While it would be rashly premature to predict how this dramatic week will end (even during its closing hours), let alone fix its final place in history, this month may well figure as the most decisive September in Argentine experience since the September of 1930 – an entirely different milestone but not necessarily more positive. Quite simply, inconceivable as that prospect might seem, we might just be witnessing the end of Peronism following last Sunday’s catastrophic PASO primary defeat and the self-destructive reactions within the ruling coalition. On the last day of February last year (just three weeks before quarantine) we wrote an editorial painting coronavirus as more panic than pandemic and today’s prediction might end up looking equally foolish in time. Or not.
While extremely volatile, Argentine history is notorious for everything changing to stay the same, and there have been prolonged periods of continuity throughout. To give a thumbnail sketch, little over a decade after declaring independence, Argentina was totally dominated by the dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas for almost a quarter-century (1829-1852). Following another quarter-century to define the coexistence between Buenos Aires and the rest of the country, General Julio Argentino Roca called the shots between 1880 and the death of Manuel Quintana in 1906, even though president in only half that period. The next quarter-century saw the middle-class Radicals gradually displacing the élites of the previous century, culminating in 14 straight years of Radical presidency (1916-1930). The 1930 coup inaugurated half a century of military-civilian alternation accompanied by a growing distance from the rest of the planet (sometimes involuntary with the world in depression and at war, sometimes deliberate). The Peronism born in 1945 provides the main bridge between that half-century and the uninterrupted democracy since 1983, governing nationwide for 28 of the last 38 years with a continuous Senate overall majority only challenged now. The point here is to underline that in their time all these periods – such as the three Rs (Rosas, Roca and Radicals) – seemed to last forever but all reached their end.
While it would be entirely malicious to compare Peronism with coronavirus, both have demonstrated a striking ability to develop new strains with the neo-conservative Carlos Menem (who died last February) and the Kirchner presidential couple as the main variants of the populist movement. And perhaps there are good reasons to ask if both are now reaching their end with a huge degree of uncertainty underlying that question in both cases.
The Frente de Todos coalition, with the vice-presidential tail wagging the presidential dog, has been a rare experiment premised on a united Peronism being big enough to contain its own historic contradictions as represented by Menem and the Kirchners by guaranteeing electoral victory and thus power. That myth was rudely shattered by last Sunday’s voting. This defeat goes beyond being a mirror image of the equally stunning defeat suffered by the Mauricio Macri presidency in the last PASO primary because a movement priding itself on interlacing all ideologies and classes suddenly found itself losing at both ends. Two results from last Sunday to illustrate this – the fall of the Frente de Todos vote from 71 to 23 percent in the Bernal shantytown of Iapi shows that the poorer half of the country is no longer a captive vote with its leadership shifting towards the picket organisations, while among the other half the 13.6 percent won by strident libertarian Javier Milei in this city is the tip of the iceberg for the alienation of a middle class and youth massively yearning to emigrate.
As the week closed, President Alberto Fernández was at a crossroads between the uphill challenge of soldiering on with a minority government for 27 months, thus finally delivering on the moderate image for which he was elected, or yielding to his vice-president’s pressures, which beyond ministerial changes aim at throwing money at the electorate to turn around last Sunday’s results in the November 14 midterms (complaints about less than half the projected 2021 budget deficit being spent were at the heart of Thursday’s open letter). But regardless of the presidential choice (which seemed to be leaning towards the latter) little point in speculating further since there can be no final answer until November at least when the answer could be all too final.
Last and least, whatever the future of Peronism, have we seen the last of PASO? After the devastating damage suffered by both major coalitions in the last two primaries, there could be consensus there.