This WeekSunday, May 4, 2014
Non-Peronists: try to get it right
All the past mistakes are there to be made by the opposition
Argentina is always, politically, a big shouting match. It can be no other way now that the presidential elections scheduled for next year will not involve somebody carrying the surname Kirchner for the first time since 2003. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s drive for supremacy, after she won a landslide victory in the presidential elections of 2011, has been defeated. Massive street demonstrations, originating mainly in the rich neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires City, to protest about the manipulation of the inflation rate, a reform of the justice system, crime and corruption effectively put an end to any Kirchnerite plans to reform the Constitution to allow Fernández de Kirchner to seek a third term in office next year. The Victory Front, the president’s coalition that includes the Peronist party, lost the midterm elections last year in all the major districts. Plans for re-election? That was the end of that.
Those who loathe the Kirchenerite administration can rejoice. Here’s another chance to do things differenty. It all depends on the electorate. But have you been here before? Here’s to hoping that if the Victory Front is effectively defeated next year those who take over will get things historically right. Juan Perón was toppled in 1955. But by 1973 the old general was back as a democratically-elected president. The anti-Peronists had 18 years to do things differently. The Peronist government, headed by Perón’s politically-inexperienced widow Isabel Martínez, was toppled again in 1976. But by 1989 the nation was voting Peronist again when Carlos Menem, the caudillo governor of La Rioja, was elected president. Menem went on to famously (or infamously depending on your way of thinking) shun the populist policies that ushered him to office to embrace neoconservatism. But even when Menem was market-friendly the urban middle classes had to time for stories of sleaze and corruption surrounding his administration. So Menem’s Peronist party (fielding Eduardo Duhalde as a presidential candidate) was voted out of office in 1999. The non-Peronists could rejoice again. Elected president was Fernando de la Rúa, at the helm of the Radical-Frepaso Alliance. Here, again, was another opportunity for the non-Peronists to show how a republic should really be managed. But alas De la Rúa, a Radical, was crushed by the financial meltdown and forced to resign late in 2001. What ensued was institutional chaos managed by the bigwigs of the Peronist party (with some help from some Radicals). De la Rúa, if you remember, won in 1999, but he had no control of the Senate. And the Alliance lost the gubernatorial elections in Buenos Aires province, the nation’s largest district, to the Peronists. De la Rúa’s fumble, arguably, opened the way for Patagonian Peronist Néstor Kirchner (the current president’s late husband) to rise to power in 2003 thumbing his nose from the centre-left and preching populsim once more. Judging by the outcome of the 2013 midterm elections the electorate is now sick of it once more.
Here is where you now stand. Don’t like Kirchnerism? Good news for you pal because it’s looking like they are on the way out. Have the solutions to fix Argentina the republican way? Bully for you.
It’s very likely that a non-Kirchnerite party will win next year. The presidential front-runner at the moment is the Buenos Aires province congressman Sergio Massa, who served as CFK’s Cabinet chief between 2008-2009 but is now clearly an opposition Peronist.
That is the context in which the weeks of 2014 are unfolding. The outgoing CFK administration is concentrating on trying to secure an elegant end to the president’s time in office. It will all depend on the economy, which is creaking at the moment.
Economy Minister Axel Kicillof met with leaders of the Argentine Industrial Union (UIA) on Monday at the Economy Ministry. Most of the Argentine business community is now openly complaining about the economy, especially the strict regulations surrounding imports and exports. But Kicillof gathered with the UIA leaders to tell them that they should protect the “pro-industry” economic policies. Argentine industries, Kicillof told the executives, had been destroyed before and they can be destroyed again. Presumably this means that the non-Kirchnerite parties could well be “business-friendly,” the term so dear to Wall Street, but they might not be necessarily “pro-industry.” The business leaders are complaining. But Kicillof’s tone was that of someone warning the executives “don’t say I didn’t tell you so” if something goes awry in 2015. The critics will reply that things are already awry. Possibly.
Yet the Central Bank’s foreign currency reserves increased last month, the inflation rate (one of the highest in the world) is slowing down, and there is no sign of the kind of financial crash that brought down De la Rúa’s government. Polls show that support for the national government is low. But polls also show that Fernández de Kirchner is many times not held directly responsibly for the problems hitting Argentina.
There is no reason to believe that the Victory Front will win the presidential elections next year. Buenos Aires Governor Daniel Scioli, one of the main Kirchnerite presidential hopefuls, is a moderate who has not been endorsed in public by Fernández de Kirchner and the ultra-Kirchnerites. Yet neither is Scioli being completely shunned, a sign that he could be endorsed if there is no other alternative.
Militant Kirchnerite groups, including the youth wing La Cámpora, held a gathering at the Central Market on Sunday that was attended by thousands of pro-government activists. Scioli visited the gathering at midday. But the main speaker was presidential Legal Secretary Carlos Zannini, a member of CFK’s small inner circle. Zannini talked about the “empowerment of society” to champion the Kirchnerite reforms and said that the priority was not discussing candidacies. But there is no stopping time and eventually all political parties next year will have to field candidates in the compulsory primaries known as PASO, ahead of the presidential vote. Scioli will run not matter what the rhetoric waxed by Zannini to the militants is.
Scioli is also gathering the support of key Peronist party governors, including San Juan Governor José Luis Gioja. There is speculation is that if Scioli wins the presidency, and there is now sign that it will be easy, he will name many current Peronist governors as Cabinet ministers. The Peronist party (also known by its initials in Spanish, PJ) is formally part of the Kirchnerite Victory Front. Yet there was such thing as a PJ before Kirchnerism and the aim of Scioli and a group of Peronist governors is to outlive Kirchnerism with the PJ. That is not the president’s plan.
The gathering of Kirchnerite militants shows that the Victory Front will still put up a fight next year. But even Scioli will have a difficult time winning the presidency next year even with most of the PJ machine behind him.
Massa, a 42 year-old rebel Peronist showing no time for the old guard, already defeated the formal PJ candidates last year in Buenos Aires province. He could do it again in the presidential elections of 2015, according to polls. But Massa will have to fight for the opposition vote with Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri, the leader of the centre-right party PRO, and with the Frente Amplio-UNEN, which groups eight political parties (including the Socialist Party, the Radical Civic Union and the Civic Coalition).
Those who attended the anti-Kirchnerite street demonstrations are willing to consider all the options to dismiss electorally both Fernández de Kirchner’s dauphin and the PJ. Yet at least one opposition leader, the Civic Coalition lawmaker Elisa Carrió, has already realized that the trick for the non-Peronist opposition will be not to make the mistakes of the past. The Alliance collapsed. Carrió has hinted that she would like to run for Buenos Aires province governor (even when she is not a resident and does not qualify legally). But the point Carrió is trying to make is that the non-Peronist coalition will get nowhere and could suffer the same fate as De la Rúa if it does not control the Senate and does not win the governorship in Buenos Aires province, which has been in PJ hands since 1987.
Carrió seems to have realized that defeating the PJ in general elections is not that difficult. The really difficult bit is getting things right once in office, in the name of all those republican and democratic values, and amassing enough political clout territorially and in Congress to survive a Peronist (or Kirchnerite) comeback.