Argentina: Yet another political cycle ends in crisis?

By Inés M. Pousadela

President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner / Photo credit: Expectativa Online / Foter / CC BY

President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner / Photo credit: Expectativa Online / Foter / CC BY

Another ismo born of peronismokirchnerismo, more recently reshaped as cristinismo – is coming to an end in Argentina.  President Cristina Kirchner and her government – reelected in 2011 with 54 percent of the vote – have lost support and burned political capital at an alarming pace. For most of the decade that she and her predecessor and late husband, Néstor Kirchner, have occupied the Casa Rosada, economic growth and favorable external conditions fueled both public expenditures and private consumption. The Kirchners’ administrations (Nestor’s in 2003-2007 and Cristina’s since 2007) renewed state intervention in the economy after the failure of the “neoliberal” experiment led by Carlos Menem (menemismo, another variant of peronismo), and implemented social policies that elicited widespread support from a population that was sympathetic to redistributive initiatives after the economic crisis in the early 2000s. Yet little progress was made in reducing inequality or increasing social cohesion, as was evident when inhabitants of poor suburban areas looted their own neighbors’ small businesses last Christmas. As the economy has weakened, corruption and the absence of efficient and transparent institutions have once again riled the middle class, as shown by both opinion polls and street protests.

The quick social fixes and improvised economics that have long characterized Argentine politics invariably have an expiration date – which in this case seems to be arriving soon.  High inflation – 5 percent in January alone despite repeated attempts at price controls – is eroding wages as the government keeps trying to fund expenditures by printing currency. Amidst inadequate investment and widespread corruption, commuter train crashes have killed dozens of people; massive electricity cuts have taken place over the summer, and gas supplies are expected to fall short as soon as the weather chills. Government denials of any intention to devalue the currency rang increasingly hollow as the official value of the peso dropped 19 percent in January – the biggest devaluation in 12 years. Leaders’ portrayal of the tendency of the population to hoard dollars as an ideological deviation, rather than a rational economic decision, rankled.

As the quality of life of Argentines declines, popular discontent mounts. The prevailing sentiment is one of uncertainty not just about the value of the currency, or even about the durability of policies that are typically announced one day and contradicted, modified or ignored the next. The deeper trepidation in popular feeling is that the future itself has yet again become uncertain.  No one doubts that a cycle is ending; the question – candidly posed even by some of the government’s allies – is how this will all end.  Will conditions become as bad as those that cut short the governments of Raúl Alfonsín in 1989 and Fernando De la Rúa in 2001?  And what comes next?  Unlike those two relatively recent debacles, this time it is the Peronistas who risk association with economic collapse.  With the president increasingly relying on her loyal inner circle, anxious peronista governors, mayors and labor leaders are trying to distance themselves from the Kirchnerista experiment.  Peronista candidates jockeying for position in the 2015 presidential race are as apprehensive as the broader population, while opposition forces lack incentives to cooperate towards developing a credible alternative. Across the spectrum, political leaders appear as clueless as the government regarding how to get out of this most recent mess. Judging from Argentina’s experience, mounting popular frustration is likely to find some expression in the streets as well as at the polls. It is still to be seen which combination of electoral politics and street protest eventually prevails.

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