Why did the left lose in the Argentine elections?

Government speakers never stopped maintaining a harsh and confrontational style that proved too unseasonable in this election. Macri’s slim victory should force him to avoid backtracking kirchnerist popular policies. Español. Português.

Agustin Rossi
14 December 2015

Mauricio Macri´s sworn in. Flickr/Magalí Iglesias. Some rights reserved.

Many explanations have been offered on the surprising defeat of the ruling Frente Para la Victoria (FpV, a left-of-center coalition founded by Néstor and Cristina Kirchner, with roots in the political movement founded by Juan Perón) in the second-round of the Argentine 2015 Presidential elections to the Cambiemos coalition (a right-wing coalition headed by the former major of the City of Buenos Aires Mauricio Macri, heir of the Macri fortune). I consider all those explanations insufficient and argue that the reason why FpV lost the elections is because it failed to understand that the Argentine society was tired of the harsh and confrontational tone that characterized FpV’s Governments, and demanded a change in the tone and style of its Executive.

Cambiemos unexpected electoral promise of maintaining the key social and economic policies of the last decade demonstrates that the people were generally satisfied with the transformations introduced by Néstor and Cristina Kirchner’s administrations. Consequently, in spite having won the election, Cambiemos has not won a mandate for backtracking the fundamental economic and social reforms of the Kirchners’ years, much criticized and opposed by Macri in the last ten years.

There are eight main explanations of why FpV lost or why Cambiemos won. First is that people got tired of Cristina Kirchner herself. Second, that people voted against the suspected corruption cases that affect the FpV. Third, that the responsible of the defeat of the FpV was the economy. Fourth, that it was a victory of the anti-FpV media conglomerates.  Fifth, that the primaries left the FpV internally divided. Sixth, that FpV’s candidate Daniel Scioli, did not truly represent the essence of FpV’s project. Seventh, that Cambiemos was the natural change the people wanted. And eighth that, simply, voters were not in favour of the central policies of the Kirchners’ government and wanted a change.

However, all those arguments have fundamental limitations. First, Cristina Fernandez leaves power with more than 50% of positive image, being in comparative terms the most popular outgoing President, only behind her late husband Néstor Kirchner. Second, corruption allegations affected Cambiemos and FpV in equal measure, having resigned Cambiemos head candidate to the federal lower house for the Province of Buenos Aires in the middle of the campaign because of a corruption scandal. Third, 65% of Argentines consider their personal economic expectations as positive, and unemployment and poverty are in historical lows. Fourth, the unchallenged leadership of Cristina Kirchner inside FpV did not allow for confrontation inside the organization that runs fully united at the federal level –unlike Cambiemos, that had competitive primaries. Fifth, in front of the private media conglomerate, FpV counted with the support of its own allied media and journalists, including the public channels and the monopoly of the TV broadcasting of the hugely popular national football league –resources that the other progressive governments of the region can only dream of. Sixth, Daniel Scioli, vice-president of Néstor Kirchner and twice Governor of the Province of Buenos Aires under the Presidency of Cristina Kirchner, is among the few politicians of national visibility that have been with the FpV’s project since Néstor Kirchner moved from being Governor of Santa Cruz, both the biggest province and the least populated, to being President of the nation in 2003. Seventh, Mauricio Macri’s PRO, the central party in the Cambiemos coalition, barely held in the 2015 second round local elections its fort in the Government of the City of Buenos Aires, and before 2015 Macri’s political influence had never managed to expand outside Argentina’s capital and richest city. Finally, Mauricio Macri himself made a kirchnerista u-turn after the presidential primaries, promising to maintain the central social and economic policies in case of being elected to the highest national office, and even inaugurating the first monument to Juan Perón en City of Buenos Aires (traditionally an anti-peronista feud).

The main reason why the progressive FpV loses the 2015 elections for less than 700.000 votes is for not being able or willing to offer a change in the tone and style in public discourse that Argentine society demanded. Curiously and fatally, Scioli is unable to translate to FpV’s campaign his biggest political capital: his across-the-board acknowledged capacity of dialogue and cooperation. Thus, despite the fact Scioli remained as the least confrontational figure inside the FpV, his trademarked tone and style were suffocated by a multitude of FpV’s leadership voices that maintained the hard confrontational tone and style that has characterized FpV’s Governments. Those tone and styles, that proved to be a winning recipe in the last three Presidential elections, were not what most Argentines wanted to hear in 2015, feeling far away from the economic, social and political crisis that affected Argentina in 2001. The harsh and confrontational tone and style of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner was useful for accomplishing the difficult reforms that turned Argentina around since 2001, but became a liability once Argentines forgot that, not so long ago, they were on the hedge of a cliff.

After almost losing its bulwark in the City of Buenos Aires against one of the former Finance Ministers of Cristina Kirchner turned into an independent candidate now appointed Ambassador to the United States, Martín Losteau, Cambiemos started embracing the fundamental pillars of the FpV’s social and economic model, promising to maintain the welfare plans popular in the lower and lower-middle classes and to keep in public-hands the nationalized companies (such as the national airline or the national oil company). Skilfully, Macri removed from the public spotlight those politicians and advisors of Cambiemos that could evidence the various contradictions of that rhetorical turn. Finally, Macri started a campaign promising a Government dialogue and mutual understanding among Argentines that would end the confrontational style of the outgoing administration. It is worth noting that the cabinet announced by Macri since being elected President, full of those silenced speakers, demonstrates that the electoral promises of Cambiemos regarding the economic and social model will remain that: electoral and promises. For example, for the first time in more than a decade, the new Finance Minister proudly announced that the United States Treasury has been informed about the President’s economic plan before the Argentine Congress.

The electoral offers of FpV and Cambiemos show that most voters wanted the continuity of the fundamental social and economic policies of the FpV’s governments. This coincidence in the electoral platforms is why FpV stumbled in the electoral campaign. FpV did not fully understand the implications of the kirchernista turn of Cambiemos and opted for maintaining a discussion on a front were there was no longer a rhetorical opposition, the one of the economic and social model.

As a consequence, the second mistake of the FpV was not appreciating the implications of the new tone offered by Cambiemos in the campaign. Macri, whom until a couple of years ago had only 13% of positive image at the national level and who had in 2010, publicly joked about the necessity of throwing former President Kirchner out of a train window in order to win the 2011 elections, proposed that what was at stake in the 2015 Presidential elections was the tone and style Argentine’s wanted for their Government and not the social and economic gains of the last decade that Argentines want to preserve. Macri proposed dialogue, mutual understanding and an end to confrontation. Ironically, among the possible FpV candidates, Scioli was the one who better represented dialogue and understanding, and the less confrontational. But he was incapable, or unwilling, to convey his tone and style to FpV’s campaign.

Because of lack of leadership, strategic decisions, or error, Scioli never managed to impose his tone and style to FpV’s campaign. The traditional speakers of Cristina Kirchner’s Government never stopped maintaining a harsh and confrontational style that proved too unseasonable in this election. That is why FpV lost the Presidential election.

Two conclusions follow. First, that maintaining the harsh and conflictive tone will only help FpV to retain its most mobilized base but keep the moderates away. Second, that Macri won a mandate promising not to challenge the policies which, for ten years, he argued had to be changed, and that his legitimacy for further reforms is, thus, limited.

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