Kirchnerism for Centrists?

Pablo Stefanoni
Nicolas Allen

Cristina Kirchner just announced a surprise presidential ticket that has the potential to defeat Macri’s neoliberal government. But the victory she offers won’t be for the Left.

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner sits in a chair before addressing the United Nations General Assembly on September 28, 2015 in New York City. Spencer Platt / Getty

Argentina’s former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has never been one to shy away from rocking the political boat: on May 18, a video released on Twitter announced that the left-populist leader would be competing in the upcoming presidential elections … as vice-president.

Not to be outdone, she made it known that her presidential running mate will not be one of the expected Kirchnerist-faithful. Instead, her choice, Alberto Fernández, is a moderate politician better known for dealmaking and holding council with the country’s economic elite.

Fernández first served as cabinet minister under Nestór Kirchner and then, briefly, under Cristina de Kirchner, although his relation with the latter has been fraught with tensions for nearly a decade.

Fernández’s surprise nomination, by his own vice-presidential running mate no less, has put Cristina back in the driver seat and sent her incumbent adversaries reeling: the former head-of-state has revealed a little-suspected “humility” by renouncing her own hotly anticipated candidacy, all while emphasizing a newfound “openness” by ceding to a figure who has never hesitated to criticize her in public.

With general elections in October, Cristina Kirchner’s decision reflects the need to bring on board the more conservative sectors of Peronism that have remained distant or outright hostile to her leadership. It also allows her to skirt pending corruption trials that could seriously harm her chances on the election trail. Finally, the thinking goes, the last-minute swap will allow her to raise her electoral roof and possibly even deliver a crucial first-round victory (with 45 percent of votes), and thus avoid a runoff where the anti-Kirchner vote could unite against her.

The Argentina of 2019 is a far cry from what president Mauricio Macri had in mind when he assumed the executive “Pink House” in 2015. Breaking through the nation’s long-standing bipartisan monopoly with his center-right “Propuesta Republicana” [Republican Proposal], Macri’s PRO party rode to power on a post-political platform. The shifting sands of social sensibility were reflected in his talk of entrepreneurial spirit and neoliberal new-ageisms.

Before the Macri era, Argentina’s right wing had only ever managed to take power through periodic coups, or, in the 1990s, by clinging to the coattails of Carlos Menem’s neoliberal Peronist project, which incorporated emblematic figures from Argentina’s conservative anti-Peronist sector.

Macri, former chief of government for Buenos Aires and ex-president of the Boca Juniors soccer club, succeeded in cobbling together an alliance between his own Cambiemos platform and the veteran Radical Civic Union, launching a right-wing electoral machine that could go head to head in democratic elections and even win over part of the Peronist electoral base. His main talking point then centered on the “cursed inheritance”: the spending bonanza ascribed to the Kirchner era that in its final years had underperformed economically, and a hyped-up cleavage between (good) republicanism and (bad) populism that proved hugely successful on the campaign trail, overseen by the Ecuadoran political guru Jaime Durán Barba.

Once in office, Macri initially sought to chart a gradualist path that would avoid overtly orthodox austerity. But before long that strategy hit the wall, sending the country into the arms of the International Monetary Fund and its policy of “zero fiscal deficits.”

Paradoxically, for a country accustomed to intense social mobilization, it was the chill of the “markets” rather than popular upheaval that pushed the Macrista project to the brink of disaster. And now, where Macri once seemed a shoo-in for reelection in 2019, the electoral race has been blown wide open.

In his 2015 campaign, the then-presidential hopeful boasted that he would have no trouble taming inflation. Three years later, the annual inflation had reached more than 40 percent, the value of the dollar had rocketed from 10 to 46 pesos and the country was gripped by a deepening recession and mounting poverty.

Macri had inaugurated his term with a promise: Argentina would finally become “a normal country”; the specter of populism conjured away, the South American nation would take its place at the table with “respectable nations.” That dream evaporated in the midst of a crisis that has devastated the president’s image, casting a sense of pessimism over the present and future.

In a country where economic crises and massive social protest tend to go hand in hand, an unsettling calm seems to reign in Argentine society; whatever the reason, economic hardship is starting to find expression in the polls, and Cristina Kirchner is poised to strike.

Legally barred from serving a third term, Cristina Kirchner left office in 2015. In a spectacular send-off at the overflowing Plaza de Mayo, her followers chanted the quintessential Peronist hymn: “Vamos a volver” [We’ll be back].

Cristina and her husband Nestór governed for twelve years in the immediate aftermath of 2001’s massive political and economic crisis. Whereas Latin America’s Pink Tide was largely led by upstart political parties, Kirchnerism was born from the head of Peronism. A movement created by Juan D. Perón in the 1940s, Peronism was characterized by its amphibious ideology and its capacity to claim an enduring loyalty among the nation’s popular classes.

In the 1990s, under the administration of Carlos Menem, Peronism traded in its long-standing Keynesian orientation for neoliberalism. With Nestór and Cristina Kirchner, a more traditional Peronism was reactivated, although not without expanding its established base to embrace non-Peronist progressive sectors and even layers of the former socialist and communist left. Most strikingly, the later Kirchner years saw a revival — albeit moderate, nostalgic — of a left-wing current of Peronism that in the 1970s included armed guerrilla tactics and the hopes of radicalizing the Peronist program in a socialist direction (a tendency disavowed and combated by Perón himself).

The Kirchner era can be divided into distinct phases. Néstor Kirchner began his presidency in 2003 with the promise of making Argentina “a normal country,” achieving economic growth and fiscal surpluses while pursuing a program of debt reduction (Kirchner paid off the debt owed to the IMF).

Cristina Kirchner assumed office in December 2007. Shortly into her first term, the so-called “farm crisis” erupted, pitting the government and their proposed agricultural tax bill against the powerful agro-export sector. The government would lose that battle, but the conflict proved a watershed moment and a moral victory for Kirchnerism, giving birth to a political saga centered on the age-old antagonism between “the people and the oligarchy.”

Nestór’s death in October 2010 injected an additional dose of mysticism into the Kirchnerist formula, bringing it into line with the overall tone of the Latin American Pink Tide. It was around that time that Cristina began to surround herself with figures like the neo-Keynesian economist Axel Kicillof and young La Campora militants, an organization created by Cristina’s son Máximo.

Cristina Kirchner left office with broad social support, but the first years of “Macrismo” found the core Kirchnerist organizations flagging, in no small part due to accusations of corruption brought against the former president and her milieu. Several of Kirchner’s top collaborators were imprisoned, and her supporting cast began to withdraw from the political stage.

With her popular support holding firm at around 30 percent, Cristina was left with what journalist José Natanson has called an “intense minority”: several mayoral positions in the Buenos Aires province and a parliamentary bloc grouped under her new organization, Citizen Unity [Unidad Ciudadana].

Working against the tide and with little remaining political capital, Cristina committed to rebuilding her political platform. Meanwhile, the existing division between pro- and anti-Kirchner sectors within Peronism began to widen.

Cristina Kirchner and her advisors quickly discovered that silence could be a more powerful weapon than speechmaking. From the offices of her Instituto Patria bunker in the center of Buenos Aires, this “politics of silence” became a leading strategy and the guiding principal behind her sparse, targeted interventions. Nothing could be further from the national government-sponsored TV and radio networks that typified Cristina’s consecutive four-year terms.

Strategies aside, none of it would have functioned had Macri not failed in such spectacular fashion.

The “silence strategy” was fine-tuned in 2019. Cristina sent her daughter Florencia to Cuba, ostensibly for medical reasons, although in so doing she avoided the possible arrest of her daughter and the subsequent collateral damage it could cause for her reelection hopes.

In a surprising turn of events, Cristina also announced the publication of her memoirs Sinceramente [Sincerely], which quickly became a smash hit with over 300,000 copies sold and included an official presentation-cum-political rally at the nation’s International Book Fair.

Despite preexisting signs of increasing political moderation, it was at the Book Fair that Kirchnerism’s centrist shift was made semiofficial. There, Cristina called for a “new social contract” and made a sly dig at Macri, suggesting he take notes from Trump on political economy; in her typically waggish manner, she alluded to the renowned anti-Peronist author Jorge Luis Borges on Peronism: “we Peronists are simply incorrigible.”

But nothing compared to the surprise of Cristina’s choice for her presidential running mate, Alberto Fernández. Absolutely no one expected it. No one had even thought to survey popular response to such an eventuality.

In fact, Fernández was until recently regarded by pro-Kirchner circles as a “traitor.” Fernández had parted ways with the government over the “farm crisis” of 2008; those whose memory went further back would recall that he had formed part of the party founded by Domingo Cavallo, architect of the country’s neoliberal nineties. More recently, he had been accused of acting as a lobbyist for the energy conglomerate Repsol, and as an agent working on behalf of the multimedia corporation Clarín, which had waged an unrelenting war on Cristina Kirchner’s public image.

Political polarization, à la Ernesto Laclau, has given Kirchnerism its share of political victories. It also served up a number of defeats: in 2013, and more recently in 2017, when Cristina Kirchner lost out to the Macri-loyal candidate in senatorial elections and only entered Congress by minority vote.

Anti-Kirchnerism has become its own political identity (superimposed, differences notwithstanding, with the long-standing anti-Peronist identity).

Cristina Kirchner seems to have grasped that, despite Macri’s weakened position, the famous “rift” that runs through Argentine society — comparable in many respects to the PT/anti-PT division in Brazil — could be her undoing.

For Kirchner-romantics, the twelve-year progressive government was a “popular spring” when society’s humblest lived happily, whereas the last four years of “Macrismo” represent a revanchist assault of the rich on the poor. Reality, though, is less linear.

The legacy of Kirchnerism is populated with different images: progressive measures like same-sex marriage, improvements in real wages, increased consumption for popular sectors, important advances in the trials of military figures tied to the dictatorship. At the same time, that legacy includes meddling in national statistics and the manipulation of inflation figures, oftentimes authoritarian rhetoric (even if that rhetoric was never translated into practice, unlike in Venezuela), and above all, diverse claims of corruption linked to public works. The growth in Néstor and Cristina Kirchner’s personal wealth is difficult to account for.

If silence has heretofore proven a viable strategy, a potential presidential campaign would expose Cristina Kirchner to the type of public scrutiny that could reactivate anti-Kirchnerism, as in fact took place in the 2017 senatorial race. Moreover, stoking anti-Kirchner sentiment seems ill advised at a time when the former president has been called to stand trial on corruption charges, with the media lined up to take a photo of Cristina on the defendant’s bench.

Beyond local difficulties, the current political scene suggests that progressive politics are either receding across the continent, or showing their least flattering side, as in the case of Venezuela. Where progressives still hold power, there is a marked tendency towards moderation: in the space of a few months Bolivian president Evo Morales surrendered former Italian guerrilla Cesare Battisti to Matteo Salvini in Italy, and in more recent days, has been making overtures to Luis Almagro. Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States and Nicolás Maduro’s number one enemy, effectively gave his endorsement for Morales’s fourth term following an unexpectedly cordial visit to La Paz.

Despite the severity of the crisis and the broad rejection of the IMF, the Argentine electorate has not expressed anything like a “demand for more radicalism.” The more “radical” moments of the Kirchner era are increasingly viewed as abuses of power, rather than possible avenues for social change. Cristina has grasped that the current contest will center on the moderate vote, and that her own platform should put forth a vision of order rather than division.

Among the supporters of Kirchnerism, many come from the Left and have no prior political experience with Peronism. They are now “discovering,” as it were, the deeper meaning of Peronism and just how effective its ideological pragmatism can be. This was on display in the 2018 edition of the Latin American Council of Social Sciences meeting (CLACSO), where, before a broadly feminist audience fresh from the struggle for legalized abortion, Cristina Kirchner announced that elections are only won when “green handkerchiefs” (pro-abortion) join with “blue handkerchiefs” (“pro-life”).

Going one step further, Cristina has now chosen as her presidential running mate a conservative moderate who once described her more “radicalized” second term as “deplorable.” Already in recent months Cristina had begun offering “amnesty” to several “traitors,” and now, Alberto Fernández has become her main political handler after ten years of personal and political bad blood.

Apart from being more “conciliatory,” and with greater traction among non-Kirchnerist Peronism, former cabinet minister Fernández hearkens back to the halcyon years of Néstor Kirchner in two senses. One, on a more sentimental level that recalls with fondness the deceased leader; and on a more pragmatic plane, the extremely good economic track record that Néstor left behind.

The “Fernández ticket” (Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Alberto Fernández) is thus a victory for those within the ranks of Kirchnerism who are looking to communicate a sense of order, against Macri who, according to Cristina, has brought “disorder” to the lives of the Argentines. The Fernández ticket also displaces more social movement-oriented tendencies like that represented by Juan Grabois, a young social leader and friend of Pope Francis.

No matter if Cristina’s name appears on the electoral ballot, Alberto Fernández’s presence is a warranty against the eventual “Venezuelafication” of Argentina, as per the fears of the local right-wing. His mission will be to unite as much as possible the disparate tendencies of Peronism, especially the governors in the nation’s hinterland who have at their disposal powerful political machines.

Public opinion analyst Rosendo Fraga captured the mood best: “this is not the version of Cristina that the government wanted to run against.” Journalist Diego Genoud spoke of the shifting scenario in the following terms: many Kirchnerists are beginning to see the pre-2015 Cristina era as a stage of political infancy, an age of national-popular self-congratulation and adolescent radicalism. With the current era, Kirchnerism enters adulthood.

Former minister Kicillof — who some regard as a kind of kirchnero-Marxist — is among the economists hurriedly travelling to the United States to convey the message to the IMF, that a Peronist government will not be looking to default on its loans and that it won’t mess with the rules of the game.

Meanwhile, Mauricio Macri and his followers are looking for a way out of the current dilemma: as they weigh their options, they will be asking themselves whether it is preferable to keep a weakened Macri as candidate, or make a last-minute substitution and bring on the popular governor María Eugenia Vidal.

The current administration was clearly better equipped to take on the “carnivorous” and not the current “herbivore” incarnation of Cristina. But the battle is just getting underway and the electoral campaign has many surprises left in store.