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Argentina's election: what kind of change?

A close race and a historic run-off for the presidency are indications of a historic shift in Argentina's politics. Español. Português.

Federico Finchelstein Fabian Bosoer
3 November 2015

Argentina has crossed a political threshold into a new era. The presidential elections on 25 October 2015 represents a rejection of President Cristina Kirchner’s brand of Peronism that has dominated the country since 2003, and possibly ends her political relevance. But does this signal the end of Argentine populism?

Across Latin America, and especially in Venezuela, populism as a form of authoritarian anti-liberalism is fading. A majority of Argentine voters rebuffed it and thus Daniel Scioli (the president’s chosen candidate) was unable to secure the presidency in the first round, meaning that Argentines face a run-off election on 22 November now for the first time in the country's history. The significance of this run-off is immense. Voters wanted a change from the populist past. Some Peronists seem to have lost their so-called captive votes and they are now talking of “understanding the message sent by the ballots” and bipartisanship. Argentines now have the chance of substantially increasing the quality of their democracy.

This is no small thing in the country that, under Juan and Eva Perón, reinvented modern populism after 1945 as an authoritarian corporatist version of democracy, and later also suffered one of the continent's most gruesome dictatorships (1976-83). The democracy that subsequently emerged was constrained by the populist style that so far has defined Argentine political culture, especially in the politics of the ruling Peronist party.

The presidential elections were a choice between two different political universes: traditional Argentine populism versus a more active participation of citizens in political decisions. Scioli did not identify with populism despite being the party's candidate, and his main rival Mauricio Macri (the centre-right mayor of Buenos Aires) even less so. So now the new president will have a real chance to transcend its recent populist experience. This is a choice that transcends Argentina, for Europe too has witnessed a surge of populism. If Argentines embrace a new direction, the effects will reverberate in Latin America and beyond.

The very possibility represents a stark departure from Argentina’s recent past, where Cristina has reigned supreme since succeeding her later husband in 2007. Even on the day of the elections, Cristina remained very influential (though she could not run for re-election due to constitutional term-limits). But the unexpected election results have changed everything. For the first time in many years, civil society - in highlighting the need for more substantive, democratic change - was one step ahead of the politicians. After more than a decade in power the hegemony of the Kirchner dynasty looks finished. The run-off is already making candidates abandon the notion of securing absolute majorities and a marketing approach to their campaigns.

Argentines are hectically assessing the new realignments of power after a vote where the ruling party lost even the province of Buenos Aires, the most important district (its economical and political importance would equate to a combination of California, Texas, Alabama and New York). Argentina now resembles the pre-Kirchner moment in 2003 when the political options were between populism and representative democracy of a more horizontal and less confrontational kind. In the 2003 elections, Néstor Kirchner presented himself as the candidate of change against the neo-liberalism of former Peronist president, Carlos Menem. Then, with Scioli as his vice-presidential candidate, Kirchner argued for a “normal, serious country.” But in power, Néstor ended up strengthening Menem's populist anti-institutional style to unforeseeable levels. Twelve years on, Argentina again face a choice between populist or representative democracy.

A great opportunity

In the streets of Buenos Aires and other cities, everybody senses that abrupt changes are on the way. But there is less agreement on whether there will be merely a new set of names and faces ruling the country or a true “revolution” in the way of doing  politics. The former would mean that Cristina Kirchner's populist legacy will prevail; the latter that the Kirchners' polarising, anti-institutional “caudillo” style of government will depart with her.

The two candidates, Scioli and Macri, have argued that they will be more collegial, and respectful both of dialogue and institutional boundaries. There are similarities both in their economic policies and need to have better relations with Argentina’s traditional partners in Washington, Brasilia and Brussels; though some changes in foreign policy and negotiations with international creditors seem certain. But the key question for Argentina is whether a populist "personalist" style will endure.

Macri, the son of a billionaire and a middle-age entrepreneur, came to politics after a successful tenure as president of one of the country’s biggest soccer clubs. His campaign has projected his soft-spoken and optimistic persona rather than stressing ideas or programmes. He now seeks to appeal to the non-Peronist left and the Peronist right (21% voted for the Peronist opposition candidate Sergio Massa, whose transfers of support will be crucial in the second round). But will Macri advocate a multy-party coalition and a presidential administration less focused on one person?

If he wins he might need to have a real dialogue with a congress where his party will be in the minority. But then again, he could either stress bipartisanship or continue the Kirchners’ presidentialism which downplayed or even harassed the other branches of government. An example is the previous administration’s pressure on the judicial branch to cease investigating the serious accusations of the prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who died in mysterious circumstances after making serious accusations against the president. Scioli especially will find it difficult to ignore the power of the presidency in dealing with the internal opposition within his Peronist party, and even more with respect to his predecessor's wishes. Some of Cristina's underlings have already criticised Scioli, blaming him for the electoral results and for lacking a full commitment to the Kirchner legacy.

Even a few days before the election, Kirchner tried to set some parameters for a secure inheritance. She told Vladimir Putin in a video-conference that her geopolitical stance will continue: warm relations with Russia, a preference for China and Venezuela, and a contested pact with Iran. In other countries, such pre-election behaviour from a departing president would be scandalous; in Argentina it is just another example of the populist conflations of the leader’s persona and desires with the country’s long-term interests. Historically, Peronists see few differences between state institutions, the movement and the leader. True to her Peronist roots, the president never saw herself as the citizens' representative but as a leader for whom electoral victories meant the people’s delegation of power.

Whoever wins the presidency will neither have an absolute majority nor the ability to put in practice the Kirchners' my-way-or-no-way approach to politics. This presents a great opportunity for Argentine democracy. The Kirchner era will be over soon, but will the idea of populist democracy continue?

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