Argentina: Strong victory reveals potential challenges

December 3, 2011
Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

Despite the crushing victory of incumbent Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in the October 23 Argentine presidential elections, the campaign and results also demonstrated that an important social and political left alternative continues to exist.

The unpredictable consequences of the global economic crisis and the reaction by Cristina’s mixed social base to future policy decisions may prove important challenges to her new government.

Presidential poll confirmed what many had expected after the primaries held in August. Under the new, undemocratic electoral laws, all presidential candidates must stand in primaries and receive at least 1.5% of the national vote in order to qualify for the official elections.

After receiving 50% of the vote in the August 14 primaries, the incumbent president won almost 54% of the vote in the election.

This result was accompanied by important victories in concurrent elections for governorships and the and national parliament, giving Cristina's government control of both chambers and many provinces .

Cristina’s victory was assured by the votes of millions of workers, young people and sections of the lower classes. Many felt that, compared to the economic crisis of the late 1990s, their economic situation had greatly improved under her government (which began in 2007), and the previous government of her now deceased husband, Nestor Kirchner (2003-2007).

The crisis, the result of neoliberal policies, caused levels of poverty, unemployment and wage cuts never before seen in Argentina. Rejecting these policies, the Argentine people took to the streets in December 2001, overthrowing a series of presidents in one week.

In 2003, Nestor Kirchner, until then a relatively little-known politician, was elected president.

Argentina experienced a period of economic growth. The continuous growth experienced by the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China), meant Argentina was perfectly placed to supply these countries with large quantities of agricultural products, principally wheat, soy and maize.

These products also enjoyed abnormally high international prices.

This allowed the Kirchner's governments to ride the wave of economy recovery with GDP growing by 7-9% for almost all the years between 2003-2010.

Cristina inherited the gains of the great “bonanza” of 2003-2010. This allowed her government to make some concessions to the poor in the form of subsidies and social programs.

Another factor behind the continued support for Cristina is that many opponents were the same politicians that caused the crisis that led, in 2001, to the popular demand: “All of them must go!”

Furthermore, the Kirchner’s governments carried out important reforms extending democratic rights, punishing criminals responsible for the military dictatorship of the 1970s, built closer relations with the radical governments in Venezuela and Bolivia and, in alliance with progressive governments, helped sink the US’s proposed Free Trade of Americas Agreement in 2005.

One factor in early support for the Kirchner’s was their continuous campaign against their own Peronist party, widely viewed as one of the traditional parties of the established order.

In its place, they proposed an alliance with progressive parties and organisations from different backgrounds.

However, after Nestor’s term in government, Cristina began to renew alliances with the Peronist-tied trade union bureaucracy and with her old Peronist organisation, particularly Peronist governors and mayors.

The Kirchner’s were able to build an alliance between traditional Peronist voters, sections of the middle classes and a new generation of young people who have re-embraced political activism.

Some estimate that as many as 1.5 million young people have joined different political groups in universities, high schools and poor neighborhoods.

In many ways, this youth represent Argentina’s equivalent of the rebellious youth movements that spearheaded the indignado movement in Spain, and student protests in Chile and Colombia.

Some studies showed that up to 77% of these politicised youth actively involved in the election campaign, beyond simply voting. Most supported Cristina’s reelection.

In this context, support for opposition parties collapsed. One example was the Civic Coalition, which after coming second in the last election, lost more than 4 million votes, dropping from 23.04% to 1.82% of the vote.

Certain of defeat, sections of the liberal right abstained from running in the presidential election, instead announcing that they were preparing for the 2015 poll.

Some right-wing Peronists were able to survive this collapse, but only due to the clientalist networks they had established through the disbursement of subsidies to particular local groups.

The election results instead saw the emergence of a new force in Argentine politics, the Progressive Broad Front (FAP), which came second with 17% of the vote.

FAP comprised a number of progressive and not so progressive groups, including former Kirchner allies. However, the likelihood of the FAP developing further will be restricted by the fact it will neither be able to oppose the government’s progressive projects nor have enough force to oppose non-progressive measures.

In this landscape, the result for the far left was important. The Left Workers’ Front (FIT) obtained 2.3% of the vote.

This represented about half-a-million votes and was the best result for the far left in recent times. An important section of workers, youth and popular sectors demonstrated their willingness to support an anti-capitalist alternative.

One of the main reasons for this success was that for the first time, a key level of unity was achieved among the far left, principally between the Workers’ Party (PO), the Socialist Workers’ Party (PTS) and Socialist Left (IS).

This unity expanded in the period between the primaries and the official election to include many more groups, independents, professionals, intellectuals, union activists and students who actively took part in the campaign.

FIT’s vote was also due, in part, to the impact of the awakening student movement, with some groups coming behind their campaign.

Workers’ struggles have also taken place more often, spreading to the public service, health employees and teachers, and to workers fighting for job security in the food and transport sector.

Despite Cristina's convincing win, two key issues whose impacts are in some ways out of the control of any social or political group will define the course of events.

First, important segments of the vote for Cristina represented a conservative vote. These sectors did not vote for Cristina’s project for the nation, because none exists.

Instead, most workers voted to defend their improved economic conditions, the result of the continually high economic growth rate.

Many business sectors, particularly the industrialists, also supported Cristina because their profits have been aided by the government’s subsidy programs that have fuelled consumption.

These programs of subsidies and social assistance to the workers, have also come with attacks against the union bureaucracy as well as militant workers’ struggle.

This has been important in winning support from industrialists, rural producers, mining companies and financial capitalists.

There is no certainty that this alliance will remain or that the conditions that have facilitated it will not change.

The second unknown is the unpredictable impact of the deepening euro crisis and the US recession. This could also remove the government’s ability to continue providing subsidies and social programs.

Would some of the sectors that support her continue to do so, particularly if her government reacts by increasing attacks on workers’ struggles?

The election result demonstrated that an important social left, along with a smaller political left, exists in Argentina.

If the FIT is capable of continuing to work together, building on the electoral unity already achieved, and raising a program of struggle for wages, work conditions, health and education, there may be a chance to turn the electoral front into a real left alternative.

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