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ARGENTINA | 16-02-2023 17:08

Peronism, Argentina’s dominant political force, looks into the electoral abyss

Two-time former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, is the architect of the Peronist coalition. She may be about to take it down with her.

Argentina’s dominant political force of the past half century or more has long been defined by personalities over policies. Now, the Peronists can’t rally behind a candidate for this year’s election — not even the president himself.

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the two-term former president and now second-in-command who maintains tight control over the movement, has said she won’t be a contender and openly opposes a run by President Alberto Fernández, whom she picked to lead the ticket in 2019.

The failure to unite around a candidate is the product of a leadership vacuum carved out by years of political infighting, with the result that the ruling Frente de Todos coalition is facing the prospect of its worst election result in decades. The dysfunction at the top threatens to store up challenges for any potential successor at a time of already drastic economic crisis. 

Interviews with senior current and former government officials reveal a deeply-entrenched sense that defeat is on the horizon in October’s election, leaving Peronism in sharp, perhaps even permanent, decline. 

“Peronism has many weaknesses right now,” said Mercedes D’Alessandro, the former director for equality, gender and economy who resigned from the government in March 2022. The Fernández administration had several wins at its outset during the coronavirus pandemic but failed to capitalise on them, she said, “and since then it’s only been failure after failure.” 

Acknowledging the challenge, Fernández has called a “roundtable” for February 16 to define the coalition’s election strategy, with mayors, governors, representatives of labour unions and social movements all expected to attend. It remains unclear if Fernández de Kirchner’s camp will show up.

Founded in the 1940s by President Juan Domingo Peron and gaining international prominence via his wife, Eva, Peronism is historically a pro-labour political force with populist leanings that favours state intervention. But it’s also known for its flexibility. 

Continually reinventing themselves, Peronists have governed Argentina for 28 of the 40 years of democracy since 1983, while controlling a majority of the provinces and the Senate for most of that time. Yet with more than half of Argentine children of ages six to seventeen now living in poverty and inflation near 100 percent tearing at the nation’s fabric, there are signs the movement’s adaptability is stretched way beyond its limits.

“On the key issues Peronism has always claimed as its banner — like salaries and buying power, helping the vulnerable — it couldn’t keep up,” said D’Alessandro.

The opposition coalition is facing its own internal power struggle and may present two candidates at key primaries due in August. Yet support for the ruling party is so deflated that polls suggest any Peronist candidate might not even make it to the run-off.

The government’s toxic nature was on show after Argentina’s World Cup victory in December. 

When team captain Lionel Messi descended from the plane holding the trophy, an official from the Argentine Football Association (AFA) intercepted Interior Minister Eduardo ‘Wado’ de Pedro before he could get to the champions, denying the government its moment of publicity. A victory parade in Buenos Aires the next day was cancelled due to the massive crowds, and instead of taking up Fernández’s invitation to the presidential palace the players were evacuated by helicopter. 

In football-obsessed Argentina, the elation of winning a World Cup can go a long way to banishing economic pain, but the hangover is overdue. Fernández de Kirchner and her family have governed in Peronist coalitions for 16 of the past 20 years, and the balance is ballooning debt loads, unsustainable social security spending and a surge of informal, low-wage jobs that don’t pay income taxes.

“The question isn’t whether this is the end of Peronism or not,” said Alejandro Catterberg, director of Buenos Aires-based polling firm Poliarquía, who provides polling data to several parties including the main opposition coalition. “The question is if this is the end of Peronismo and Kirchnerismo together. And I think it is.” 

If so, it’s been a roller-coaster ride for a woman who ignites emotions of adoration to blind fury. Only last year, Fernández de Kirchner, 69, survived an assassination attempt and was sentenced to six years in prison for graft — as vice-president she has immunity. Her dilemma now is that polls show she’s too unpopular to win a presidential election, yet she still casts a shadow so large that Peronism appears incapable of moving on without her.

These are uncharted waters for the movement as a result, according to Patricio Giusto, director of Argentine consulting firm Diagnóstico Político. With its principal leader convicted, tumbling in the polls and no viable alternatives, “this is Peronism’s worst moment,” he said.

Fernández de Kirchner will still ultimately choose or have major influence over the movement’s candidate, according to the past and present government officials. They believe she’ll stay out of this year’s race because she went public with the announcement. Yet fans at rallies chant for her to declare, and with her party’s future hanging on her, analysts are sceptical she’ll be able to resist.

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner waves to crowd of supporters.

On the ropes

Running or not, Fernández de Kirchner’s political experiment is on the ropes. Back in 2019, she announced that Alberto Fernández — once a close ally before becoming a strident critic, who had never served as governor, congressman, senator or even mayor — would lead the ticket with her as vice-president. They swept to victory, pulling off a remarkable comeback four years after she was voted out. 

Fernández earned early voter trust in 2020 for taking the pandemic seriously and restructuring Argentina’s debt with foreign creditors. But infighting ensued after GDP nosedived 10 percent and more than 130,000 Argentines died from Covid-19. A vaccine scandal and a presidential birthday party during lockdown only made things worse. 

Ministers loyal to Fernández de Kirchner threatened to resign after getting crushed in the 2021 midterms, forcing a Cabinet overhaul. Then congressional lawmakers on her side voted against the International Monetary Fund deal that Fernández’s economic team had spent two years negotiating. Those two events, six months apart, cemented the Frente de Todos coalition’s demise, according to the government officials. 

Bickering between the Fernández and Fernández de Kirchner camps has intensified to such an extent that the president’s spokeswoman, Gabriela Cerruti, intervened. “It doesn’t serve anybody that we’re publicly criticising each other,” she said in a January 31 radio interview. “We have to preserve our coalition’s unity.”

Neither Cerruti nor Fernández de Kirchner’s spokesman commented for this story after multiple requests.

Since last June, six ministers, most aligned with Fernández, have resigned while inflation has accelerated from 64 percent to 95 percent, wiping out wages and increasing extreme poverty — the latter arguably the most damning indictment of the Peronist government. In the 1970s, poverty in Argentina was below 10 percent; now, it’s almost 40 percent. 

Opposition leaders accuse the Peronist government of stockpiling financial problems for the next administration. The Central Bank’s balance sheet of short-term debt has mushroomed from 679 billion pesos (US$3.7 billion) at the start of the Fernandez government to 8.3 trillion pesos. Argentina also has to start paying back Wall Street creditors in 2024 after the government restructured payments beyond this term.

All of which is fuelling the sense that the kind of Peronism for the poor espoused by Fernández de Kirchner is reaching the end of the road. But with the opposition Juntos por el Cambio coalition, led by former president Mauricio Macri, also struggling to unite behind an election candidate, there’s an opening for new blood. 

One contender is Javier Milei, a far-right congressman who captured votes in Peronist strongholds during the 2021 midterms and is now running for the presidency. Milei advocates a break-the-system message short on policy specifics that riles up his largely young, male base. Analysts say he poses a threat to both Peronist and opposition camps. 

Milei’s main attraction, says Jimena Blanco, head of the Americas at consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft, is that “at least he’s neither of the two other options.”

Still, there’s speculation that high-profile Economy Minister Sergio Massa may run as Peronism’s last hope. And history shows never to count Peronism out: Its many incarnations have allowed it to outshine all other political parties in Argentina.

Yet all the zigzagging risks leaving it devoid of an identity. 

“Peronism is a case study in survival,” said Roy Hora, an Argentine historian. But in its current form, “it’s hard to see a space for Argentina and Peronism in the 21st century,” he added. “Everyone at some point has their moment when they leave centre stage.”

by Patrick Gillespie/Bloomberg

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