For those who are interested in unusual political cults, Argentina is a living museum in which they can find plenty of interesting specimens of phenomena that in a less conservative country would belong to the past. Most, like ‘Yrigoyenism’ which was still around not that many years ago and, indeed, may still be with us, are of little importance, but some have played a major role in making Argentina what she is today and continue to do so.
One such is Kirchnerism, a variant of Peronism whose exponents seek to recreate the climate prevailing in the 1970s when belligerent young people persuaded themselves that Juan Domingo Perón, who was comfortably domiciled in Francisco Franco’s Madrid, was really a left-wing revolutionary. And then there is Peronism itself, which inherited a great deal from Benito Mussolini’s Fascist movement, including the government-sponsored trade-union system it set up and which has survived to this day. However, even before its founder’s demise, Peronism did try to move with the times, shifting first one way and then in the opposite direction so frequently that its supporters took to fobbing off questions about what it stood for by saying it is just “a feeling.”
Can Peronism keep on doing this sort of thing? Since the September primaries, many have been telling themselves that the political faction led by Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, whose own personal freedom and that of her son Máximo will depend on the political power she and her devotees manage to retain, is on the way out. And some even think that Peronism, which for three quarters of a century has dominated Argentine political life, could be carted off along with the Kirchnerites to what Leon Trotsky charitably called “the dustbin of history.” They may be wrong; obituaries of Peronism have been piling up for well over 50 years but, to the chagrin of those who would like to see it properly dead and buried, the movement has refused to oblige them.
Both the Kirchnerites, and the Peronists who regard them as interlopers, are determined to keep the undertakers at bay, but they are going about it in a most peculiar way. Hurt by what happened over a month ago in the ‘primaries’ in which the coalition she had put together got walloped by an opposition in which her arch-enemy Mauricio Macri still plays a significant role, Cristina decided it would be best to let the old-fashioned Peronists she heartily despises take charge of the campaign.
With this in mind, she allowed president Alberto Fernández to make Juan Manzur, a caudillo from Tucumán whose ideas may be described as feudal, his cabinet chief, and forced Axel Kiciloff, the governor of Buenos Aires Province she had been grooming as a prospective presidential candidate, to put up with the close presence of Martín Insaurralde, a political boss from Lomas de Zamora who supposedly knows how to win the support of the slum-dwellers who in Argentina get to choose whoever runs the country.
Cristina also had a hand in the return of Security Minister of Aníbal Fernández, a political bruiser who can be relied on to raise hackles, even though she cannot have forgotten that, by losing to María Eugenia Vidal in Buenos Aires back in 2015, Aníbal made a big contribution to Macri’s electoral triumph.
To remind us what kind of individual he is, Aníbal sent a deviously threatening message to the cartoonist ‘Nik,’ in which he made it clear he knew which school his daughters went to. (This unpleasant episode brought back memories: soon after the 1976 military coup, a couple of security operatives, one of whom, on recollection, looked much like Alfredo Astiz who had yet to make himself widely known, paid me a visit and, on seeing my daughter, casually asked her about her school uniform).
Cristina is supposed to be an extremely cunning political operator. So, what is she up to? Does she want the Peronist old guard to shoulder all the blame for a defeat she sees coming? Perhaps she imagines that, after ordering her own followers, especially the ones linked to the La Cámpora organisation Máximo leads, to take a back seat, she would remain unscathed? If this is her game plan, she runs the risk of losing a great deal. Should the Peronist coalition surprise everyone by coming out on top in November, Manzur would get all the credit and in all probability would do his best to sideline Cristina and everyone associated with her. And if, as is widely expected, it does badly, he and others like him would do much the same because it is far too late for her to pretend that she had nothing to do with the government’s performance.
Politicians are professionally obliged to make out they are brave truth-tellers who would never dream of misleading anyone about what they intend to do with the power they are striving to get their hands on, which is why so many of them hire experts who tell them how to dress, what to say and where to hold carefully choreographed encounters with members of the public. Coaching the Kirchnerite candidates is a Catalan, Antoni Gutiérrez-Rubí, who wants them to adopt a media-savvy approach much like Macri’s lot, but it would appear that, with the exception of president Alberto Fernández and a handful of others, the Peronists prefer what for them is the traditional way of doing things.
They take it for granted that if they succeed in persuading people that good times are fast coming back, voters will express their gratitude by rewarding them with a thumping victory on November 14, but they are going about it in such a blatant fashion by handing out free stuff and printing huge amounts of money that only the most intellectually-challenged find it convincing. And, as Kiciloff discovered after promising to pay so that two-hundred-thousand school-leavers could go to tourist resorts, letting it be known that money is no problem gives public employees, among them the police, who earn a pittance an excellent excuse to demand big pay increases.
While there can be little doubt that the pitiful state of the national economy has done much to discredit the Kirchnerite government, many see its tragicomic failure in this department as a symptom of something which goes far deeper. In the eyes of a growing proportion of the country’s inhabitants, Cristina, Alberto, Aníbal and the rest of them represent the very worst of a self-serving political elite whose members are far more interested in their own personal welfare than in anything else. While few think opposition leaders are that great, they do seem less malignant than the individuals who are in power and are therefore first in line to replace them.