Thursday, 21 November 2013

ARGENTINA: A Time for Reform

The midterm legislative elections in Argentina on October 27th left no doubt that a majority of voters have tired of President Cristina Kirchner’s confrontational style of government and want a change. Opposition party candidates for both houses of the National Congress soundly defeated Kirchner’s left-wing Peronist lists in Argentina’s major cities and most important provinces, all but dashing the president’s hopes for reelection in October 2015.

What the voters will want then remains to be defined, but there is clearly an opportunity for a basic political reorganization that could replace decades of dysfunctional relations between Argentina’s political parties with a new politics of cooperation in place of mutual destruction. This depends on a spirit of national unity gaining strength among Argentina’s political parties over the next two years.

The Kirchner era, which stretches back to the election of Kirchner’s late husband more than a decade ago, has been enormously divisive and the results of the midterm election indicate the voters want a pact between pragmatic dissident Peronists and opposition parties. This is crucial for the future of democratic government in this key Latin American country, where the current government has been flirting with the same kind of socialist, authoritarian, and anti-American policies championed by Venezuela’s leftist regime.

The election reflected the dismay of Argentina’s 20 million voters with the results of Kirchner’s second term, which began in December 2011. The populist government’s constant conflicts with Argentina’s private business sector, its attempts to stifle the criticisms of a lively independent media by withholding government advertising, and its diplomatic rows with neighbors, like Uruguay and Brazil, produced a flight of foreign investors from Argentina and a loss of international credit for an economy wracked by inflation, debt, crime, corruption, and growing poverty. President Kirchner and the left-wing Peronists who control her government paid a heavy price at the polls.

Cristina Kirchner reached the presidency in 2007, succeeding her late husband, Néstor, a Peronist who had been elected president in 2002 with only 28 percent of the popular vote. Yet he consolidated his control over the Peronist movement with populist social programs and nationalist expropriations of airlines, oil companies, and railroads.

The dynasty continued when his widow easily won reelection two years ago, with 54 percent of the vote—quite a contrast to the 33 percent overall national showing of her lists in this recent poll. In Buenos Aires Province, which contains 38 percent of Argentina’s electorate, dissident Peronist and popular mayor Sergio Massa won his campaign for a seat in the lower house of Congress by 44 percent, beating the official Kirchner candidate, who ran on a separate list, by 12 percent.

The resounding victory in Buenos Aires propelled Massa, a Peronist moderate, into the ranks of possible presidential candidates for 2015. At 41, he’s the leader of a new generation of Peronists who see the need for the party to form coalitions so that Argentina will have stable governance. This approach is revolutionary in Argentina, where the conflict between Peronists and their opponents has been a national fixture since the Argentine military deposed and exiled Juan Domingo Perón, founder of the movement, in 1955, and banned the Justicialist Party that was the political arm of the Peronists.

The Radical Civic Union party, historically representing the middle class, benefited from the ban and won two successive presidential elections from which the Peronists were barred. But when these Radical governments showed signs of making peace with the Peronists, they were toppled by the military. Finally, after 18 years in exile, Perón was allowed to return and when he ran for president, the Peronists swept to victory. That showed they were clearly Argentina’s majority party. But Perón died in office in 1974, and his wife Isabel succeeded him. The government was pathetically weak, with the Peronists divided into warring factions.

Amid growing armed violence, the military intervened again in 1976, jailing then President Isabel Perón and holding power until a democratic system was restored in 1984. Two Radical governments then tried to govern and were discredited by severe economic mismanagement. Only then, in 1989, did Carlos Saúl Menem, a new Peronist president, win election, and Argentina briefly enjoyed an economic recovery with orthodox policies that attracted investment. That success collapsed in 2001 because Domingo Cavallo, the minister of finance, could not contain the reckless deficit spending of major provinces where Peronist governors were in control.

Given this chaotic record, and the failures of the Kirchner dynasty to get Argentina on track, many students of Argentine politics are skeptical of any initiative based on inter-party cooperation. But that is the new politics that Massa, now a member of Congress, and his dissident Peronist group are proposing, and the response depends on accommodation by other opposition forces. These are led by provincial leaders whose personal presidential ambitions have thus far prevented the opposition from unifying behind a single national candidate. The most prominent of these regional leaders is Mauricio Macri, the elected chief executive of the federal capital district of Buenos Aires, who is a wealthy businessman.

In Santa Fe Province, at the center of Argentina’s dynamic agricultural sector, there is Hermes Binner, a former governor, whose Socialist Party leads a center-left coalition. Another essential party is the Radical Civic Union, which recovered votes and came in second in the October midterm legislative election, equaling the dissident Peronists with 25 percent of the vote. The Radicals have a strong provincial base that includes the wealthy Andean province of Mendoza, where Julio Cobos, a former governor and later vice president under Néstor Kirchner, is now strongly anti-Kirchner.

Some preliminary steps toward forming a united opposition front have begun. Massa has entered into talks with fellow Peronist dissidents throughout Argentina, and this could lead to a formal split with the left-wing faction that supports President Kirchner. Massa also held an important pre-election meeting in Santa Fe with Carlos Reutemann, a former Peronist governor of Santa Fe and popular Formula One racing champion, joined by Roberto Lavagna, a former finance minister who earned the respect of international financiers when he salvaged the Argentine economy from the debacle of 2002. Lavagna later broke with Néstor Kirchner when his administration began to adopt policies attacking foreign investments, increasing taxes on Argentina’s agricultural exports, and imposing expropriations in energy sectors.

These straws in the wind will only lead to the formation of an opposition union if the dissident Peronists put aside their historic conflicts with other parties, and if these other parties, in turn, choose to work within a Peronists unity government. In the absence of a strongman government, which is not in the cards, this unification of democratic political forces is clearly the only practical way to provide the coherent governance Argentina has lacked. The midterm election results have created an opportunity to modernize Argentina’s politics in a way that could dramatically enhance the country’s prospects for restored prosperity.

With a constructive and reformist leadership, for example, Argentina could open up Mercosur, the common market of South America, to international trade with the European Union and the United States. Under the Kirchners, these ties have been systematically stymied by protectionist policies and petty conflicts with Mercosur partners, like Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay. All of South America is waiting for Argentina to assume the leadership role for which it is qualified by its wealth and history.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: AFP-Argentina's President Cristina Kirchner