Argentina: End of the “Right Turn”?

By Santiago Anria and Gabriel Vommaro*

From right to left, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Alberto Fernandez, and other ministers

From right to left, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Alberto Fernández, and other ministers / Wikipedia / Creative Commons / https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archivo:Ministros_de_Cristina.jpg

The inauguration of Argentine President Alberto Fernández and Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner last week confirms that the pronouncements of the death of Latin America’s “left turn” were premature — and that, rather than turning in any clear direction, political winds in the region appear to be blowing in all sorts of directions, with the only discernible underlying pattern being anti-incumbent votes following periods of economic crisis or economic downturns.

  • Obituaries for the “left turn,” which started in 1998 with the election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, have been appearing for years, particularly since the election of former President Mauricio Macri in 2015 and other right-leaning politicians in the region. Macri was widely seen as a bellwether of a broader “right turn” in the region — a turn that spread to Brazil, Chile, and elsewhere. For the very first time since the country’s democratic transition, a right-wing political party, in alliance with other parties, gained national power via democratic elections. To avoid the fate of other non-Peronist presidents, none of whom were able to finish their terms of office, Macri built a national coalition with broad societal bases of support.
  • The victory of left-Peronism in October, however, was formidable. The team of Fernández and Fernández obtained 48.1 percent of the votes, well above the 40.3 percent of the incumbent Macri. With two antagonistic camps capturing almost 90 percent of the vote, the elections were probably the most polarized since Argentina entered its democratic transition in 1983.

Rather than represent systemic shifts to either the right or left, the Fernández-Fernández victory is further evidence that Latin American electoral politics follow a routine alternation-of-power explained by retrospective, anti-incumbency voting driven by broad societal discontent — a sharp repudiation of incumbents that couldn’t deliver growth, adequate social services, and security. The left-right axis in Argentina is marked by high levels of polarization, with two major rival coalitions — Peronists and non-Peronists — structuring the electoral supply and disputing the center.

  • The defeat of Macri and his Cambiemos coalition revealed the center-right’s failure to carry out its desired free-market reforms aimed at dismantling the statist economic model based on the domestic market, wide social protections, and state intervention in the economy. Macri’s coalition lacked the unity to achieve pension reform and other difficult measures. Instead, Macri resorted to a “gradualism” that did not work in policy terms or politically. Similarly, his conciliatory approach to foreign creditors did not result in the expected capital inflows and economic growth. That fiscal gradualism was financed with a high rate of external indebtedness that made the Argentine economy even more fragile and ended in a massive financial crisis, after which the Macri government changed its approach towards greater economic orthodoxy.
  • The legacies of the previous Kirchnerist governments, including constraints on the government’s ability to cut spending, were also severe obstacles. Trade unions and social movements retained a high mobilization capacity and blocked attempts to remove state protections, effectively blocking labor reform and other Macri priorities. Once the government lost access to international credit and asked the IMF for a bailout — the largest in IMF history — it began to lose the support of social sectors that had been important to its rise, including business and large segments of the middle-class.

Center-left Peronism may also be unable to escape the left-right alternation. Widely discredited a few years ago and seen as a retreating force, especially due to corruption allegations and mismanagement, it kept strong connections with its societal core not only through the memory of the good old days of redistributive policies associated with the commodity boom, but also because there was no major shift in the political orientation of its main leader, Cristina Fernández. She broke with the conventional wisdom of Peronism that would have anticipated more leadership pragmatism and ideological eclecticism. As in the past, it has made promises that may eventually undermine its popular support.

  • The Fernández-Fernández formula will look and govern differently than it did during the Kirchnerist governments. It will be a broader center-left coalition formed by the Peronists and backed by a wide array of progressive parties and movements. But in addition to facing a hostile regional and global environment, Fernández will face many domestic challenges in a society that accumulated so many pressing demands during the ongoing Argentine economic crisis. Fernández inherits extraordinarily high levels of debt, soaring inflation, and rapidly rising unemployment and poverty levels. The “honeymoon” period, as some of his allies openly say, will be short, and Macri’s Cambiemos is likely going to provide strong opposition. The new government will unlikely escape the routine alternation-of-power dynamics explained by anti-incumbency voting in contexts of deep economic crises after the end of the “commodity boom,” strong inflationary pressures, and broad societal discontent. Polarization and mood swings are likely to remain persistent features of Argentine politics.

 December 17, 2019

*Santiago Anria is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies at Dickinson College. He is the author of When Movements Become Parties: The Bolivian MAS in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2018). Gabriel Vommaro is Full Professor of Political Sociology at the National University of San Martín and Researcher at CONICET. His most recent book is La Larga Marcha de Cambiemos (Siglo XXI Editores, 2017).