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Ghosts of the Past Haunt Argentina’s Politics

Ghosts of the Past Haunt Argentina’s Politics

Peronist leaders governed for roughly half the last seven decades, the movement surviving years of violent clashes and military interventions from the 1950s to 1970s. Whether during the pro-business administration of Carlos Menem or the nationalist governments of Nestor and Cristina Kirchner, corruption allegations have dogged Peronist presidencies while economic performance has failed to match expectations.

When Alberto Fernandez took his presidential campaign to the Buenos Aires suburb of La Matanza last week, he was entering a sprawling low-income district that is friendly territory for Argentina’s main opposition candidate.

His supporters cheered and held up banners—but Fernandez wasn’t the only focus of the crowd. Many waved flags featuring his running mate, and former president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, and the woman they both claim as their political and spiritual mentor: Eva Peron.

Images of “Evita” at a political rally almost 70 years after her death are testament to the durability—and flexibility—of the political movement she and her husband, President Juan Peron, unleashed on Argentina in the 1940s. A measure of its legacy is that both Fernandez and President Mauricio Macri are touting Peronist credentials as they contest what polls suggest will be a close-run election this fall.

As they cast their votes in Sunday’s primary amid recession, austerity and rampant inflation, Argentines are at a crossroads: continue down Macri’s route of market-friendly reform, however painful, or return to populist-leaning policies as espoused by Fernandez—with widespread expectations that his hand will be guided by Kirchner. Whichever way they choose, Peronism is likely to play a role. 

Romanticized by Hollywood and on Broadway, the hard reality in Argentina is that Peronism polarized its homeland long before Donald Trump entered U.S. politics or Brexit overcame Britain. That divisive legacy is again playing out in the campaign for Argentina’s presidential election in October.

Peronist leaders governed for roughly half the last seven decades, the movement surviving years of violent clashes and military interventions from the 1950s to 1970s. Whether during the pro-business administration of Carlos Menem or the nationalist governments of Nestor and Cristina Kirchner, corruption allegations have dogged Peronist presidencies while economic performance has failed to match expectations.

“In general, it’s been a disaster,” said Marcos Buscaglia, chief economist at Buenos Aires consulting firm Alberdi Partners. “A closed economy, fiscal and monetary imbalances, strong unions, high regulations and corruption—those have a lot to do with Peronism.”

That’s a view at odds with the roughly one third of Argentine voters whom polls show are certain to vote for the Fernandez-Kirchner ticket— voters like Noelia Irusta, a grade school teacher and self-confessed Peronist who attended the rally in La Matanza. She’s backing Kirchner-Fernandez “to reignite manufacturing” in Argentina. For her, Peronism is a “feeling” that gives “hope for the people and for workers.”

Peronism is historically of the nationalist left: it favors assembly line workers over business owners; labor unions hold an outsized influence; and its rhetoric is rooted in protest, anti-elitism and centered around national industry. But it’s since navigated a circuitous political path that allows it to be claimed by almost anyone.

Despite night-and-day ideologies, the top two tickets have prominent Peronists. Macri chose as his running mate Senator Miguel Pichetto, a moderate but more socially conservative Peronist. Kirchner, a left-winger with a track record of populist measures, is running alongside Fernandez, another Peronist with more centrist tendencies than her. Peronist representatives are thus almost ensured a top role in the next administration, whatever the outcome.

That instinct for survival underscores the nebulous nature of the movement, a fluidity that has allowed it to adapt, evolve and ultimately prevail through decades of political and economic turmoil. Indeed, Peronism is so ideologically elastic that it was able to accommodate both the privatization and nationalization of Argentine oil company YPF within just 20 years.

“The one that’s true to Peronism is the one who is pragmatic and sensible about knowing what the mood is,” said Paula Alonso, an Argentine history professor at George Washington University. “Peron himself was extremely pragmatic. He changed his mind and his policies several times.”

Even now, a majority of Argentine lawmakers identify as Peronists. But it is Kirchner who is most often seen as carrying the Peronist torch—and controlling its levers, from currying favor with governors to access to key strongholds like La Matanza. And that’s a worry for investors desperate to avoid a repeat of the cratered economy, currency controls and default that marked her eight-year presidency.

Macri succeeded Kirchner in 2015 pledging to lead Argentina out of international isolation, but a rocky turnaround forced him to request a record $56 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund. It’s arguably a reflection of the mistrust with which Kirchner is still regarded that polls suggest Macri could win a second term despite inflation running above 50% and the peso down almost 80% since he took office.

Yet there’s no doubting Kirchner’s popularity: Fernandez filled a high-school sized gymnasium in Buenos Aires; five days later in another suburb, Kirchner packed a 15,000-seat arena more used to hosting music acts like Sting. Many see her potential return as the solution, not the problem.

Argentina is in the throes of “a really bad economic crisis, and I think the only person that can bring us and this country’s economy forward is her,” administrator Nazareth Perez said at the arena. The others “all want to be Peronists, but they’re not,” she said. “The only person that has Peronism is Cristina. She always had her political conviction, she always had her political ideals, she never abandoned us.”

Juan Peron was a product of the Great Depression of the 1930s that forced Argentina to industrialize before World War II sparked a boom. Argentine leaders weren’t prepared for the pitfalls of rapid urbanization, real wages were in decline, and among workers there was “a sense that they had been excluded from the process,” said Joseph Page, Peron’s biographer and a professor at Georgetown Law. Peron, he said, “won them over.”

When he took office in 1946, Peron gave labor unions a seat at the table, and wages for industrial workers rose 53% in the next three years, Daniel James, a professor at Indiana University, wrote in a book on the era. Unlike his conservative predecessors, Peron avoided talk of lofty democratic ideals and sought to deliver concrete gains. Evita meanwhile won mass popularity as a champion of the poor and working classes.

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