December 20, 2014
Taking on the blob
For the Herald
Peronists ready to evolve to take on rivals
In other less sophisticated countries, leftists and rightists, socialists and conservatives, those who want the state to run most things and free-market enthusiasts, have been fighting it out for generations. In Argentina, their counterparts have been reduced to skulking on the sidelines. While there, they have got to know one another well enough to consider the possibility of joining forces, after a fashion, in an effort to get into the game.
They will not find it easy. The Peronist movement is used to seeing off challengers. While its rivals tend to be somewhat rigid when it comes to changing their views, Peronism is marvellously flexible. By leaving such matters in the hands of whoever happens to be boss, its activists have no need to waste time sitting through those endless argumentative sessions members of other parties must endure before dumping one set of policies and agreeing on another. For them it is easy to adapt to changes in the political, intellectual or economic climate. Along with Groucho Marx, they can say: These are our principles, and if you don’t like them, well, we have others.
Like a monster in a science-fiction film, the Peronist movement can shape-shift at a moment’s notice, adapting itself to whatever conditions it finds itself up against. Yesterday, it claimed to be leftist. Tomorrow? In all probability it will be rightwing, tough on law and order and gung-ho about private enterprise. Had Charles Darwin lived long enough to encounter it on his travels, he would have mentioned it in his book on evolution.
For over a century, the Argentine political arena has been largely the preserve of populists. To the dismay of people who favoured what they assumed was a more rational approach to public affairs, first the Radicals and then the Peronists proved far more successful at wooing the electorate than anyone else. The idea that in some way the populists represented all decent Argentines and that anyone who disputed this was a lackey of the British Empire, while it was still with us, or the for many even more obnoxious North American Empire that replaced it, took hold. It has yet to go away.
Until the Peronists moved in, the Radicals were against political parties on principle because, as the word used to describe them makes clear, they are divisive by nature. They only changed their mind after the Peronists took over and said that they, not the Radicals or anyone else, brought together all the various parts that made up Argentina. But though for years now the Peronists, like the Radicals before them, have been split into a large number of factions, they have been reluctant to make it official. That is smart. The days of “monolithic unity”, “verticalist loyalty” and all the rest may have gone for ever, but when circumstances demand it they can all coalesce behind a leader capable of giving them the votes they need to stay in business and then, should it suit them, hive off in whatever direction they see fit.
Peronism is a wonderfully broad church. In it there is room for fascists and communists, individuals with a taste for Nazi memorabilia and worshippers of Che Guevara, as well as liberals, in both the North American and the European sense, reactionaries, whether of a democratic disposition or not, and plenty of middle-of-the-road conformists. About the only thing they have in common is a willingness to forgive and, after a while, forget the crimes or follies of their fellow Peronists.
When Carlos Menem’s allegedly “neoliberal” policies seemed called for, most Peronists, among them Néstor Kirchner and his wife, supported them with unctuous fervour. When the majority of the electorate said it would prefer something different, they lined up behind Eduardo Duhalde and then, as the opinion polls suggested it would be in their interest to back the saviours from Patagonia, Néstor and Cristina. But times have changed and, yet again, the Peronists are offering the country an alternative to Peronism. Leading it is Cristina’s former Cabinet chief Sergio Massa, whose main rival just happens to be another Peronist, Néstor’s vice-president Daniel Scioli.
Needless to say, the prospect of having to put up with at least four more years of Peronist rule alarms the many who think the movement founded by Juan Domingo Perón has already done quite enough harm to their country. Since the general took over just after the Second World War and installed his own version of Mussolini’s corporatist order, it has been downhill all the way. Peronism may be only a symptom of a far deeper malaise, but its long ascendancy has coincided a bit too perfectly with Argentina’s fall from grace. When Peronism took over, Argentina was by far the wealthiest country in Latin America. Many assumed it would soon become something like Australia is today. Unfortunately for tens of millions of people not just in Argentina but also in the rest of the region, who would certainly have benefited had one of their neighbours become a genuine powerhouse, that did not happen.
To save Argentina from a new dose of Peronist mismanagement sweetened by corruption, eight leftwing groups have just formed an alliance and, to the manifest disgust of some stalwarts, some think they would be well advises to reach a pre-electoral agreement with Mauricio Macri’s more rightwing outfit, PRO. Those who favour this option point out that, as things stand, neither the UNEN Broad Front nor PRO could be sure of coming second in the next presidential elections. Unless one did, the runoff would be between Massa and Scioli. Dissidents complain that doing a deal with Macri would require them to ditch their principles. As for the Peronists, they are more than happy to watch the upstarts squirm.