Open stage in Argentina: Disillusionment in Macri and fear of the ghost of Kirchnerism
The start of the Argentine electoral cycle, culminating in the October 27 presidential elections following the August primaries, looks quite different than anything President Mauricio Macri could have imagined when he took office in December 2015.
Macri began his administration by announcing a sweeping “cultural shift” and appointing a ministerial cabinet he billed as “the best team in the last 50 years.” On the 2015 campaign trail, Macri claimed that taming inflation would be simple, that the Kirchners’ “accursed legacy” was to blame for existing problems, and, throughout his first term he claimed, “the worst was already over.” At the same time, Macri’s talking points were also infused with images of national decadence commonly attributed to Peronism.
However, at the tail end of his “liberal” mandate, Argentina is once again confronting its old problems: runaway inflation, lack of dollars, recession, declining social indicators, bailouts, oversight, austerity from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and above all, uncertainty about the future.
The scenario improves the electoral odds for Peronism, although strong internal divisions have also come to the fore, especially in relation to former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Her recent decision to compete as the vice-presidential candidate alongside the moderate Peronist Alberto Fernández has radically upended the existing political landscape.
Challengers had to react quickly to this manoeuvre, which caused, on the one hand, the implosion of the centre-right Peronist coalition Alternativa Federal (Federal Alternative), and on the other, a narrowing of the much-vaunted “middle ground” between Kirchnerism and the current administration. Fearing imminent defeat, Mauricio Macri has responded with his own power play, choosing Peronist senator Miguel Angel Pichetto as his vice-presidential running mate. Pichetto, who until recently belonged to the moderate opposition bloc in the Senate, has become the prized figure of the incumbent governing coalition overnight
A change in direction
The Cambiemos coalition—renames as “Juntos por el Cambio” (Together for Change) this June—is the result of the combined forces of Mauricio Macri’s Propuesta Republicana (PRO) and the much older Unión Cívica Radical (Civic Radical Union), known for its role in overseeing Argentina’s democratic transition.
Unlike the neoliberalism of the 1990s, which exulted the market and saw large private enterprise as the motor of any economy, “Macrismo” has centred its rhetoric on “entrepreneurialism” and “meritocracy.” With this, he has repeatedly appealed to the idea of making Argentina a “normal country” integrated with the rest of the world. Macri even presents himself as a defender of the public sector, albeit with a “different vision.” These elements allowed Macri to develop a more politically moderate “new right wing” platform, capable of taking power democratically in a country where the right wing has only ever done so through undemocratic means.
On the economic front, the government promoted “gradualism,” which drew criticism from more orthodox liberals who accused Macri of being a “populist with good manners.” Indeed, out of political necessity, he maintained most of the social spending programs from the Kirchner years. But the government’s ultimate economic failure sent it into the arms of the IMF and its politics of fiscal adjustment. By the end of 2018, Argentina was suffering from 47 percent inflation, and the dollar had risen from 10 to 46 pesos over four years, with unemployment at 10 percent, the highest rate since 2006.
In terms of broader social policy, the government sustained a number of ambiguous positions. For example, Macri approved parliamentary debate on the legalization of abortion and allowed his party deputies to decide freely on the matter, despite his own personal opposition. The bill was ultimately voted down in the Senate.
Lacking any hard figures to back it up, the Macri administration, following the counsel of Ecuadorean communications guru Jaime Durán Barba, insists that despite the current troubles, Argentina is laying a “real foundation” for growth. According to this narrative, while the Kirchner governments saw an increase in purchasing power and popular consumption, this was essentially fictitious growth. The current government argues that subsidies for public services and growth in public expenditures and corruption had produced a sense of well-being that was only sustainable in the short-term.
Meanwhile, the current administration claims that the fight to reduce the fiscal deficit, administered by the IMF, along with further “structural adjustments,” are laying the groundwork for a new country. Though results may not be visible in his first term, they will undoubtedly soon emerge if the citizenry grants Macri four more years in the Casa Rosada.
According to Transport Minister Guillermo Dietrich, many Argentines still have the “emotional intelligence” to know that, in order for transformation to come into fruition, they must vote to re-elect Macri, despite the current economic situation.
But there are also other emotions in play, and a large part of Macri’s electoral base will simply be voting against the return to power of Cristina Kirchner, who they see as the sum of authoritarianism and corruption. Here, Durán Barba explained it without ambiguity: “fear beats out disillusion.” In other words, the incumbent government is betting that fear of Kirchner’s populism will outweigh the country’s broad disappointment with Macri’s first term. It seems then that the current government’s best bet is to talk as little as possible about economics on the campaign trail.
By including Senator Pichetto on the presidential ticket, Macri has injected a sense of enthusiasm into the campaign. Pichetto himself is an odd figure: he combines liberal economic views with pro-U.S. foreign policy, alongside an anti-migration rhetoric similar to the global alt-right and strong support for legalizing abortion.
He also flirts with the same anti-communist rhetoric that proved so fruitful for Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil: he claimed, for example, that Axel Kicillof, Kirchner’s economic minister (2013-2015) and current candidate for governor in the Buenos Aires province, is a “communist” on the basis of his past involvement in left-wing university politics.
With the presence of Pichetto, Macri appears to be seeking to build a “Peronist foothold” that, given his essentially anti-Peronist platform, would allow him to create a political opening. Pichetto himself is an able politician, who, should Macri win, would improve governability and relations with the Peronist governors—who control the majority of the nation’s provinces—as well as in Congress.
The Ghost of Kirchnerism
If anything is haunting the current electoral year, it is the ghost of the former president. Constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive term in 2015, Cristina received a clamorous send off at the Plaza de Mayo with cheers of “Vamos a volver” (We’ll be back). However, the ensuing period has not been simple for the two-time president.
Her successor’s defeat in the 2015 election was followed by a deluge of anti-corruption trials that began to peel off her closest political allies and debilitate her political circle. Kirchnerism nevertheless survived, basically due to Cristina’s popular support base with approval ratings remaining steady at 30 percent—a base line that some media outlets have defined as an “intense minority.”
Unlike in other Pink Tide governments, Kirchnerism did not emerge from a new party but rather from a particular strain of Peronism, an enigmatic political identity. Founded in the 1940s by Colonel Juan Domingo Perón, Peronism always possessed some fascistic elements common to 1940s nationalism, alongside “social-democratic” tendencies. This led to the creation of one of Latin America’s strongest welfare states, buoyed by the person of Eva Perón, who lent a certain mythic dimension to the Peronist project, which reached its peak in 1952 when Eva died at the age of 33.
There is, however, an additional element that helps to explain the fascinating ubiquity of Peronism in Argentine society: the lengthy exile of Juan Perón, primarily in Madrid, from 1955 until 1973. From his exile in Madrid, Perón conveyed a variety of ideological messages that encouraged both right-wing (including far-right) and left-wing (sometimes extreme) tendencies.
Perón’s successors after the return of democracy in 1983 have only served to highlight the protean nature of his namesake ideology. Where Carlos Menem (1989-1999) applied a neoliberal program, Néstor (2003-2007) and Cristina Kirchner (2007-2015) drew on a brand of left-wing Peronism that since the 1970s had been a minority current, repudiated by none other than Perón himself.
Under Menem, Argentina engaged in what Foreign Minister Guido Di Tella described as “carnal relations” with the United States; by contrast, the Kirchners were aligned with the Venezuelan- led Pink Tide, though neither were ever seduced by Chávez’s talk of “21st century socialism.”
Kirchnerism combined a nostalgia for the 1970s Peronist Youth radicalism—with its armed struggle for “national liberation” later becoming the target of the state-led terrorism of the military dictatorship—and a basically moderate reformist project. Indeed, the Kirchners’ populist rhetoric paired with much more republican institutional practices than those of Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa, or Evo Morales. In fact, Kirchnerism was able to attract broad sectors of middle-class progressives who came from outside the ranks of Peronism.
Despite her popularity in the peripheries of Buenos Aires, Cristina Kirchner took second place when she ran for the senate in the province of Buenos Aires in 2017, only winning a seat by minority vote
However, one of Kirchnerism’s weak points was corruption. Public—and personal—financing through opaque handling of multi-million-dollar budgets for public works has produced major fallout. “They stole everything” has become a simple, effective tagline for the anti-Kirchnerist wing, one that reduces the entire Kirchner era to corruption, papering over the complexities of an often-contradictory political experience.
Those contradictions included the Kirchner era’s embrace of rights-based language, which brought about, among other things, the approval of same-sex marriage, although not legal abortion. Its governments stimulated popular consumption, and generally refrained from using state violence against social protest. But the Kirchnerist economic model did not achieve structural reform. Besides, state contracts for public works were frequently victim to cartelization, and the lack of transparency in state-managed resources implicated diverse sectors, including social movements and human rights organizations.
Furthermore, the final Kirchnerist years saw the manipulation of national statistics and an intensified populist rhetoric of friend or foe, which only grew louder as the economic situation worsened. Beginning with the so-called “crisis of the campo” of 2008, in which the government tried and failed to raise agricultural taxes on the agricultural-export sector, Kirchnerism embraced a more “Chavista” language, although in practice it was far off from altering the constitutional order as had occurred in Venezuela.
Despite her popularity in the peripheries of Buenos Aires, Cristina Kirchner took second place when she ran for the senate in the province of Buenos Aires in 2017, only winning a seat by minority vote. And this in and of itself is an alarm signal for the current electoral year. Recently, it appears that the former president and her advisors have discovered that her standing in the polls tends to improve the less she speaks in public.
Hence, she has adopted a “politics of silence” in recent months and has given uncharacteristically sparse speeches. But this year, Cristina launched a significant political intervention in the form of a memoir, Sinceramente, which quickly became a publishing phenomenon and sold more than 300,000 copies—bringing her back into the political limelight.
On the heels of that successful political marketing campaign, the former president made a decision that would alter the entire political scenario: stepping aside and instead running for vice president. Shirking the more combative style that the electorate associates with the former head-of-state, she placed the moderate Alberto Fernández at the top of the ticket.
Fernández, a former strongman from the first Kirchner administration, eventually fell out with the Kirchnerist circle and became a fierce critic of Cristina, earning him the moniker of “traitor” among the Kirchner- faithful. Having only recently made peace with Cristina Kirchner, Fernández has become one of her principal advisors and is now leading the ticket as the presidential candidate on the Kirchnerist formula.
The endgame has been to unite Peronism, a feat the divisive figure of Cristina Kirchner—particularly for powerful Peronist governors—would not be able to achieve. And Cristina knows all too well that foisting a presidential campaign would trigger an anti-Kirchnerist backlash. Alberto Fernández, for his part, has meanwhile recently described himself as representing the “progressive liberal” wing of Peronism, and his presence undoubtedly assuages any fears of a potential “Venezuelafication” of Argentine politics.
As the name of their recently baptized coalition, “Frente de Todos” (Alliance of All), suggests, the objective is to build a new catch-all Kirchnerism that can make peace with former “traitors” while also appealing to economic powers with promises of moderation, alongside a more proactive industrial policy capable of improving the domestic market and profits.
For its part, Macrismo has conjured the spectre of Venezuela and concern over a future “Ministry of Vengeance” to stoke the kind of fear necessary to overcome the resounding disappointment in its administration, to return to the dilemma posed by Durán Barba.
An Open Field
From here until October, the race is wide open. At the time of writing (June 2019), the polls do not allow us to predict any specific scenario. There is, how- ever, one paradox worth noting: as the divide between the two poles deepens, both blocs are seeking to show that they are the “broader force:” Kirchnerism is pitch- ing to the center, while Macri is looking to embrace Peronists.
And beyond the electoral scenario, everyone is aware that the space for economic manoeuvring is exceedingly narrow. If Macri wins again, it will not only be the first time that a non-Peronist government completes a democratic term, it will also mean that his new center-right force will have put down roots in the national political terrain. If the Peronist/Kirchnerist ticket wins, we will be witnesses to the reinvention of that political vehicle, because it will certainly not be the same Kirchnerism we’ve seen before.