When Alberto Fernández took his presidential campaign to the Buenos Aires suburb of La Matanza last week, he was entering a sprawling low-income district that is friendly territory for Argentina’s main opposition candidate.
His supporters cheered and held up banners—but Fernández wasn’t the only focus of the crowd. Many waved flags featuring his running mate, and former president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and the woman they both claim as their political and spiritual mentor: Eva Perón.
Images of “Evita” at a political rally almost 70 years after her death are testament to the durability—and flexibility—of the political movement she and her husband, President Juan Perón, unleashed on Argentina in the 1940s. For all its legacy of divisiveness, a measure of its resilience is that both Fernández and President Mauricio Macri are touting Peronist credentials as they contest what polls suggest will be a close-run election this fall.
Yet as they cast their votes in Sunday’s primary amidst recession, austerity and rampant inflation, Argentines are at a crossroads: continue down Macri’s route of market-friendly reform, however painful, or return to the populist-leaning policies as espoused by Fernández—with widespread expectations that his hand will be guided by Fernández de Kirchner, risking a repeat of the economic damage she wrought. Whichever way they choose, Peronism is likely to play a role.
Romanticised by Hollywood and on Broadway, the hard reality in Argentina is that Peronism polarised its homeland long before Donald Trump entered U.S. politics or Brexit overcame Britain. The campaign for Argentina’s presidential election in October is no exception.
Peronist leaders governed for roughly half the last seven decades, the movement surviving years of violent clashes and military interventions from the 1950s to 1970s. Whether during the pro-business administration of Carlos Menem or the nationalist governments of Nestor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, corruption allegations have dogged Peronist presidencies while economic performance has failed to match expectations.
“In general, it’s been a disaster,” said Marcos Buscaglia, chief economist at Buenos Aires consulting firm Alberdi Partners. “A closed economy, fiscal and monetary imbalances, strong unions, high regulations and corruption—those have a lot to do with Peronism.”
That’s a view at odds with the roughly one third of Argentine voters whom polls show are certain to vote for the Fernández-Fernández ticket— voters like Noelia Irusta, a grade school teacher and self-confessed Peronist who attended the rally in La Matanza. She’s backing Fernández-Fernández “to reignite manufacturing” in Argentina. For her, Peronism is a “feeling” that gives “hope for the people and for workers.”
Night and day
Peronism is historically of the nationalist left: it favours assembly line workers over business owners; labour unions hold an outsized influence; and its rhetoric is rooted in protest, anti-elitism and centred around national industry. But it’s since navigated a circuitous political path that allows it to be claimed by almost anyone.
Despite night-and-day ideologies, the top two tickets have prominent Peronists. Macri chose as his running mate Senator Miguel Pichetto, a moderate but more socially conservative Peronist. Fernández de Kirchner, a left-winger with a track record of populist measures, is running alongside Fernández, another Peronist with more centrist tendencies than her. Peronist representatives are thus almost ensured a top role in the next administration, whatever the outcome.
That instinct for survival underscores the nebulous nature of the movement, a fluidity that has allowed it to adapt, evolve and ultimately prevail through decades of political and economic turmoil. Indeed, Peronism is so ideologically elastic that it was able to accommodate both the privatisation and nationalisation of Argentine oil company YPF within just 20 years.
“The one that’s true to Peronism is the one who is pragmatic and sensible about knowing what the mood is,” said Paula Alonso, an Argentine history professor at George Washington University. “Perón himself was extremely pragmatic. He changed his mind and his policies several times.”
Even now, a majority of Argentine lawmakers identify as Peronists. But it is Fernández de Kirchner who is most often seen as carrying the Peronist torch—and controlling its levers, from currying favour with governors to access to key strongholds like La Matanza. And that’s a worry for investors desperate to avoid a repeat of the cratered economy, currency controls and default that marked her eight-year presidency.
Macri succeeded Fernández de Kirchner in 2015 pledging to lead Argentina out of international isolation, but a rocky turnaround forced him to request a record $56 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund. It’s arguably a reflection of the mistrust with which Fernández de Kirchner is still regarded that polls suggest Macri could win a second term despite inflation running above 50 percent and the peso down almost 80 percent since he took office.
Yet there’s no doubting Fernández de Kirchner’s popularity: Fernández filled a high-school sized gymnasium in Buenos Aires; five days later in another suburb, Fernández de Kirchner packed a 15,000-seat arena more used to hosting music acts like Sting. Many see her potential return as the solution, not the problem.
Argentina is in the throes of “a really bad economic crisis, and I think the only person that can bring us and this country’s economy forward is her,” administrator Nazareth Perez said at the arena. The others “all want to be Peronists, but they’re not,” she said. “The only person that has Peronism is Cristina. She always had her political conviction, she always had her political ideals, she never abandoned us.”
'Won them over'
Juan Perón was a product of the Great Depression of the 1930s that forced Argentina to industrialise before World War II sparked a boom. Argentine leaders weren’t prepared for the pitfalls of rapid urbanisation, real wages were in decline, and amongst workers there was “a sense that they had been excluded from the process,” said Joseph Page, Perón’s biographer and a professor at Georgetown Law. Perón, he said, “won them over.”
When he took office in 1946, Perón gave labour unions a seat at the table, and wages for industrial workers rose 5 percent in the next three years, Daniel James, a professor at Indiana University, wrote in a book on the era. Unlike his conservative predecessors, Perón avoided talk of lofty democratic ideals and sought to deliver concrete gains. Evita meanwhile won mass popularity as a champion of the poor and working classes.
“She picked up the banner and became the soul of Peronism during his first presidency,” said Page.
For the opposition, the imperative in this year’s election is to go beyond the common nostalgia for Perón’s ideals and appeal to the undecided voters who will decide the outcome. A sense of the challenge that presents is on show at the Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires, where a steady stream of visitors come to pay their respects at Evita’s tomb.
Enzo Paez, 50, a school teacher from the Patagonia region, said he has a high regard for Evita and her legacy of helping the poor, but says he’s not a Peronist and has yet to decide how he’ll vote. The Peronism of her era “had more loyalty to work and humble people,” he said. “It didn’t have so many personal interests in enriching the political class.”
Peronism got flipped on its head during Menem’s decade-long tenure from 1989. He campaigned on a Peronist agenda, but in office favoured business-friendly reforms, lower tariffs and privatisation. He also liked to flaunt his wealth, once driving a Ferrari from Buenos Aires to a beach town. Yet multiple corruption cases and an epic economic collapse stemming from his policies tainted Menem’s legacy.
The late Néstor Kirchner entered the Casa Rosada in 2003 and oversaw a strong economic rebound following a disastrous crisis and default before handing the presidency to Cristina in 2007. In the ensuing years, pension funds were nationalized, currency controls imposed and economic statistics tampered with. Lately, Macri has taken a leaf out of the Peronist playbook, freezing prices from electricity to food to appease recession-weary voters.
Given Peronism’s chameleon nature, the question of what role it plays in the next administration remains open. Pichetto’s presence could rally enough support in Congress to pass Macri’s labour and tax reforms. Or Fernández could leverage Fernández de Kirchner’s backing to implement populist measures. Yet the political acrobatics look precarious: both Pichetto and Fernández criticised their respective running mates early on, raising the prospect of impasse in office for either ticket.
On the threshold of returning to office in one guise or another, Peronism faces the contradictory prospect of maintaining influence while losing its ideals. Julio Barbaro, a political commentator and former Peronist lawmaker, thinks that moment has already arrived. Peronism “is a memory that drives votes, but it’s dissolved into nothingness,” he said. “It’s no longer a party, it’s a memory; that’s all.”
by Patrick Gillespie