In Chile and Argentina, anti-populist politics is failing
It was only last year that Argentine president Mauricio Macri proclaimed from the stage of the Fundación Libertad in Buenos Aires: “We’ve been [in] a populist feast for so many years; we a reready for a cultural change.” Sitting next to him, Sebastián Piñera, president of Chile, gave Mr Macri his support in “put[ting] an end to decades of decline”. He added that “Chile is a reference”. An audience of business leaders, rightwing politicians and anti-populist policy wonks, not to mention the Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, gave them a standing ovation.
But outside that room, dissatisfaction with rising prices, stagnant wages and denuded welfare programmes fuelled protests among the poor and the middle class alike. Then Peronism turned this frustration into electoral success. The defeat of Mr Macri in Sunday’s elections by the Peronist Alberto Fernández, at the same time as his ally Mr Piñera faces the largest popular mobilisation in recent history across the Andes, showed the limits of the latest incarnation of rightwing anti-populist politics.
Mr Macri obtained more than 40 per cent of the vote. And although it lost, his Together for Change coalition did remarkably well considering that the administration had driven the country to the brink of economic collapse. The president won support in areas associated with the “modern Argentina”: urban and rural centres tied to world trade, from the soy corridor to tourism and global companies. Mr Macri offered voters in these areas more than money. He invited them to join a crusade to recover a mythical golden age of prosperity by removing the obstacle of populist politics.
Anti-populism shaped Mr Macri’s years in office. He came to power in 2015 promising economic liberalisation and a technocracy that would restore good government by taking on time-serving bureaucrats, trade unions and social movements. It was a recipe for eradicating Peronism.
Like Mr Piñera in Chile, Mr Macri also hoped to tackle inequality. But he wanted this to happenthrough improvements to productivity and education, rather than through redistribution.
He cut subsidies for transport and utilities, eliminated capital controls and reduced most tariffs on commodity exports. The hope was that liberalisation would attract foreign capital. Later, a government official confessed: “We thought it would be easier, that just because [the barriers were lifted], investment would pour in.” In the event, opening up the economy did not bring the desired results. In fact, average foreign direct investment during Mr Macri’s term is strikingly similar to that registered under his protectionist predecessor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
As the outlook turned bleak, the government started talking more about the past and also warned of the potentially catastrophic consequences of a return to populism. At the same time, it sought to criminalise social protest. This was the cost of avoiding the “Venezualisation” of Argentina, or so officials argued.
There was a problem with that narrative, however: vast swaths of the population have happy memories of that populist past. Redistribution under Juan Perón brought workers’ share of national income above 50 per cent. More recently, “Kirchnerismo” followed the Latin American “pink tide” and used the commodities boom to reduce inequality.
This is not to say that Kirchnerismo was perfect. On the contrary. Its approach to the agricultural sector and to the media was disastrous. Nor did it go far enough in attacking the structural conditions of poverty. And it relied on the very economic dynamics that reinforce inequality: so-called extractivism and the expansion of soy production. Populism does have problems — but they are not those that Mr Macri decried.
In the run-up to the election, Mr Macri and the coalition insisted that democracy and the viability of the country would be threatened if the Peronists recaptured power. Ultimately, though, it was the adverse economic environment that sealed the president’s fate. At the same time, however, the government’s vitriolic attacks on populism consolidated a radicalised social coalition that feels itself in full-frontal conflict with supporters of Peronism. This is a novel and tragic aspect of Argentine democracy.
The writer is an associate professor of Latin American history at the University of Bergen andauthor of ‘Ambassadors of the Working Class: Argentina’s International Labor Activists andCold War Democracy in the Americas