Argentina: the state we're in

Celia Szusterman
25 October 2005

At the end of 2001 Argentina suffered the most dramatic of the recurrent crises that have plagued the last sixty years. The difference was that this time it was a triple crisis: fiscal, monetary and of political representation. The fiscal crisis was partly solved earlier this year with the unilateral renegotiation of the largest sovereign default in history. A solution to the 25% of “hold-outs” that did not accept the government’s offer is still awaited.

The monetary crisis was solved through a devaluation that left 50% of the population under the poverty line, and salaries at their lowest in over thirty years. That figure is now down to 40%, but more than a million families are kept just above that line via cash subsidies handed out by the state and used as one means of sustaining a formidable clientelist political machine.

Did the mid-term elections of 23 October in Argentina begin to solve the crisis of political representation and of the political system as a whole? Has democratic governance been strengthened as a result? What is indisputable is that the 40% of the votes obtained by President Néstor Kirchner offer him the legitimacy that the May 2003 elections had not. At that time, and as a result of a cunning ploy by then acting president, Eduardo Duhalde, in order to stop his arch rival Carlos Menem (president from 1989-99) from becoming president for a third time, Kirchner came second with 22% of the vote. Menem’s decision to withdraw from the second round required by the electoral law meant that Kirchner became the “22% president”.

Kirchner has been driven by three obsessions since then:

  • to consolidate the largest and most prolonged fiscal surplus Argentina has ever experienced
  • to abolish the legislation that pardoned the military accused and found guilty of gross human-rights violations during the 1976-83 dictatorship
  • to rid himself of his mentor and predecessor, Eduardo Duhalde

The results of the elections indicate that Kirchner has now obtained his third aim. The president nominated his wife, Cristina, until now senator for their home province of Santa Cruz, to run for a senate seat for the province of Buenos Aires, the largest (with 38% of the population), richest (though also with the highest concentration of poor people), and indisputable fiefdom of the most powerful Peronist boss: Eduardo Duhalde.

Her chief rival in the election was none other than Duhalde’s wife, Hilda. Kirchner’s wife (replaced as senator for Santa Cruz by her sister) obtained 45% of the vote to Hilda Duhalde’s 20%. This, the pivotal outcome in these elections, reveals far more than these bare statistics suggest.

A question of Peronism

Néstor Kirchner has emerged as the undisputed boss (the word is not used lightly) of the formidable Peronist, clientelist machine of the province of Buenos Aires. The achievement can be understood by recalling the very identity of Peronism in Argentina and the political culture it represents. The need for such a perspective is reflected in the fact that a day after the elections, many duhaldistas were quoted in the press saying that perhaps it had been a mistake to oppose the president, and that the time had come to join the winner.

This is what Peronism is about. It was born in and from power in 1946, in opposition to other parties that struggled to reach power. Peronism exercises power by using state resources to buy support: provincial governors in federal Argentina are totally dependent on central government transfers. The 1994 constitution stated that within a year a mechanism for transparent and accountable transfers had to be established by congress.This has still not happened more than a decade later; nor will it happen since it is the key tool to maintain power and reward or punish loyalists and “traitors”.

The predominance of Peronism since the return to democracy in 1983 after more than twenty-five years of political instability and successive military coups is at the core of Argentina’s fragile democracy. This fragility no longer generates the risk of military intervention (the ability of the military to operate as political actors was crushed by a combination of popular revulsion at its illegitimate and abhorrent tactics in the “dirty war” era, and its ignominious defeat in the Falklands/Malvinas war of 1982). Rather, it is revealed by a political culture dismissive of institutions, of the separation of powers, of the rule of law – and led by politicians careless of the law.

This systemic fragility is topped by a president who – in quintessential populist style, demonises the opposition – by branding it as enemies of the nation and of the people, engaged in a permanent state of conspiracy aimed at “destabilisation”.

A crisis of opposition

Meanwhile, the collapse of the Radical party since its disastrous administration in 1999-2001 has meant an end to the two-party system. Its decadence had started in 1994, when former president Raul Alfonsín relinquished any oppositional role by entering into a secret pact with then president, Carlos Menem, to amend the constitution.

Menem wanted a re-election clause introduced. In exchange, Alfonsín obtained an increase of senate seats from two to three per province. The constitution indicated that the first two seats would go to the winner, and the third to the opposition. But Alfonsín underestimated the ability of Peronism to manipulate the rules. By inventing new names to fight elections (Kirchner’s own is Front for Victory) there were, by 2003, three Peronist candidates for the presidency, and in 2005 Peronists running under different names will capture the designated three seats in several provinces.

Much has been said about the fragmentation of the opposition. On a national level, Kirchner’s Front for Victory obtained 40% of the vote, non-Kirchner Peronists’ 11%, the Radical Party almost 14%, centre-right parties almost 8%, and different shades of left-wing parties (totally irreconcilable amongst themselves) 27%.

Is there a possibility of the non-Peronist “half” of Argentina finding a single voice to offer an alternative to Peronism? It seems highly unlikely on the basis of existing voting patterns. A look at the electoral campaign will help to explain not just this weakness, but that of the system of representation and the wider political culture.

A problem of democracy

This electoral campaign was marked by a double violation: of the main aspects of the electoral law and of the spirit of the constitution.

The president, although not himself a candidate, mobilised all the resources of the state to fund the campaign of his party and his allies. He travelled 50,000 miles in the last two months to attend public events state-managed by his supporters (including the busing of people, payments of cash and food); he made funds available to provide free washing machines and DVD players to the poorest dwellers of Buenos Aires province; and he constantly denounced the opposition as enemies of “the new Argentina” (while never defining properly his own “project” for the country).

Kirchner’s approach indicates the most striking aspect of this campaign: it was one bereft of ideas or proposals. There was nothing other than individual people, political figures, to identify with. When voices were raised to criticise government policies – their lack of transparency or lack of policies (as in areas of education or law and order) – the government ignored them. It was extraordinary to observe that in a country with 40% of its population living below the poverty line, not once was the issue of poverty discussed.

After twenty-two years of democratic rule, the quality of democracy and of citizens’ rights in Argentina shows worrying deficits. The Peronist political culture and its exercise of power has exacerbated the worst characteristics of a hyper-presidentialist system. The president’s own mode of rule – labelled “style K” – has not contributed to strengthening Argentina’s weak institutions.

“Style K” is not pretty. Kirchner prefers confrontation over negotiation; employs bully-boy tactics when dealing with the opposition, his own minsters, the press or foreign businessmen; refuses to hold cabinet meetings or give press interviews or conferences; and rules by decree rather than with congress. All this can be interpreted as revealing an ignorance of civic culture at best, or a lurking authoritarianism at worst. After all, both were key features of Peronism at its inception.

The result is the insidious propagation of a culture of fear. The hegemonic reflexes of Peronism – armoured by clientelism, nepotism and disregard (if not open violation) of the electoral law – are gathering pace. This situation creates fear that Peronism will turn into an hegemonic party along the lines of Mexico’s PRI.

Already there are signs that Kirchner will use his victory not to implement public policies to sustain the recovery of the last two years, but to start plotting his re-election in 2007. He may even decide to propose that his wife replaces him until 2011, so that he could in principle then return for two more four-year terms. This would mean rule by the Kirchner couple until 2019.

The hegemonic risks are real. But paradoxically the antidote lies in Peronism itself. Being government and opposition, held together by the largesse of the state in the rising phase of an economic cycle, many of those who today are thinking of joining the kirchnerista bandwagon will be the first to abandon it once the going turns tough. To win a presidential election outright, a candidate needs more than 45% of the vote, or, at least 40% with a ten-point difference over the runner-up. Argentina’s presidential elections have never gone to a second round, and it is conceivable that Kirchner will continue to use money to build his personal coalition.

Meanwhile, an opposition gathered behind democracy’s “big ideas” – guaranteeing an open society, alternation in government, a free press, the strengthening of institutions to guarantee the separation of powers, the emergence of a proper system of political parties – has a long struggle ahead. Until then, Argentina’s “low-intensity” democracy in Argentina will remain the arena in which populism thrives.

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