January 21, 2018
Saturday, January 25, 2014

And still... politics for politicians

By Nicolás Tereschuk

Guest columnist

“If they don’t have the balls to show up, then they better not come.” Luis Barrionuevo, in his well-known style, put on displayed again this week in only a few words two or three issues not at all new for Argentine politics.

First, union leaders can be powerful, even among Peronists but they have not still been able to show that power in the electoral field, transforming it into votes.

Which leads us to another unwritten law: although Peronist trade unions have shown a great deal of resilience through the decades they have never been successful to impose their views to professional politicians within the party. In this occasion, three very important political Peronist leaders like Daniel Scioli, Sergio Massa and José Manuel de la Sota didn’t even want to show up at a union meeting in Mar del Plata. Wether union leaders like it or not, political strategy, timing and message seem to be still in the hands of men in suits (and president Cristina Kirchner, a lady waring a dress) rather than (very powerful) workers’ leaders in leather jackets.

Another topic related to these is that even when every once in a while the “death” of the professional politicians is proclaimed, in Argentine democracy as we know it, presidents have always been so far one of those men or women with a long political record, many times voted by his or her fellow citizens. Though actors, sportsmen or journalists make the crossover to politics, none have had a big political chance of becoming president without a huge resume.

Raúl Alfonsín started as a local representative in his town, Chascomús, more than 30 years before getting elected as president. Carlos Menem was elected three times as governor of his province until he got his presidential chance. Also Fernando de la Rúa paved his long way to the Presidency from an astonishing victory as a young senator in 1973. Eduardo Duhalde and Néstor Kirchner had been mayors and governors. Cristina Kirchner had been provincial and national legislator for years until she was elected president.

Going back to the Peronist party, so far, no union leader has jumped to big time politics succesfully coming directly from the unions. In the 80s, metal worker Lorenzo Miguel was a big elector in the Partido Justicialista, but he was not able to survive in that place through the decade.

Harvard’s political scientist Steven Levitsky’s thesis is quite well-known. In his own words, the PJ, as a labour-based political party “beginning in 1983” underwent a “farreaching process of de-unionization”.

“Reformers dismantled Peronism’s traditional mechanisms of labour participation, and clientelist networks gradually replaced the party’s union-based linkages to the working and lower classes. By the early 1990s, the PJ had transformed from a labour dominated party into a machine party in which unions were relatively marginal actors. These changes were critical to the PJ’s electoral and policy successes during the 1990s. The erosion of union influence enhanced party leaders’ strategic autonomy, which facilitated efforts to attract independent and middle-class votes,” Levitsky says in a classic work that explores the Argentine experience in the transformation of “labour-based parties.”

According to Levitsky, “the PJ’s radical transformation was made possible by the weakly institutionalized character of its party-union linkage.”

“Although unions had long been powerful actors within Peronism, the rules of the game governing their participation in the party were ill-defined, contested, and fluid. This left the party-labour linkage vulnerable to changes in Peronism’s internal distribution of power and preferences—a change that occurred in the wake of the 1983 democratic transition. As they gained access to public office, PJ politicians substituted state resources for union resources, which enhanced their capacity to challenge labour’s privileged position in the party,” this political scientist argues.

Whether this is still the same case today or not, after a growth of union resources throughout the last decade, and the changes that also the whole of society has undergone, the photo of Hugo Moyano and Luis Barrionuevo alone and the rough words said by the leader of the gastronomic sector revels that things have not changed completely whithin the Peronist Party. How union and political leaders within the party will dance the tango that will lead them to 2015 elections is still a question that is far from having just one answer.

* Nicolás Tereschuk is the editor of the blog

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