Peronism's existential crisis

Peronism is good at recognising social moods. Today its leaders are carefully analysing the weakening of Kirchnerism, the electoral triumphs of Macri’s Cambiemos and the financial needs of local governments. Español

María Esperanza Casullo
6 March 2018
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Shirts with the effigies of (clockwise sense): Cristina Kirchner, Nestor Kirchner and Evita Peron. Photo courtesy of Nueva Sociedad. All rights reserved.

This article is being published as part of the partnership between Nueva Sociedad and democraciaAbierta. You can read the original here.

That wide, amorphous and fragmented political world which, for lack of a better word, is usually called "Peronism", is today going through a period of great uncertainty. After suffering a heavy defeat in the second round of the 2015 presidential elections, which had seemed easy enough to win, it experienced another setback at the October 2017 mid-term legislative elections.

Any fantasy that the Peronists may have had that Mauricio Macri’s government would suffer a fate similar to that of Fernando De La Rúa (who, famously, had to flee in a helicopter) did not come true, and it is unlikely to do so before the end of its current mandate, in 2019.

At last October's elections, Let's Change - the Republican Proposition (Pro), the Radical Civic Union (UCR) and Elisa Carrió’s Civic Coalition’s electoral front - managed to consolidate itself and widen its territory beyond its bastions in central Argentina into hitherto Peronist bastions such as the provinces of Jujuy, Entre Ríos or Santa Cruz (the latter governed by Alicia Kirchner, the late former president’s sister, and currently plunged into a deep fiscal crisis).

What is perhaps most worrying for Peronism is that Cambiemos seems to be on its way to securing control over what was the Peronists’ unassailable territory, their stronghold, their Inner Sanctum: the province of Buenos Aires.

Peronism lost the elections in the province of Buenos Aires in 2009, 2013, 2015 and 2017. In 2017, Cambiemos beat none other than former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner with a ticket headed by two little-known candidates with low prestige: former Minister of Education Esteban Bullrich and Gladys González, a leader with limited public exposure, allegedly linked to cases of inappropriate handling of funds.

In Peronism’s "capital city", the populous municipality of La Matanza, Cristina Kirchner got only 155.000 votes. The role of Governor María Eugenia Vida, today by far Cambiemos’ most popular figure, was key to the victory of Macri’s coalition.

If Cambiemos consolidates its control over "the province", it will reenact there what it has already done in the City of Buenos Aires, where not only has it put an end to the centenarian Radical Party’s power, but has also shown that it can win and control the city’s "Peronist" southern neighborhoods.

In Peronism’s "capital city", the populous municipality of La Matanza, Cristina Kirchner got only 155.000 votes.But the challenge to Peronism at this point seems to be not only electoral, but existential. Is it possible that, as some analyzes suggest, that Peronism is to disappear altogether in the not too distant future?

Will the force that used to boast that it was "the only one which can govern Argentina" die? Will Cambiemos be able to build and maintain its hegemony, overcoming the old "damn fact of the bourgeois country", a definition attributed to leftist Peronist John William Cooke, who survived several violent and dictatorial, as well as democratic and electoral attempts to have him out of the picture?

Someone’s got to do it…

A piece of relative good news for Peronism can nuance this desolate scenario for the General’s (Perón), Evita’s, Néstor’s and Cristina’s troops (is there any other political force that has so many of its leaders known only by their first names or nicknames?): in fact, the most likely thing that will happen is that it will not disappear – for a simply mechanical and structural reason: as long as Argentina remains a competitive electoral democracy, someone has to play the role of the opposition and, today, there is no other party or coalition willing to take it up.

No political force in Argentina seems to have the slightest interest in fulfilling this role, other than Peronism... and the Trotskyists of the Left and Workers’ Front (FIT).

What is more, the survival of Peronism seems to be (paradoxically) guaranteed by the old non-Peronist center-left’s lack of vocation to play the role. Today, to think of a progressive opposition similar to the old Front for a Solidary Country (Frepaso), for example, is completely out of the question.

For practical purposes, non-Peronist – but not necessarily anti-Peronist - progressivism seems to have all but disappeared. The Radical Civic Union (UCR) is a founding partner of Cambiemos and, except for some isolated figures like Ricardo Alfonsín or Leopoldo Moreau, there are no dissensions between Radicalism and Macrism.

The Socialist Party (which, we must not forget, came second nationally in 2011) is currently mired in its own crisis, with its electoral stronghold in the province of Santa Fe undermined by Cambiemos and with no relevant national figure after Hermes Binner’s eclipse from the public sphere.

The survival of Peronism seems to be (paradoxically) guaranteed by the old non-Peronist center-left’s lack of vocation to play the role.

Quasi-social democratic figures such as Margarita Stolbizer and Martín Lousteau appear to reflect the structural dilemma facing progressivism as regards Cambiemos. In order to gather political mass, they would have to take up a more decisive opposition role, and thus run the risk of "peronizing" themselves in the eyes of the voters, or decide to join Cambiemos, and thus run the risk of losing their progressive identity.

The voters they have left do not seem willing to reward them if they distance themselves too much from the government, and their current differences with Cambiemos appear to be more a matter of form rather than substance (Lousteau acknowledged this by expressing his willingness to compete in the Buenos Aires’ Cambiemos primary following his poor performance at the 2017 elections and his spell as ambassador to the United States, a proposal which Macrism rejected. And Stolbizer blurred her image when she entered an alliance with (former?) Peronist Sergio Massa).

Negotiating and opposing... at the same time

So, this leaves Peronism and the FIT as standard-bearers of the opposition (dubbed "trosko-kirchnerism" by the Right, so as to highlight the radical character of the opposition to the "change" embodied by Cambiemos). But it is hard to see how the Left could grow in two years from its current 3% of the votes to become a real option at national level (although it would not be surprising that, given a context of greater social conflict, it could grow significantly in several districts).

The main dilemma for Peronism since November 2015 is exactly the same that it faced after 1983 and 1999 - namely, how to combine its two current responsibilities: governing provinces and cities and acting as the unequivocal opposition to the national government.

Most analysts explain the much-touted division between Kirschnerist Peronism (or Peronist Kirchnerism) and the "good Peronism" of the governors by referring to personal antagonism between Cristina Kirchner and a more or less stable block of pragmatic deputies and senators who belong to a more traditional school of Peronism and who, in varying degrees, make plain their aversion to "progressivism".

While there is no denying that personal matters do have an impact on politics, this division, however, is largely superimposed on the structural cleavage dividing those who govern in the provinces and those who are only elected members of legislative chambers.

The much-touted division between Kirschnerist Peronism (or Peronist Kirchnerism), and the "good Peronism" of the governors, by referring to personal antagonism between Cristina Kirchner and a block of pragmatic deputies and senators who make plain their aversion to "progressivism".

It is only to be expected that those who have to raise funds on a monthly basis to pay public salaries and ensure the governability of their districts have more incentives to negotiate with the national government - which controls the cash flow to their districts. (No wonder that the political force that, for several years during the 1990s, embodied the staunchest opposition to Menemism was the Frepaso, which did not govern in practically any district).

It is also to be expected that those who do not have to guarantee public sector salaries and bonuses can voice their opposition more openly in Congress, as shown in recent congressional debates on Social Security reform.

It should be remembered that Peronism did not block most of the bills proposed by former President Raúl Alfonsín (with the exception of the trade unions restructuring bill) and helped pass all of the De La Rúa government’s legislative proposals. We must also remember that Carlos Menem, then governor of La Rioja province, was for several years the main interlocutor of Alfonsinism.

The dilemma, of course, lies in the fact that if this division of roles, which is quite understandable at present, were to persist, it would rule out any possibility Peronism may have of being a competitive political force in 2019.

Suturing divisions such as these is no easy task, especially considering that the government is keenly aware that it must keep and force the wedge as firmly as possible into the opposition block. But Peronism must think of ways to cement the cracks on its road to 2019. At some point, it must arrive at a synthesis between "those who govern" and "those who oppose".

What is interesting about this situation is that the dichotomy between governing/negotiating on the one hand, and legislating/opposing on the other, was brilliantly expressed during the 1990s by the couple Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández, in their role as opponents to Carlos Menem within the Justicialist (Peronist) Party.

As governor of the province of Santa Cruz, Kirchner accepted or helped to promote several of Menem’s emblematic initiatives, especially the oil privatization bill. As senator, Cristina Fernández became known for her strong opposition to Menem in Congress and in the media.

Success in politics is, above all, a matter of timing.

The problem for Peronism today is that the personal coordination between leaders behind the scenes that allowed this double game is no longer available. But at some point between now and 2019 a small group of Peronist figures will have to sit down and discuss under what conditions a unified leadership can be put in place (and can later be competitive at elections); otherwise, Peronism will stand divided in October 2019.

This would be tantamount to knowingly facing defeat at a national election, for the first time since 1983 – for, unlike in 2003, when Peronism was split into three, non-Peronism today is united in Cambiemos. And, as the Peronist saying goes, defeat is worse than betrayal.

Success in politics is, above all, a matter of timing: negotiating some sort of mechanism allowing a united Peronist candidacy cannot happen too early, nor, even less, too late. 

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