

CFK is attempting, with her new political vehicle’s fresh talking points and retooled aesthetic, to revert the PJ’s tendency towards stagnation. Instead of evoking the Kirchners’ twelve years in government, or CFK’s own candidacy in the 2019 presidential race, the campaign has been packaged as a “citizens’ referendum” on the last two years of Macrismo. With the slogan “volver a tener un futuro” (“recover the future”) CFK is returning fire against the accusation that she represents “the past,” implying that Macrismo is in fact a repeat of the catastrophic neoliberalism of the 1990s.

Unidad Ciudadana has been persecuted by the nation’s largest media corporations, attacked by the judicial authorities and slandered by Macrista functionaries, all in an attempt to exacerbate the widening political polarization of the electorate.

Despite that, Kircnherismo managed to emerge from the recent elections as the only viable opposition to the neoliberal project.

There are divergent opinions on the left regarding the Unidad Ciudadana platform and the future of Kirchnerismo. Prominent among them is the interpretation that CFK’s party in its current incarnation, as an isolated political vehicle for CFK’s candidacy, is incapable of defeating Macri’s Cambiemos. The second interpretation argues that the last twelve years of Kirchnerismo depended on alliances with conservative forces that have since jumped ship, making it impossible to form a united front against Cambiemos. The third opinion is that despite the government’s recent victory, Kirchnerismo remains the principal political force in the fight against neoliberalism.

By failing to vanquish the specter of Kirchnerismo, the poor performance of conservative Peronists only seeks to underline a longstanding reality: for over a decade detractors have been calling time of death on Argentina’s national-popular movement, concentrated around the figure of the Kirchners. Yet it persists as a defining feature of Argentinian politics.

Positive Results on the Left

Argentina’s largest Trotskyist coalition, FIT, obtained 5.5 percent of the vote at the national level, an improvement from previous elections. Its three constituent parties achieved a total of 1,200,00 votes. For six years now, the front has shown itself capable of maintaining its hold on a fraction of the national political territory.

The coalition’s electoral push was complicated by the decision, by each party, to run their own separate campaigns. Still, FIT managed to throw up two prominent political figures, Myriam Bregman and Nicolás Del Caño, who performed well in the City of Buenos Aires and the Province of Buenos Aires, respectively.

The party’s unflinching rejection of Macrismo is complemented by their longstanding repudiation of Kirchnerismo. Indeed, FIT is the undisputed pole of attraction for self-consciously leftwing political expressions nationwide. They draw support mainly from a section of the Left that rejects any call for a strategic alliance with Kirchnerista sectors for the purpose of defeating Macri. That position has won them seats and improved their visibility, but the political meaning of that vote remains obscure. It’s possible some part of the FIT vote belongs to a “protest” electorate that simply rejects Kirchnerismo and Macrismo, without sharing any particular affinity for FIT’s anticapitalist platform.

The different political orientations converging around the so-called “popular left” have taken a different tack on this question. The grassroots organization Patria Grande, for example, has launched “citizen platforms” across Argentina that evoke Europe’s “new municipalism” movement. In Santa Fé, a Ciudad Futura platform  combined Patria Grande’s strategy with an entirely female candidate list. While these political projects lack the FIT’s electoral weight, they represent attempts to incorporate novel political experiences emerging from the “national-popular” sphere as they have blossomed across Latin America, and more recently, in Europe.

As part of this effort, Patria Grande joined with Unidad Ciudana in Buenos Aires, and called for support of CFK’s candidacy there.

A New Cycle?

October’s elections provided a few certainties and more than a few doubts about the future of Argentina. In a country governed by political cycles — “Alfonismo” in the 1980s, “Menemismo” in the 1990s, and “Kirchnerismo” in the aughts and teens — Cambiemos showed it is capable of leading the nation into a new political cycle. Its rise was not an accident, and it now has the momentum to build political hegemony for its neoliberal project.

Still, the nation has shown a remarkable capacity for popular resistance in the streets. The first years of Macrismo were marked by massive street protests — by workers, students, human rights organizations, the women’s movement — that together demonstrate that the population is reluctant to surrender recently conquered social rights. This social conflict will become a central arena for the political battle in the years to come.

As Argentina’s dominant political expression for over seventy years, Peronism is currently a source of debate and uncertainty. With a strong presence in the institutional halls of power, conservative Peronism was gravely wounded by the recent election and members will be reconsidering their relation to senator CFK and Kirchnerismo more generally. Likewise their relationship to Cambiemos, where the more conciliatory approach produced an election-day defeat and the loss of important political posts.

One last doubt: in what’s left of Cambiemos’ term in power, can opposition forces manage to cohere into a new popular majority? Kirchnerismo and other compatible political currents in Unidad Ciudadana enjoy the advantage of leading the charge, but they also carry the burden of finding some way to deepen the most progressive aspects of the last twelve years. Kirchnerismo alone will not be enough, but its absence would make the Left’s task impossible. For that reason it is vital that the Kirchnerista camp start to incorporate new political expressions from the nation’s popular movements while offering a more expansive political vision.

In order to build a mass movement capable of combating neoliberalism, it is not enough to call for opposition forces to rally around a narrowly defined left-wing identity. That mass movement can only take place in Argentina when the diverse left forces unite and combine with the experiences of Latin America’s national-popular movements. With that in mind, the current Argentine conjuncture represents a serious challenge to traditional and new left forces alike.