Argentina's broken polity

Celia Szusterman
13 July 2009

Argentina has now been ruled by Cristina Kirchner for nineteen months. A presidency that was launched on the promise of renewal, even if it was inherited in dynastic fashion from her husband Néstor Kirchner, has now lasted long enough for the voters to pass at least a provisional judgment. Their verdict - in the mid-term elections of 28 June 2009 - was not pretty. What does the result say about the condition of Argentinean democracy, and the likely fate of Cristina Kirchner's remaining period in office until the next scheduled presidential elections in October 2011?

Celia Szusterman is principal lecturer in Spanish and Latin American studies at the University of Westminster and an associate fellow at the Institute for the Study of the Americas, University of London

Also by Celia Szusterman in openDemocracy:

"Argentina: the state we're in" (26 October 2005)

"Latin America's eroding democracy: the view from Argentina" (1 June 2006)

"Argentina's mirror: the causa Malvinas" (3 April 2007)

"The Kirchner model: king and queen penguin" (17 July 2007)

"Argentina's new president: Kirchner after Kirchner" (29 October 2007)

"Pulp friction: the Argentina-Uruguay conflict" (30 January 2008)

"Argentina: celebrating democracy" (19 December 2008)

What was at stake on 28 June was the partial renewal of both chambers of congress at the national level, as well as provincial and municipal authorities. What makes these elections especially noteworthy is both the current domestic context and the possible impact of the outcome on the path of politics and democracy that lies ahead for Argentina.

The change

A law passed in 2004 during Néstor Kirchner's presidency (2003-07)  stipulated that mid-term elections would from 2009 take place on the third Sunday of October in the second year of the four-year presidency. This, he said at the time, was to remove uncertainty and manipulation, thus ensuring the transparency and predictability of the electoral process.

In March 2009, Cristina Kirchner - who was elected on 28 October 2007,  and was inaugurated on 11 December - announced an alteration of the electoral calendar. The reasons she gave were neither unambiguous nor reassuring. Indeed, her reference to the possible impact of the unfolding global financial crisis, and the "need to get rid of the elections as an obstacle" reinforced two suspicions. The first was that the ruling couple were increasingly worried about the draining of public funds available to invest in public works, as well as about the results of unfavourable opinion polls. The second, almost a Freudian slip, was indicative of their real attitude towards the democratic process. Indeed, as one analyst pointed out - Carlos Pagni, in La Nación - the notion that crises are better and more quickly overcome if citizen participation is curtailed, has a long and sad tradition in Argentina.

The decision to bring forward the election-date had both short and long-term implications. In the short term, the electoral process itself was affected by the change. The electoral calendar normally requires months to produce up-to-date registers, and other material such as the printing of ballots. The shortening of this process by four months raised suspicions of possible fraud, at least in some districts, and especially those in which the difference between candidates may be small or even negligible. It cut short the time the opposition needed to consolidate alliances under discussion; more crucially, it was seen as a way to put an end to deliberations within the Peronist currents that are the Kirchners' political base (see "The Kirchner model: king and queen penguin", 17 July 2007).

There is no longer any doubt that they are a double act: in her 29 June press conference she corrected a journalist who made a reference to her "two years in government": "our government is 6 years old". The signs were also clear in the minor reshuffle that followed on 7 July.

In a parliamentary system, elections tend not to have a fixed date. In a presidential system there is more fixity in the schedule, and tampering with election dates is a serious matter - even a violation of the rules. It is relevant here that at the time of the constitutional reform in 1994, the late Raul Alfonsín had hoped that by negotiating the introduction of two features of a semi-parliamentary system the future institutional health of the republic could be guaranteed. These were the figure of the cabinet chief and the juridical council (Consejo de la Magistratura). The cabinet chief, appointed by the executive, would act as an intermediary between the latter and the congress; the juridical council was intended to guarantee an independent and transparent process in the election of judges (see "Argentina: celebrating democracy", 19 December 2008).

Article 101 of the Argentinean constitution of 1994 prescribes that the cabinet chief would at least once a month visit alternately the lower and upper chambers of parliament, and be subject to various obligations. Yet not one cabinet chief since 1994 has fulfilled the constitutional requirement to attend congress; Cristina Kirchner's own appointee has in nine months in office  visited congress just once. This cavalier attitude towards the law is a reflection of the institutional deficit in Argentina, at the core of its unpredictability.

The double-act

The elections were to renew half the seats in the lower chamber and a third of the national senate, plus hundreds of provincial and municipal councillors and officials. In the end, the Kirchners were defeated. Cristina Kirchner tried to put a spin on the figures during her press conference on 29 June (her first since August 2008, and that had in turn been the first since taking over the presidency in December 2007), but the facts were clear. 

Also in openDemocracy on Argentinean politics since 2001:

Ivan Briscoe, "Argentina: how politicians survive while people starve" (17 April 2003)

Michele Wucker, "Argentina and the IMF: will they benefit from hindsight?" (4 September 2003)

Mariano Aguirre, "The many cities of Buenos Aires" (16 February 2005)

Ivan Briscoe, "Nèstor Kirchner's Argentina: a journey from hell" (25 May 2005)

Horacio Verbitsky, "Breaking the silence: the Catholic Church in Argentina and the 'dirty war'" (27 July 2005)

Carlos Forment, "The democratic dribble: Buenos Aires's politics of football" (15 June 2006)

Ivan Briscoe, "Argentina and the Malvinas, twenty-five years on" (2 April 2007)

Ana Caistor-Arendar, "Cristina Kirchner's moment" (14 December 2007)

Ivan Briscoe, "Argentina: a crisis of riches" (17 July 2008)

The former president came second in the province of Buenos Aires, the most populous district in the country (home to 37.11% of voters); the Kirchners' Frente para la Victoria (Front for Victory / FPV) gathered only 26.55% of the total votes.

Néstor Kirchner had decided to focus all his energies (and unlimited government funds, something the electoral law does not allow) in the greater Buenos Aires area, where the largest concentration of poor people is to be found. As an illustration: infant-mortality rates for the country as a whole in 2007 were 13.3% (up from 12.7% in 2006), while in the poorest district of greater Buenos Aires (the municipality of Presidente Perón) the figure was 20.6 per 1,000 births. In May 2009, 13.9% of the population of the city of Buenos Aires lived in poverty; in greater Buenos Aires the figure was 36.8% (see Empleo y Condiciones de Vida en el Area Metropolitana de Buenos Aires, SEL Consultores, June 2009).

Kirchner's FPV lost in three of the five most important districts, accounting for 66.31% of the electoral register (city of Buenos Aires, province of Buenos Aires, plus the provinces of Santa Fe, Mendoza and Cordoba). In the city of Buenos Aires his candidate came fourth with 11.7% of the votes, while Kirchner himself achieved 32.12% against the maverick centre-right businessman De Narváez who came from nowhere to get 34.57%. Even more embarrassingly, the Kirchners lost the election in their home province of Santa Cruz, for the first time in twenty years.

Peronismo is divided in the whole country: there was not one electoral district in which there were not at least two different Peronist lists of candidates (in some cases there were three, and even four). As in the past, this meant that national elections became one huge Peronist primary election. The electoral defeat of Kirchner, the narrow victory of Carlos Reutemann in Santa Fe, and the election of the mayor of Buenos Aires's candidate in the city, has begun a process of realignment within Peronism; former president Eduardo Duhalde is acting, once again, as kingmaker.

Kirchner tried to avert a crisis in Peronism by immediately renouncing his position as president of the Justicialist Movement and appointing his deputy, Daniel Scioli, in his place. At the same time Kirchner announced that he asked Scioli not to take up his seat in congress. He did not say what his own intentions were. This confirmed what many observers described as the fraudulent and illegal tactic of placing people on the lists who would then not take up their seats.

The model

The longer-term implications of the government's defeat point in a disturbing directions.

There is a growing awareness that the double strategy of the Kirchner's project -economic (returning Argentina to a 1950s path of development) and political (reinforcing a populist system based on mobilisation, street-politics, and confrontational politics in order to build a "national and popular identity") may be in its last throes, if not yet dead. As in the paradigmatic case of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, elections, and not governance, are seen as sufficient to provide legitimacy. Confrontation and obedience are the two sides of the same political style that abhors of liberal democracy and constitutionalism as "elite politics".

Guillermo O'Donnell, the Argentinean political scientist, prefers to talk of "delegative democracy" (DD) rather than use that catch-all concept of populism. Yet it is arguable if DD, which he describes as a phenomenon which first appeared in Latin America in the 1990s, is but a new term for an old concept and phenomenon. DD is an idea and a way of practising political power that is democratic because it emerges from reasonably free and competitive elections; it maintains, although half-heartedly at times, some basic freedoms such as of expression, association, meeting and access to media neither censored nor monopolised by the state (at risk in Venezuela and Argentina). While Delegative democracy" leaders tend to emerge from deep crises, not all crises produce DD regimes - since for this to happen, leaders are needed who believe in such a way of conducting politics, and sections of public opinion that acquiesce.

The key factor is that in a DD or populist system, those who have been elected think they have got the right and the obligation to decide what is good for the country. This is why elections are positioned as the judge of this. In between elections, the populist (DD) leader believes that he has a mandate to do as he pleases, and all institutional control will be considered as an unjustified impediment or barrier. This is why such a leader tries to subordinate, subject, suppress or co-opt those institutions.

The Kirchners' disregard for institutions is reflected in their view of congress as less than a rubber-stamp; in their constant attempts, often successful, to control the judiciary; and in their intimidation of the press, aided by intelligence services in the hands of a member of their inner circle who has the telephones of all politicians, prominent businessmen and journalists tapped, and also interferes with e-mails. All this is widely known, and has been reported occasionally in the press. The "penguins"  - thus called because they come from the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, just as their leader, Néstor Kirchner is known as "penguin" because of both his Patagonian origins and prominent profile - have accumulated power in their hands (see "Argentina's new president: Kirchner after Kirchner", 29 October 2007).

In the case of congress, the contempt for its constitutional role is almost total. No sooner had congress convened for the 2009 session in March, that the president's announcement of the earlier date for elections interrupted all legislative activity. In theory, after their defeat the ruling couple will still be able to govern at their pleasure for another eight months, unencumbered by institutional checks, since the new legislators do not take their seats until 10 December 2009;  and then congress enters into summer recess until 1 March 2010.

In practice this is highly unlikely. The Kirchners are not good at taking defeat, at listening to others, not even the small circle of penguins; in any case they are convinced that they are right, and facing an hegemonic bloc which is anti-popular and right-wing. Politically, ideologically and psychologically, they will not change. This is why Kirchner, when renouncing the presidency of the Justicialist Party (PJ), added he wanted "freedom of movement". To do what, is not clear.

The opposition leaders have reportedly started to discuss the possibility of getting through the current congress two crucial pieces of legislation if institutions are to be strengthened: the abolition of the delegated legislative powers to the executive (popularly known as "superpowers") and the law that reduced the number of independent members in the institution charged with selecting judges (Consejo de la Magistratura) in order to increase government control. The legislation that the Kirchners had hoped to pass to "deepen" their model (on media ownership, nationalisation of firms, restrictions on trade) now have little chance of being approved. By losing its majority, the government has effectively brought forward the crisis which they had anticipated worsening in the last quarter of 2009.

The block

Another peculiarity of these elections was highlighted by the lawyer and constitutional expert Roberto Gargarella when analysing the role the judiciary ought to have played in preventing what have become known as "testimonial" candidates.

Néstor Kirchner "ordering" of colleagues - Daniel Scioli (governor of the province of Buenos Aires), Sergio Massa (his wife's cabinet chief), and a range of majors and provincial officials - to accept having their names put on the list of candidates for Kirchner's Front for Victory - in order to add "recognition" to the list that he himself heads - is a distortion of the representative character of Argentine democracy. For the idea is that after being elected, these people would resign their seats, return to their executive roles, and allow the "unknowns" further down the list to move up and occupy "their" seats in congress. For this reason the chosen ones were known as candidatos testimoniales.

The problem with this is twofold. Article 73 of the constitution of 1994 prohibits explicitly that people occupying executive positions should at the same time run for election; and it makes a mockery of the notion of representation. Néstor Kirchner came to power in 2003 by promising a "new politics", more representative, less corrupt. The fact is that candidates on the list were not only handpicked by him, they were chosen by the "recognition" value of their surnames, since the intention is that they will not take up their seats. This marks another stage in the process of disintegration of political parties in Argentina, and their substitution by the politics of populist mobilisation.

There are doubts whether parties would have conducted primaries to select candidates. But with the elections taking place in June rather than October, any chances of such a process taking place were scuppered. This further discourages a younger generation from entering politics, for their only career path will depend on the favour of political bosses. The process has strengthened the old vices of politics in Argentina: personalism, caudillismo, demonisation of the opponent, nepotism, clientelism and corruption.

The absence

More than in any previous election since the return to civilian politics in 1983, issues were absent from the campaign. In this, the scattered, multifarious opposition has been equally guilty. Dirty tricks, personal attacks, vague references to "the model" or, from the ranks of the opposition, to "republican institutions", replaced all debate. Ideas to reverse the educational and health decline, growing poverty, inflation running at 15% according to independent estimates, rising crime, lack of investment - all were absent from the electoral discussion.

This was part of Néstor Kirchner's idea to turn these unremarkable elections into a plebiscite, an "all or nothing" contest. The issue of "testimonials" gave rise to a debate in the serious press on whether judges should stop those candidates. While many analysts expressed concern about a possible "judicialisation" of politics, Roberto Gargarella, a lawyer and constitutional expert, argued that these restrictions on citizens' access to the political process, justify the intervention of judges (see "La Justicia tiene algo que decir", La Nación, 26 May 2009).

Gargarella cites John Hart Ely's "procedural rationale" to justify the interference of justice in the political process: "Ely argued that the supreme court should interpret the constitution so as to reinforce democratic processes and popular self-government, by ensuring equal representation in the political process". Judges should have intervened to guarantee "the elector's' sovereignty", preventing politics from becoming an elitist concern, and for the exclusive benefit of the ruling elite.

Roberto Gargarella's case is that tribunals should have help prevent the actions of those who, in order to maintain power, make access and accountability difficult for ordinary citizens. For instance, judges could apply sanctions to parties trying to mislead voters by disseminating false information; or demand that all those whose names are on electoral lists publicly commit to taking their seats if elected.

The shell

The key factor in understanding Argentina is its lack of institutions: this is what makes her politics unpredictable and so difficult to explain, let alone understand. The question is: why are there no institutions? Why are there no parties?

It is not enough to mention past political instability and military interference: the same could be said of Chile, Uruguay or Brazil. The difference is that the latter had a tradition to fall back on: be it parties, or a vision of the state (in the case of Brazil) that protected it from being captured by a political group. Argentina had Peronismo - ten years (1946-55) that had a profound impact on the political culture of the country.

It was a new style of conducting politics, a view of the state and of society controlled by the latter, a politics of confrontation and division, that permeated culture and society. The plebiscitarian view of democracy that is embedded in the Peronist tradition turns every election into an all-or-nothing contest, an unpredictable event that throws in the air all expectations about the day after. In such a situation, all decisions are postponed until after the election, and capital flies out more quickly than at other times. In the past year, almost as much capital left Argentina as in 2001, before the financial mega-crisis of 2002.

The plebiscitarian view of politics considers a defeat, or a victory by less than 50%, as nothing less than a catastrophe. This means that there is no room for a change of style, policies or an acceptance of the need for debate and negotiations, the essence of democratic alternation. More importantly, a change of direction or of style of governing is unlikely because it goes against their beliefs.

Ernesto Laclau's book On Populist Reason (2005), provides them, and other populist leaders in the region, with an intellectual justification for their hegemonic, authoritarian, "politics in the streets" view of politics. And this is why those who expect a change in the ruling couple's way of conducting politics, are mistaken (see the Economist, 20 June 2009). There is no need to look enviously at the two years that the United States took to choose its candidates. In neighbouring Uruguay (population 3 million) at present there are 2,500 delegates discussing who the candidates will be in the elections due in October 2009.

The non-Peronist opposition is equally a victim of the lack of parties. A scattering of figures - ranging from a right-of-centre view of politics as management (Mauricio Macri), to a left-of-centre moralising one, lacking in policies, individualistic (Elisa Carrió) - has had no time to forge meaningful, programmatic alliances. In any case, it is doubtful they would have been able to do so if the elections had been held as originally scheduled in October 2009. Personalities, not issues; street mobilisations, not debate; Mr and Mrs Kirchner, not institutions. This is where Argentina stands in 2009.

The manipulation of the electoral process brings to mind the late Ralf Dahrendorf's plea: the process of democracy is not enough. Without the rule of law and freedom, democracy is but a shell.

It may be too early to start smiling for Argentina. But in the aftermath of the 28 June 2009 results, perhaps we can begin to dream at last of stopping to cry for Argentina.

Also in openDemocracy in 2009 on Latin America and the Caribbean:

John Crabtree, "Bolivia: new constitution, new definition"  (22 January 2009)

Antoni Kapcia, "Cuba's revolution: survival, loyalty, change"  (15 January 2009)

John Crabtree, "Bolivia: after the vote"  (2 February 2009)

Sergio Aguayo Quezada, "Mexico: a state of failure"  (17 February 2009)

George Philip, "Hugo Chávez, oil, and Venezuela"  (20 February 2009)

Julia Buxton, "Hugo Chávez: tides of victory"  (20 February 2009)

Fred Halliday, "The Dominican Republic: a time of ghosts"  (23 April 2009)

Arthur Ituassu, "The price of democracy in Brazil"  (21 May 2009)

Adam Isacson, "Colombia's imperilled democracy"  (6 March 2009)

Victor Valle, "El Salvador's long march"  (20 March 2009)

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, "Barack Obama's drug policy: time for change"  (15 April 2009)

Kelly Phenicie & Lisa J Laplante, "Peru: the struggle for memory" (8 April 2009)

Ivan Briscoe , "The Americas and Washington: an era ends" (17 April 2009)

Antoni Kapcia, "Raúl Castro and Cuba: reading the changes" (22 April 2009)

Guy Hedgecoe, "Rafael Correa: an Ecuadorian journey" (29 April 2009)

Enrique Krause, "Hugo Chávez and Venezuela: a leader's destiny" (1 May 2009)

Sergio Aguayo Quezada, "Mexico: living with insecurity" (12 May 2009)

Adam Isacson, "Álvaro Uribe, otra vez? Colombia's re-election debate" (29 May 2009)

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