Argentina’s post-Peronist future
- November 29, 2023
- Amélie Jaques-Apke
- Themes: Geopolitics
The election of Javier Milei as president has shattered the traditional split between Peronism and anti-Peronism in Argentinian politics and marks a new era for the country.
‘Today, we put an end to the notion that the perpetrators are the victims, and the victims are the perpetrators. Today, we reclaim the path that made this country great. Today, we embrace once again the ideas of freedom…’ These were the first words of Argentina’s President-elect Javier Milei, who until recently was best-known for his popular TV shows. In a watershed moment, the far-right populist with the anti-system, ultraliberalist views has shattered the historical dichotomy between Peronism and anti-Peronism in Argentina. Milei, an economist advocating privatisation, dollarisation, and staunch opposition to the abortion law, positions himself as a political outsider and newcomer. His stance represents a radical departure from the traditional Peronist/anti-Peronist divide and reflects a broader societal disillusionment with the institutions and the Peronist movement that has dominated Argentine politics for much of the 20th and 21st centuries.
In a nation plagued by ceaseless crisis, the idea of closing the Central Bank (which issues the devalued pesos) or significantly reducing public spending and the role of the central government is certainly attractive, particularly to young people brought up in the social media age. They view Peronism not as a political movement aimed at achieving social justice but rather as something antiquated and predatory, holding it accountable for the economic hardship that has doomed them to a bleak future.
Unlike previous crises in 1989 and 2001 that led to widespread and violent protests, the present reaction to the multitude of challenges facing the country has materialised in an unparalleled protest vote under the slogan of ‘let them all go’. Peronism, a political movement developed around Juan Perón in the mid-1940s, emerged in Argentina as a result of the government’s failure to address middle-class needs after the First World War, and ruled consistently for 28 years from the restoration of democracy in 1983. Peronist presidents’ policies varied widely, but scholars have characterised them as a vague combination of nationalism, labourism, and populism. The three foundational principles of the Peronist paradigm, known as the ‘three flags’, are social justice, political sovereignty, and economic independence – a third way that rejects both communism and capitalism. It stands for corporatism and aims to reconcile social classes by making the state responsible for resolving conflicts between labour and management factions.
The various wings of the movement, including right-wing and left-wing populism, feminism, and personalist expressions such as Menemism and Kirchnerism, have often been at odds with each other, including in electoral matters. Dissident Peronism and anti-Peronism have gradually emerged as politically influential opposition forces.
After the 2019 elections, Peronism lost to a centre-right and anti-populist coalition led by Mauricio Macri, followed by the rise to power of the non-populist technocrat Alberto Fernández, who emerged amid a highly polarised environment. The Argentine government differed, however, from the leftist movements of Latin American populism of the 2000s in both the centralisation of power in the hands of a dominant Peronist elite under the undisputed personalist leadership of former President and Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and the federalisation of Peronist factions. In addition, the government used scientific and technocratic measures to control COVID-19. These measures included very long, strict and unpopular lockdowns. The result was a tragedy of great proportions, despite the measures taken to contain the disease.
The recent presidential election took place amid severe economic difficulties, including triple-digit inflation, a recession, and negative central bank reserves. Previously, Macri’s IMF bailout and implementation of austerity measures led to a significant recession, establishing the country as one of the worst-performing economies in the region alongside Venezuela and Nicaragua. In 2019, when Fernández assumed the presidency, he faced an inflation rate that had already surpassed 50 per cent, with a third of the population living below the poverty line. The pledges of Fernández and his deputy, Kirchner, sought to tackle the crisis with a traditional Peronist plan of raising taxes and social policy, causing higher inflation. The current scenario is alarming: inflation has risen dramatically to almost 150 per cent and the poverty rate is more than 40 per cent. The extensive printing of pesos over the years has been a direct cause of this inflationary situation.
Meanwhile, Peronism has increasingly become a metaphor for the same elite, detached from the reality of the people. Kirchner, sentenced by the Court of First Instance to six years in prison for corruption, further undermines public confidence in Kirchnerism and, therefore, Peronism. She has also been accused of turning a blind eye to an increase in mass poverty. A notable revelation on Argentina’s updated electoral map is the defeat of Peronism in the traditionally strong Kirchner family bastion of Santa Cruz in the south of the country. This symbolises a broad challenge to Peronism’s enduring dominance.
Sergio Massa’s victory in the first round was considered an upset, given the severe inflation that occurred during Massa’s tenure as economy minister, as well as Milei’s leading position in the polls. Milei went on to defeat his Peronist opponent in the runoff, winning 55.7 per cent of the vote, the highest percentage since Argentina transitioned to democracy. This remarkable increase is not so surprising, however, considering that, after the first round, Milei received the explicit support of both former Together for Change presidential candidate Patricia Bullrich and coalition leader and former president Mauricio Macri.
The results are an indication of a crisis not only in the Peronist leadership but also in the fabric of ‘Peronist society’ as we know it. With the exception of the provinces of Formosa, Santiago del Estero and Buenos Aires, which remained loyal to the Peronist cause, the election results show widespread support for Milei elsewhere. Notably, this was not just a rural protest vote, as Milei was able to gain support in the urban areas of the capital. This is in line with the pattern of Macri’s election in 2015. Similar to the current situation with Milei, as the first non-Peronist president in more than a decade, the centre-right cleverly united to present a candidate who efficiently secured all the anti-Peronist votes.
Against this backdrop, Milei comes to power with a radical agenda that challenges the existing order and highlights a major social shift in which Argentines have lost confidence not only in their institutions but also in the broader political and economic framework. Whether it will work is another question.