Argentina’s Election: Who Won What?

Commentary No. 414, December 1, 2015

On Nov. 22, 2015, Mauricio Macri defeated Daniel Scioli in Argentina’s presidential election somewhat narrowly by just under three percentage points. Most analysts called this the triumph of the right over the left. This is not false but it is far too simple. Actually, the election reflected the very complex developments occurring throughout Latin America at the present time. Misreading what is going on can lead to major political errors in the decade to come.

The story starts during the Second World War. Argentina’s government was neutral but actually sympathetic to the Axis powers. Beginning in 1943, an opposition movement that linked the trade-union movements and younger army officers came into existence. A key figure was Col. Juan Perón, who became Secretary of Labor in the government. His brief arrest in 1945 led to street demonstrations and his release after eight days. The elections in 1946 were essentially between an anti-imperialist (that is, anti-United States) and pro-labor welfare state candidate (Perón) and a rightwing candidate openly supported by the U.S. Ambassador. Perón won and implemented his program with the assistance of his charismatic second wife, Evita, heroine of the descamisados (“shirtless ones”).

Peronism is not a policy but a style, often called populism. It followed that in terms of policies, there are many Peronisms – right, center, and left. What unites them are mythic figures. Perón’s more or less left Peronism was brought to an end by a military coup in 1955. Perón went into exile and married his third wife, Isabel, who was Spanish.

The military allowed elections in 1976. Perón returned and stood for election with Isabel as his Vice-Presidential candidate. He died after a year in office and was succeeded by Isabel, who was very unpopular. This was a period of rightwing military coups throughout Latin America – Chile, Brazil, Peru, Uruguay, and Argentina. In Argentina, this is called the period of the “dirty war,” in which there were perhaps 30,000 desaparecidos (“disappeared ones”), who were eliminated brutally.

By 1983, the military had exhausted their support and it seemed both wise and safe to allow a return to civilian rule. In 1989, Carlos Menem, a Peronista, became president. He pursued a very rightwing policy, both in terms of obedience to the neoliberal requirements of the IMF and the alignment with U.S. geopolitical priorities.

In 1998, Hugo Chavez’s election as president of Venezuela marked the beginning of the so-called pink tide. It was a consequence not only of popular dismay with the serious income declines caused by observing the Washington Consensus but of the onset of the decline of U.S. power in the Middle East, to which it was giving priority of attention.

In 2001, a more or less anarchist movement, the piqueteros (blockers of streets by refusing to move) emerged as a strong political force. Their political method was known as the caceroles (or banging metal pots and pans). Their slogan was “Que se vayan todos!” (“Out with them all!”). They forced the neoliberal but Peronista regime to resign.

Following continued turmoil, the elections of 2003 pitted neoliberal Peronista Carlos Menem against alterglobalization and Peronista Néstor Kirchner. Kirchner’s lead in the polls was so great that Menem withdrew. Kirchner governed for four years succeeded by his wife Cristina who was elected twice with large margins. Argentina now was governed by a subvariety of Peronism called Kirchernismo.

Cristina could not run again in 2015 because the law forbids more than two successive terms in office. The Kirchnerista forces, known now as the Frente para la Victoria (FPV) put forward Daniel Scioli as their candidate. Scioli is considered more centrist than Cristina, and her support was lukewarm. Nonetheless, it was expected that in the primaries of August 9, Scioli would easily win on the first round. He came in first but was forced into a second round, which Macri won, if narrowly.

Macri’s victory is also part of a Latin American pattern. The good days of the economic expansion of the “emergent economies” had reached its limits throughout the world-economy and was causing belt-tightening everywhere. Macri promised an economic solution, one that would bring inflation under control and renew economic growth. He however asserted that his program would be moderate in certain ways. He would not reprivatize industries that Cristina had renationalized. And he would retain some of the welfare state measures of the Kirchner regimes.

There is no question that Macri is a man of the right and intends to rule as far to the right as he can. The question now is how far can he? He is faced by two major constraints. One is worldwide; one is internal. The worldwide constraint is the degree to which there will be a revival of the “good times” for the Global South in the decade to come. If not, Macri will have to explain in the elections of 2019 why it is that his solutions solved nothing or very little for the vast majority of the Argentine population. In short, he would bear the blame rather than Scioli (and the Kirchneristas) for continued economic difficulties.

The internal constraint is more subtle. Some analysts believe that Cristina is quite happy with Scioli’s defeat. Not only does she not like him, but had he won, he would most likely have stood again in 2019. Cristina now can be the candidate in 2019, the last date at which her age would reasonably permit it.

As I write, Macri has not yet put forward his precise program. He stands for maximizing open borders permitting the free flow of commodities and capital. In particular he wishes to end the cepo al dolar – the link of the official rate of the peso to the U.S. dollar. But not totally, at least not immediately. He must balance the short-term negative effect, flight of capital, with the middle-term positive effect he asserts will occur – greater foreign investments that will lower by itself the rate of exchange and hence the inflation.

He wishes to participate in the free trade treaties in process, both in the Pacific and in the Atlantic. And he wishes to redefine the role of the South American trade alliance of Mercosur, including expelling Chavez’s Venezuela, to which he is totally hostile. But this requires unanimity and both Brazil and Uruguay have indicated their opposition.

In world affairs, he wishes to restore close relations with the United States and detach Argentina from its relations with Iran. He seeks also to reaffirm support for the Organization of American States, the structure including North America that most other countries in Latin America have wanted to replace with ones with only Latin American and Caribbean members. But he also says that his foreign policy priority is relations with Brazil, the largest trade partner for his country. And President Rousseff has indicated she will attend Macri’s inaugural. Brazil will constitute a constraint on Macri.

Finally, one issue of the last years has been the amnesty law that absolved the military for all their crimes during the dirty war. The Kirchner regime had repealed the amnesty and was prosecuting the few still living major figures. Macri has said he will not interfere with the judicial process, to the dismay of some of the ultras in his camp. But will not those prosecuted be released for insufficient proof?

In short, Macri does indeed represent a rightward push. But it does not represent an end to Kircherismo, nor a situation in which the left (however we define it in this particular situation) is without weapons and without hope.