Today would have been the 127th birthday of Juan Domingo Perón but since nobody (not even Jeanne Calment, who fell five years short) has ever reached that age, no point in wasting time with impossible hypotheses – the real question is whether Peronism (which curiously almost never marks today’s birthday) is still alive.
In formal and institutional terms there can be no doubt – not only does Peronism account for the current national government but at least 15 of the 23 provincial governors are Peronists of one kind or another, most of them with the dice loaded in favour of a lengthy future thanks to electoral systems, federal revenue-sharing, etc.
Yet such formal criteria are not good enough for a movement which has always defined itself as a “feeling (sentimiento)” – we need to dig below all the political layers to pinpoint that underlying mystique. With Giorgia Meloni’s triumph in Italy just a month before the centenary of Benito Mussolini’s March on Rome, the magnetism of fascism has become a topic of conversation and last week the C5N pro-government television news channel delivered a broadside entitled “El fascismo está encantador” – irrespective or not of whether Peronism should be considered a direct offspring of fascism (with plenty of arguments in favour), it also has a not so discreet charm. Over the years the best way this columnist has found of transmitting this attraction is to borrow the Glasgow comedian Billy Connolly’s ironic defence of the religious rivalries in his native city in the last century: “Bigotry is like smoking – you know it’s bad for you but it’s fun.”
By the same token I would argue that “Peronism is like smoking – you know it’s bad for you but it’s fun” yet the question becomes whether this still holds true or whether it is not receding into the past like Glaswegian bigotry. Regardless of whether you look at the postmodern libertarian youth yearning to leave a “national and popular” country or the lumpenproletarian substrata underlying the candy floss gang ineptly trying to bump off the veep, Peronism would seem to have lost its monopoly of youthful rebelliousness and the more Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner tries to keep this mystique alive by overacting as this government’s worst enemy, the more she really becomes this government’s worst enemy.
Peronism has been in my radar for almost half a century now, first coming to my attention with the 62 percent Perón-Perón landslide of the second 1973 election. My lifelong fascination with elections perhaps starting with the Orpington by-election of 1962 (won by the Liberal Eric Lubbock) already had seen me scanning numerous elections by 1973 and I had never come across any percentage like that in what seemed clearly a free and fair election (unlike the 99-point-something votes being registered behind the Iron Curtain). I remember a keen curiosity as to how such a massive vote could be possible with my total ignorance about Argentina giving me no answers. Less than a year later I also remember during the 1974 World Cup watching Argentina playing in Gelsenkirchen against East Germany (which has since ceased to exist) wearing black arm-bands because the General had just expired in the most sombre of moods (which might also have stemmed from elimination, including a 4-0 drubbing by the Dutch Clockwork Orange).
Then no more encounters with Peronism (apart from a renewed curiosity as to how that 62 percent landslide could be so easily obliterated by the 1976 coup with again ignorance giving me no answers) until my arrival in Argentina in late 1982 (of all years). There I needed a touchstone to start working out the local politics and, given the total dominance of the Labour Party in my native Liverpool, that touchstone had be something akin to the Labour Party so Peronism with its trade unionist spine seemed the obvious choice. But that identification soon ran into trouble – not only the fascist roots but I soon learned that the so-called “social conquests” had in reality all been granted from above whereas in Britain they were genuinely the results of working-class struggle. We can see this paternalistic mentality very much alive today with the current Frente de Todos drive to replace collective bargaining with a bonus granted by the government.
In the 1983 elections I thought a Peronist triumph to be a foregone conclusion even if the street seemed to say otherwise, as did a couple of opinion polls which few took seriously – since those polls were not nationwide I assumed that “la Argentina secreta” inland would impose its sentimiento over Radical ethics. Raúl Alfonsín’s closing October 26 rally at the Obelisk did draw a million but the Peronists matched those numbers two days later to their relief, so huge in the case of Buenos Aires gubernatorial candidate Herminio Iglesias that he made the fatal mistake of burning the Radical coffin.
As usual this column is running out of space. Suffice it to say, that Peronism has governed this country in 27 of the last 33 years showing many faces of which the most extreme (and also most durable) have been the privatisations and convertibility of the neo-conservative Carlos Menem in the last decade of the past century and the interventionist and isolationist state of the Kirchners doubling the public sector in the first decade of this – the abrupt switch from ultra-Kirchnerism to the dilettante pro-market pragmatism of Sergio Massa in the last couple of months is entirely typical. But while I could be entirely wrong, as I was about the Peronist victory in 1983, for me the thrill is gone.