Peronism returns to the forefront of Argentine politics
General Juan Domingo Perón, one of the most successful populists of the last century, once claimed that all Argentines are Peronists. While his many fierce detractors might shudder at the idea, the way Argentina’s presidential race is shaping up suggests he may have had a point.
Perón, a fervent nationalist with authoritarian tendencies, highlighted three guiding principles of his party: political sovereignty, economic independence and social justice. Peronism has also had a strong connection with trade unions and patronage-based politics.
But it is an ideologically versatile party that has swung abruptly from the freewheeling neoliberalism of Carlos Menem in the 1990s when Argentina boasted of “carnal relations” with the US, to leftist nationalism and virtual autarchy under Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who left power in 2015.
Peronism has also had an intimate relationship with the economic crises that have hit Argentina roughly every decade since its founder first came to power in 1946. The very term strikes fear into the hearts of many investors, who are painfully aware that Argentina has agreed more than 20 programmes with the IMF in that period — almost all of them ending badly.
With a presidential election due in October that could decide the fate of the IMF’s biggest bailout programme ever — a $56bn package agreed only last year — the stakes could hardly be higher.
In a campaign full of unexpected twists, many Argentines were surprised by Mr Macri’s choice of an influential Peronist senator, Miguel Angel Pichetto, as his running mate. It was seen as something of a backhanded compliment to the continuing strength of the Peronist movement.
“Macri needs all the help he can get,” said Steven Levitsky, a professor of government at Harvard University and a respected authority on Peronism, who said that Peronism may be diminished, but it was still in “good shape”.
Markets, meanwhile, welcomed Mr Macri’s choice of a Peronist as his running mate. Analysts believed it would bolster the president’s chances of re-election and contribute towards governability should he win.
“Here we have a Peronist that is joining [the ruling coalition], not the other way around,” said Fernando Iglesias, a congressman for the ruling coalition and author of It’s Peronism, Stupid, a book that blames the party for Argentina’s inexorable economic decline over the past 70 years.
He explained that Mr Macri was merely making “reasonable” overtures to “an electorate that needs to be won over”. Argentina is in the grip of a recession, with high unemployment and galloping inflation, and Mr Macri is struggling to convince voters that his painful economic policies will bear fruit.
Whether Mr Macri succeeds in October’s presidential election depends partly on the strength of another similarly unexpected slate. Former Peronist president Cristina Fernández surprised Argentines by announcing that she would run this time for vice-president, and had chosen Alberto Fernández, her little-known former cabinet chief and no relation, to run for president in her place.
There is also a group of so-called “moderate” Peronists led by former economy minister Roberto Lavagna, which polls suggest will come third in the polls.
Peronism is so kaleidoscopic that even Mr Macri’s coalition, renamed “Together for Change” since Mr Pichetto joined, has some roots in the party. Mr Levitsky pointed out that not only was Mr Macri’s father, a businessman whose fortune was earned through public sector contracts, closely connected to Peronism, but Mr Macri himself spent 12 years leading a “pretty Peronist” institution — the legendary football club, Boca Juniors.
“Macri differs from other non-Peronists in that he has always recognised that it is politically useful to blur the lines between Peronism and anti-Peronism, to not be perceived as a ‘gorila’,” said Mr Levitsky, using the derogatory Argentine term for staunch anti-Peronists. “He uses Peronist symbols and practices, and has always intelligently developed an image and a brand that is not so hardcore anti-Peronist.”
Whether that will be enough for Mr Macri to win over enough Peronist voters to triumph in October is unclear. His choice of Mr Pichetto as a running mate — like Ms Fernández’s decision to step aside — was driven more by political boldness than informed calculation, said María Esperanza Casullo, a political scientist at the National University of Río Negro.
“We have never before experienced elections like these, where a president has a chance of being re-elected but could also lose,” she added, pointing out that so far, Mr Pichetto has failed to bring many notable Peronists — like senators, regional governors or union leaders — with him to Mr Macri’s coalition.
Either way, Julio Bárbaro, who was a Peronist congressman in the 1970s under Perón’s last government, was gloomy about the future of Peronism: “When Peronism is everywhere it is because it is nowhere. It is nothing any more.”