Argentina’s Brief Right-Wing Resurgence Is Waning

Fernando Rosso
Nicolas Allen

Last month’s primary elections in Argentina destroyed the basis for conservative president Mauricio Macri’s legitimacy. They also provoked a vicious backlash from financial markets, showing capital’s hostility to popular democracy.

Mauricio Macri in 2013. Mauricio Macri / Flickr

The outcome of the recent primary elections in Argentina has left the political class in limbo. In an electoral system where uncontested primaries act as a de facto general election, the huge number of votes that went to Alberto Fernández and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s Frente de Todos was so overwhelming (47 percent versus Macri’s 32 percent) that victory in the general elections is numerically irreversible.

The so-called “Fernández formula” has thus emerged as a virtual government poised to replace the devastated administration of Mauricio Macri. However, Argentina’s convoluted electoral system forestalls the inevitable, creating a paradoxical and volatile situation: conservative president Macri has lost all real political power but maintains the formal kind, while the moderate Alberto Fernández wields real power but must wait to be formally invested in December.

Although Argentina’s primary system is meant to be an election for party and coalition candidates who will run in the October general election, the unexpected results of the August primaries have given birth to a new, de facto administration. Institutional norms stipulate that the numbers from the August polls must be confirmed two months later in October, and that the new president can only take office in December. That is to say, Argentina has four long months ahead.

Going by “Argentina time” — a temporality based on constant political and economic uncertainty — the four-month transition timeline can feel like an eternity. Meanwhile, the main contending political forces are still on the campaign trail. A sort of “dual power” has taken shape at the highest level of government, a suis generis power vacuum in which one administration marks a retreat while still holding onto the reins of government and the state, while a conquering force is obliged to wait in the wings. The incoming political configuration — a more moderate version of the center-left Kirchner administrations — is plain for all to see but cannot be realized for the time being. And the acting neoliberal president Mauricio Macri, again, has lost all power: the king has no clothes.

For Macri, this new reality was brought home by the quick about-face of the local establishment press. The same Argentine media personalities that once shamelessly praised the president are now quick to air their grievances, calling for acts of self-criticism and demonstrating a shocking lack of respect for a government of which only a month earlier they were virtual mouthpieces. Other analysts engage in a time-honored tradition: speculations around the physical and mental health of the head-of-state, his evident disconnect from reality and his fits of rage.

The president’s Monday press conference, held immediately after the primary, did little to dispel these hypotheses: there, Macri inveighed against “the people” that voted for the opposition candidate, alleging that they were responsible for the ensuing post-primary financial chaos.

The international press was also quick to weigh in. The Financial Times informed its investors that Macri’s time is up, and Bloomberg assured its readers that it is only a matter of time before Argentina declares bankruptcy, while the Argentina correspondent for El País wrote that the country was hovering over a “a yawning power vacuum”.

In a WhatsApp chat, 250 of the country’s most important CEOs began to discuss the possibility of President Macri stepping aside and allowing center-right Peronist Roberto Lavagna to run in his stead (Lavagna, who won 8 percent of the vote, has since dropped out of the race). Although many of those impresarios later clarified that these were just rumors, this is the type of gossip that floats to the surface when a political situation is starting to fall apart.

The political conjuncture is feeding into a broader crisis whose root cause is the spectacular collapse of the presiding economic model. And that same model is what led to Macri’s defeat in the primaries. Argentina’s debt hovers ominously close to 100 percent of GDP, recessionary trends and runaway inflation are wreaking havoc on the population, and interest rates currently stand at 70 percent.

The possibility of advancing elections and fast-tracking a “turbulent transition” is also off the table. Such measures were taken at the end of Raúl Alfonsin’s administration in the late 1980s, when the victorious Peronist candidate Carlos Menem took office early despite the fact that Alfonsin’s term was not yet over. A solution of this type for a Macri-Fernández transition would require mobilizing a series of complicated legal mechanisms, but doing so would add to existing political difficulties, and greater political tensions would only serve in the last instance to worsen the already dire economic situation.

Argentina’s economic crisis — just like every other crisis, but even more so given that the neoliberal model preferred by Macri places fundamental emphasis on “investor confidence” — can only be contained through a stable political authority. And that is the one thing the government lost in the August primaries. In other words, the crisis is hitting hardest at a moment when authority is at its weakest, making it difficult for the outcome to be anything other than total catastrophe.

Rounding out this picture, the campaign marches forward with the president-candidate hybrid of Mauricio Macri facing off against the candidate-virtual presidency of Fernández. The sitting president’s first reaction to the primary results was to invoke what has become his only real political asset, his only hope of regaining lost terrain: a once useful, completely fanatical anti-Kirchnerism that increasingly serves the single purpose of undermining Macri’s preferred image as the consensus candidate with a political majority supporting him. Two days after trying and failing to launch the “anti-K” option, Macri clumsily tried to walk back that strategy and announced a series of social palliatives, a “late-stage populist” gesture that would put a few extra pesos in Argentine pockets amid stagflationary pressures.

The consequences of Macri’s fumbling improvisations are there for everyone to see: the peso was devalued by 25 percent, the country’s credit risk rating reached a record-high 1,700 points (the highest in a decade), and the effects of inflation were immediately felt in supermarkets around the nation. Companies have since put a hold on sales until new prices can be set, and official forecasts predict another inflationary spike in the near future.

Political instability has dragged the interests of the powerful out into the light of day while laying bare the true nature of democracy. Given that the results of the election were at odds with the desired outcome of the power elite, as the common expression says, “the markets voted down” the popular vote. A tiny group of people turned all their firepower against the civil participation of twenty-five million voters attempting to exercise some form of sovereign decision-making. In other words, this was an object lesson in the true workings of a class democracy. More to the point, this blackmailing tactic leveled against a majoritarian decision is being upheld by the president of Argentina, whose role today more closely resembles that of a delegate sent before the Argentine citizenry to represent the interests of “the markets.”

The idea of popular sovereignty in Argentina has been overshadowed by the despotic whims of a powerful minority. Paradoxically, street power (the only kind of power that can effectively oppose concentrated power) is restrained for the time being. The conservative bureaucracy of trade unions and social movements — yesterday a crucial bastion for steadying Macri’s government, today supporting the incoming Peronist administration — is at pains to keep things quiet as the country is being ransacked. Aspirations and hope of change can also be turned into tools for pacification. And the election results are themselves contradictory, introducing factors that are both destabilizing and stabilizing at the same time.

But given the violence unleashed by the crisis and the labyrinth in which the South American nation finds itself, one prediction seems fair to make: sooner or later the political dispute will return to that terrain on which all great political changes take place in Argentina — mobilization, expressed in the language of the multitudes taking to the streets.