Argentina: Right wins, but radical left makes gains

A protest against President Mauricio Macri, in Buenos Aires in March last year.
October 28, 2017

Argentina went to the polls on October 22, in what many saw as a crucial mid-term test for President Mauricio Macri and the right-wing coalition behind him, Cambiemos (Let’s Change).

In the end, Cambiemos came out strengthened, with a strong showing in the vote to elect roughly half of the Chamber of Deputies (127 deputies), a third of the Senate (24 senators) and representatives to provincial legislatures.

On the other hand, the main opposition force, Peronism, which went to the elections divided into various factions, suffered important defeats, while the Left and Workers Front (FIT) – an alliance of revolutionary parties – continued to build on its previous electoral successes, winning 1.2 million votes.

Below, Fernando Rosso, an activist with the Socialist Workers’ Party (PTS) within the FIT, breaks down the factors behind the result and the debates and challenges facing the Argentine left.

It has been translated and abridged from La Izquierda Diario, of which Rosso is the director, by Federico Fuentes.

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The legislative elections saw a nationwide victory for Cambiemos and an improvement in its vote compared to the primaries held in August. The coalition’s vote rose by five percentage points, winning more than 40% of the vote across the country.

It won in the strategic province of Buenos Aires, defeating the Senate ticket headed by former Argentine president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner 41.38% to 37.25%.

Moreover, it overturned the narrow defeat it suffered during the primaries in Santa Fe (the third-largest electoral district) to easily win 37.78% to 25.84%.

It also reversed the result in Salta, where the opposition Peronist coalition, backed by the local governor Juan Manuel Urtubey, had won the primaries by more than 10 percentage points. On October 22, Cambiemos won 30.94% to 23.98%.

The governing coalition won in 13 of the 24 electoral districts, including in the City of Buenos Aires, as well as Chaco and La Rioja, where it had lost in the primaries.

Different strands of the Peronist party won in eight electoral districts and provincial coalitions won in another two (Chubut and Santiago del Estero).

Cambiemos won in the five main electoral districts, surpassed 10 million votes and added 19 deputies and 9 senators to its existing parliamentary bench of 90 deputies and 17 senators.

Santiago Maldonado

The elections were held within the context of the emotive events that led to the death of young indigenous rights activist Santiago Maldonado.

The Friday prior to the elections saw the final opening up of a grave and delicate political crisis of unforeseeable consequences, when the family verified his body had been found in the Chubut River. All the lies propagated by the government and its media allies during the 80 days that he was disappeared came tumbling down.

The intervention by Judge Gustavo Lleral proved to be a crucial lifeline for the government, and came at a decisive moment. Lleral announced his partial findings following an initial autopsy (“there are no injuries to the body”) to what was essentially a nationally broadcast media conference, and added to the generalised confusion despite his claims that he wanted to clarify the situation.

The crisis opened up by the death of Maldonado, which occurred following the repression by the Argentine Border Force of an indigenous rights protest, remains open. For now, however, Lleral’s intervention has been critical to containing the discontent and anger that was growing against the government and had begun to express itself on the streets.

Cambiemos’ triumph can instead be explained by other medium-term structural and political factors.

First, the stability conceded to the government by the bulk of Peronism and the bureaucratic trade union leadership.

The former passed the majority of the key laws presented by Macri and the latter avoided any fight against proposed austerity measures.

The General Confederation of Workers (CGT) even began negotiating sector-by-sector agreements within the framework of the government’s objective of further deregulating the labour force.

Second, despite the government having pushed forward with austerity, it was forced to moderate the pace of implementation and practice a certain amount of “gradualism”. This, together with promoting government spending on public works and loans, led to a certain stabilisation of the economy.

This is a typical manoeuvre by governments in election years, which Cambiemos financed by aggressively pushing the country into debt, even at the expense of putting it and future generations up for sale, because, according to them, “the change is here, the change is now”.

Third, the government benefited from the advantage of holding state power (nationally and at the provincial level), a situation that more reflects the crisis of the traditional political parties than a measure of its strength.

Peronist debacle

Lastly, this victory cannot be understood without considering the deep crisis wracking Peronism, where two key phenomena combine.

The biggest losers within the movement were the Peronists mostly closely associated with Macri: from Juan Schiaretti, who lost again and by an even bigger margin in Cordoba; to Urtubey in Salta; to Sergio Massa who, in Buenos Aires province, lost the four percentage points that allowed Cambiemos to turn its defeat in the primaries into a victory over Kirchner, and even managed to lose in his stronghold, Tigre. 

For the better part of the past two years, all of them represented something akin to a “Macrist Peronism”. Many of their voters decided to vote for the original rather than a poor imitation.

Kirchnerism, for its part, with Cristina as its candidate in the main electoral district did “better” in resisting the advance of Cambiemos, as did its allies in other provinces, although it was unable to avoid defeat in Buenos Aires province.

In opposition, it adopted a “tougher” and anti-austerity discourse. It was the least affected by the collapse in support for Peronism.

However, Kirchnerism did not achieve enough to put it in a position of being able to lead the battered Peronist movement as a whole.

It also provokes a strong level of rejection among voters, which imposes a low ceiling on its level of support. This rejection is due to the acts of corruption that occurred during its time in government and because many social sectors view it as just another face of austerity, particularly because of policies enacted during its final years in power.

Peronist blogger and analyst Abel Fernandez highlighted this element on election day, writing: “The main factor motivating a large majority of votes being cast today is the will to say no to something: to the current government and its policies, to Cristina’s return. These negative motives are very different, and contradict each other, but outweigh any of the positive motives.”

Elections and struggle

All these factors are part of the scenario in which the government achieved a solid electoral backing, but one that does not represent a blank cheque for it to implement its entire political and economic objectives.

The triumph of its program will only be possible if it is able to convert its electoral victory (which is an important element) into a qualitative change in the balance of forces on the terrain of real life struggle. This will determine if Cambiemos is able to impose its mark (and hegemony) over the next few years or preside over the decline of the nation and its traditional parties.

In the context of this advance by the right, it is worth noting the results obtained by the FIT, with a surprising vote (18%) in Jujuy for the worker candidate Alejandro Vilca, an important showing in Mendoza – almost 12% of the vote, thereby consolidating the space that the FIT has won in this province – and strong results in Neuquen and other districts.

The FIT was also able to overcome the polarisation in Buenos Aires province and obtain two national deputies, and had a strong result in the City of Buenos Aires, where it won two seats in the local legislature.

This represents a new step forward for the FIT from which to fight against Macri’s plan.

After the elections, Kirchner said in her speech that “the firm and clear oppositions have made gains throughout the country”. In the abstract, this is true, although Kirchnerism falls short of being a “firm and clear” opposition beyond its electoral discourse.

Moving forward, it will be necessary to discuss how best to confront Macri’s austerity and his attack on democratic rights. In this fight, we will find ourselves shoulder to shoulder, in first place, with all those who supported the FIT, but also with many who support Kirchnerism and genuinely and honestly aspire to confront an emboldened right in power.

We will find ourselves together in the fight for justice for Santiago Maldonaldo and to confront labour reforms, as well as the government’s overall austerity plan.

But we will also be obliged to have a frank debate over the kind of political force we need to build and what methods will be required to defeat the right.

Will it be through “majorities” built from above and exclusively within the state, in alliance with supposed national capitalists and political and trade union leaders who inevitably end up being the basis of governance and a support base for the right.

Or through the political independence of workers, the struggle to recover control of unions in the hands of union bureaucracies, and by putting the students and youth into motion to genuinely confront the right in parliament and the streets.

These debates and struggles will mark the next period and define the future.

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