Changes in democratic Argentina: 1983 to the present

The ability of Argentine democracy to tackle reforms when they appear both overdue and feasible, instead of attempting them all at once, might yet come to be regarded as constituting one of its hidden strengths. 

Guillermo A. Makin
26 January 2014

The best way to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the return of democracy to Argentina is to reflect on the opinions and actions of relevant political actors engaged in changing political and institutional practices.


Beyond the mere but essential feature of free election of office holders by the citizenry, securing elections with no fraud and with no party being outlawed as in elections held between 1932 and 1943 and 1955 and 1973, is no mean achievement.

In order to survey this evolution without an inferiority complex, a point made by John Dunn, emeritus professor of political theory at King's College, Cambridge, in the Henry L. Stimson Lecture on World Affairs in Yale in 2011, should be taken into account. He states that democracy has to become acclimatized in each country by adapting to local circumstances. In his latest book he develops the view that the quest for democracy is a neverending, perpetually unfinished journey.

David Runciman further argues that democracy is superior to dictatorship because it is not as rigid as the latter. Electorates are fickle, and the politicians they elect respond by flip flopping, frequently shouting in an unseemly cacophony and indulging in name calling. In short, everything is very messy, as Tocqueville found in the United States in the early nineteenth century. However, democracy, as Runciman sees it, is better at getting out of holes and is thus best placed to win wars and resolve economic crises.

There is every reason to believe that Argentine democracy has begun to develop democratic practices that are very much its own, such as adopting compulsory voting as a mechanism of incorporation, and the capacity of the central government to depose governors in the provinces. Moreover, when the Argentine political system has chosen a path that did not yield the expected result, the electorate has shown it is willing and able to rectify unfruitful choices and that they are perfectly capable of finding alternatives.

We may turn to Guillermo O'Donnell for the categories we need to look more closely. His term bureaucratic authoritarianism (BA) covers the period when Argentina was in the midst of a series of alternations between democracy and authoritarianism, the latter spawned by military coups. Later, when change was afoot, he developed the modalities of the transitions from authoritarianism to democracy and called the emerging democracy, delegative democracy, arguing that it featured a democratically elected presidency that rejected the more restrictive  institutions, as was mostly the case under President Menem (1989-1999). However, the Kirchner period (2003-2015?) has left this category behind. Restoring the capacity to govern of the presidency undermined by congressional activism during the 2001-2002 crisis, Kirchner has secured the approval of key reforms by working with Congress and reforming the Supreme Court. The Kirchner administrations show that even in the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis, Argentine democracy has begun to restore institutions in ways that reflect the choices and views of the electorate regarding the reforms required.

Prior to 1983

Interviews with some of the political actors involved have led me to conclude that prior to 1983, Argentine politics were undermined by the following flaws:

1. A majority party with a faulty political structure, firstly because of the imprint of two charismatic leaders, Perón and Eva Perón, secondly because Perón made it clear to those working close to him, and despite public protestations urging the movement to organise as a political party proper, that he did not want a party. Thirdly, the consequences of the ban on Peronism between 1955 and 1973, as pointed out by Angel F. Robledo who as vicepresident and minister of the Interior in 1975-76 sought to democratise the party, was that  "it had the same effect as malnutrition on a body ".

2. The low level of militancy in the periods close to military coups that failed to prevent them.

3. The courtly practices that surrounded the first Peronism, (1946-55) when Peron himself said that he was surrounded by ‘brown-nosers’; and the second, (1973-76) when ‘the court’ - led by Mrs. Peron and José Lopez Rega - led Perón to accept a Presidency that he did not want. With Mrs. Peron, his widow, courtly practices included López Rega, likened by many to Rasputin, hiding behind curtains when other Ministers such as Alfredo Gómez Morales held meetings with her. After López Rega was ostensibly removed from office on General Alberto N. Laplane’ initiative, his influence continued to be felt via idiosyncratic political moves and cabinet appointments through his son-in-law Raúl Lastiri who secretly lodged in the Presidential Residence in Olivos, according to Julio González, one of Mrs. Peron’s closest members of staff.

4. Lack of a Coordinating Cabinet Minister if a president was incapacitated by illness. In a cabinet of peers, none could call a cabinet meeting, oversee or coordinate.

5. A rigid presidential term which was not capable of being cut short by crises. Presidential resignations were rare. This feature also noted by Juan Linz, was aggravated by the absence of legal or constitutional replacement mechanisms.

Political actors since 1983 have gradually sought to tackle the manifestations and causes of the above flaws in these thirty years but nobody, not even the Kirchners at their most bombastic would stake a claim that all is well and no further reforms are required. 


Presidents have resigned in situations of crisis and replacement mechanisms were instrumental in preserving the Constitution and democratic practices in 1989 and in 2002/3.

In 1994 the figure of the Cabinet chief was introduced by constitutional reform. Since then occupants of the post have been secondary figures though they did act as a potential political fuse. With the appointment of Jorge Capitanich in 2013 things are quite different. Having already held the post between 2002 and 2003, this time he comes to the post with the reputation of an efficient Governor of Chaco province and has just won re-election with the support of 60% of the provincial electorate. For the first time the post is in the hands of someone with his own political power base, recognised ability and presidential instructions to fully exercise the role of a Coordinator to the cabinet that the constitutional reform has granted the Cabinet Chief.

It has been in the field of economic policies where major policy swings have been most noticeable. These swings have been endorsed by the electorate ex-post facto. At least it can be said that the view of the electorate was sought.

Policies in this area have swung from the failed attempt at social democracy hamfistedly attempted by Alfonsín, followed by Menem’s savage crony liberalism, due to impatience with inefficient state-run utilities. The latest switch, from 2003 onwards, has been to validate a stronger state, acting as a more active regulator and even as an entrepreneur once again, under the Kirchners.

From this it can be inferred that Argentina seems to prefer its own idiosyncratic and native concoction of economic policies. Internal and external observers see successive policies both as mistakes or successes. When the Financial Times, The Economist, or the IMF approved Argentina’s economic policies, the result was unprecedented unemployment, increases in the level of indebtedness to unsustainable levels and a deindustrialization that seemed to go on forever. They all undermined the economy. When this toxic policy mix was abandoned in 2002 the situation improved rapidly and sustainably for most of the post- 2003 decade.

Militancy, instead of dropping as the Kirchner’s periods in office went on and on, has increased markedly. Politics are seen as capable of delivering reforms, social improvements, employment and economic growth. 400,000 plus members of the Peronist party voted in a new chairman in Buenos Aires Province on December 15, 2013. Crowds do not have to be bribed: they good naturedly turn up to the chagrin of the opposition that cannot secure the same level of enthusiasm.

However, the most dramatic reform in 30 years is the law that was passed towards the end of Cristina Kirchner’s first term that forces all parties, not just Peronism, to select candidates through primaries that are open to all citizens. These are to be held simultaneously and where voting is an obligatory civic duty, known by the Spanish acronym for these features: PASO.

The PASO law represents a critical break with the anti-political party tradition of Peronism. Until 1983, Peronist leaders were notably reluctant to do anything not endorsed by somebody bearing the Peron surname. The evident enthusiasm for implementing the PASO law also constitutes a second welcome break with the past. Party leaders are queuing up to state that the candidates for the 2015 presidential, congressional and provincial elections are to be selected implementing the mechanisms of the PASO law. This would end a political tradition going back to 1946 that knows only one honourable exception, the movement led by Antonio Cafiero for Peronist renewal after the Peronists lost the 1983 election. It all ended badly for Cafiero, seen as a presidential hopeful. The primary mechanism instituted by Cafiero was used by Carlos Menem who secured the candidacy in 1988.  Cafiero was seen as too close to Alfonsín, by then tainted by too many policy failures.

There is another favourable notable change and it is in the political atmosphere. In these thirty years, military and guerrilla organisations have ceased to be relevant political actors, as G. Sartori would characterise them, no longer capable of making or toppling governments. In addition, civil freedoms and civil rights, vilified in the sixties and seventies as bourgeois concepts, have since 1983 reached a broad consensus. Lastly, the strawberry on the cake is an active civil society in which countless vigorous NGOs flourish, most of them seeking to guarantee or reform various democratic mechanisms. These changes in the political atmosphere constitute a political climate that is far more encouraging than the noxious airs existing prior to 1983.

2003 - 2013

The years between 2003 and 2013 have resulted in the many changes, beginning with a decrease in the level of indebtedness that so severely conditioned the economy between 1983 and 2003.

The bipartisan system that prevailed between 1983 and 2003 seems to have lost favour with the electorate. The last radical government that ended its constitutional period without any mishap was Marcelo T. de Alvear’s in 1928. Radicals have acquired the reputation of a party that does not know how to govern and they have done themselves few favours, as they are seen as notoriously reluctant to change either personnel or their way of approaching politics.

So Argentina has become a party system with one hegemonic party. Although alternation would be preferable, for alternation to operate there must be an opposition that has done a mea culpa, been refurbished and constitutes a credible alternative government. That ends the bad news in this sphere. The good news is that the hegemonic party, for its part, is becoming more democratic when choosing candidates, given the PASO law.

The weak and absent state, one outcome of the 1983-2003 period, has to an extent been replaced by a more interventionist state, active both as a regulator and running utilities when a given strategic interest is manifest or previous private owners have shown themselves to be hopelessly inefficient or corrupt, e.g. YPF, Aerolíneas Argentinas, the Post Office and the urban and the cargo railway systems.

The legislative elections of October 2013 appear to guarantee a transition to another president in 2015 with unprecedented lack of turbulence for the first time since 1983.

Outcomes for the population appear to be substantial: 

- The GINI index, an indicator of equality, fell 20% from 0,534 in 2003 to 0,407 in 2012. The growth of employment, re-industrialization, the Universal Allocation per Child and the mobility of pensions explains the decline in inequality.

- The wage sector, which was left with a meagre 40.2% of the National Income between 1993 and 2001, went on to receive 54% in 2012, a percentage not reached since 1954, a 34% increase.

- The middle class has doubled from 9.3 million to 18.6 million in 2012, a 46% improvement.

- GDP grew annually by 8.5% between 2003 and 2008. Since then, growth has been more moderate, but it has not plunged as in countries affected in a more drastic manner by the post-2008 downturn.

These figures perhaps explain why, according to Latinbarometro, democracy is consistently shown in Argentina to be the most popular form of government, with preferences regularly above 70%.

Of course, as has repeatedly been pointed out by Cristina F. de Kirchner, much more needs to be done. Disorders in December 2013 in several provinces add a new item to the list of changes required by the electorate: there is a widely felt need to reform the police forces. This seems to be in the pipeline. In this connection it should be noted that the ability of Argentine democracy to tackle reforms when they appear both overdue and feasible, instead of attempting them all at once, might yet come to be regarded as constituting one of its hidden strengths, perhaps holding the secret of surviving for thirty years despite unprecedented difficulties.

Finally, when so many items of news circulate on allegations of governmental corruption, it may be useful to question if these allegations are comparable with the corruption implicit in the fall of the share of wage and salary earners in the National Income figures. Under the last military dictatorship the share plunged from 43% in 1975 to 25% in 1977, a 42% plunge. This was by no means unprecedented; the same drop took place after 1955 and has taken place under all periods of authoritarian rule.

Given all of the above I would urge Argentines not to indulge in any form of inferiority complex with respect to Argentine democratic practices. Argentina has been generating its own way of going about reforms. Argentina need not follow foreign advice and models. Much of the foreign criticism comes from those with an ideological axe to grind, blatant anti-Peronism or transparently acting as advocates for one business interest or another.

The best guarantee of autonomy and an ability to deliver outcomes that suit most Argentines is an early return to the twin surpluses that were such a refreshing feature of the 2003-2008 period, and establishing saving mechanisms capable of delivering a higher yield than the dollar as in 2002/3.

In conclusion, though Argentine democracy may have been the epitome of delegative democracy, it is showing promising signs of evolving towards democratic practices in the functioning of political parties, institutional change has been implemented through self-induced reform and through adjustments to practices that the relevant political actors see as requiring change.

It is still more promising that it has become a system that has acquired another of the characteristics of a vigorous democracy: the ability to be self-critical and of self-correction.


[i] This talk was presented at the Roundtable organized by the University of Notre Dame and the Kellogg Institute, on 10 December, 2013, at the London Centre of the University of Notre Dame.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData