When Winston Churchill first rehearsed his famous V-sign, he was reminded by a secretary (or so we are told by a recent film) that its message could be interpreted in two contrasting ways, according to the position of his fingers. By glossing last weekend’s midterm comeuppance as a triumph, President Alberto Fernández has accomplished the remarkable feat of flashing both versions of the V-sign simultaneously.
Perhaps even bothering to explain the absurd fallacy of these victory claims would also be insulting the national intelligence in equal depth, so it might be more original to play devil’s advocate and seek arguments in favour of the presidential boast. Technically the government can cry victory because they finished up ahead in Congress with 35 senators to 31 and 118 deputies to 116 over the Juntos por el Cambio opposition (thanks to only partial legislative renewal, despite two-thirds of the electorate shunning Frente de Todos). Yet beyond such subjective factors as relief over improving on their worst fears, the real driving-force behind Wednesday’s overacted celebrations of Peronist Militancy Day was not so much denialism as the sheer impossibility of admitting defeat – the ruling coalition is a universe whose politicians are animals who can smell weakness as surely as in the criminal underworld so that coming across as a loser by gracefully accepting the result is simply incompatible with every survival instinct.
Against such posturing the numbers look irrefutable. Nearly two million votes behind Juntos por el Cambio (who almost reached eight digits), Frente de Todos not only lost in most districts but all the big ones with the nine provinces where they did win housing little over 7.5 million of Argentina’s 45 million people. Beyond those numbers, ending the almost unbroken Peronist stranglehold on the Senate (which would not have been possible without success in all five provinces where the opposition had chances of gaining seats) was a huge qualitative leap. Against that backdrop any attempt to evoke the spirit of Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 classic The Power of Positive Thinking ends up looking as infantile as Shirley Temple’s 1938 song ‘Be Optimistic’ (“Don’t you be a grumpy/When the road gets bumpy/Just smile, smile and be happy!” etc.). And yet the body language of Juntos por el Cambio on election night was less than optimal – three deputies less in this city and too many votes dropped along the way to libertarians, not the government.
Seen from a broader perspective, the electoral dramas of the last two months actually change very little. The interplay between the PASO primaries and the actual elections has been extremely similar to 2019 – a massive PASO upset at the expense of the sitting government, which then proceeded to halve the gap or more on election day (nationwide in 2019, in Buenos Aires Province last Sunday). The net result is an almost identical gridlock in the Chamber of Deputies, which has now been extended to the Senate. To this scenario should be added the fact that this is now the fourth Kirchnerite midterm defeat running in a streak stretching back to 2009. So is there anything really new?
To my mind last Sunday’s midterms have a historic significance for reasons other than those usually given – as heralding the end of Kirchnerism (although not necessarily Peronism) and that truly impressive Senate breakthrough, doubling opposition numbers in just six years. More or less throughout this century Argentina has been trapped in a circle which is as vicious for the nation as it is virtuous for populism – rising poverty leading to more captive votes for populist regimes standing only to gain politically from the deepening impoverishment which their policies in any case tend to cause. The plunging votes for Frente de Todos in the poorest neighbourhoods offering strong evidence that this vicious circle is finally being snapped should be seen as the biggest hope arising from this election more than any opposition success.
Electoral analysis of Sunday’s midterms could continue for the rest of this page and beyond but this column’s purpose is to compare past and present on the basis of a 34-year newsroom experience, which includes 11 midterm elections among other things. Of all those, the year 2009 most readily springs to mind. Firstly, because it serves to contradict the Peronist overall majority in the Senate going back unbroken to 1983, as widely reported. Almost true but it was briefly broken for just four months after the 2009 midterms due to Peronist infighting in La Pampa. But more important than that pedantic detail is the total contrast of the leading personalities in their response to defeat. Back in 2009 it took hours to talk a distraught Cristina Fernández de Kirchner out of resigning the presidency while her husband, deeply humiliated by the only defeat of his life in what turned out to be his last election, did resign chairmanship of the Justicialist (Peronist) Party despite having lost Buenos Aires Province by just two percentage points (little more than the 1.3 percent to which Victoria Tolosa Paz managed to reduce the PASO margin last Sunday) with Peronism less united than this year. Such heartfelt reactions to defeat obviously contrast with Alberto celebrating in Plaza de Mayo while we have yet to hear of any changes in the plans of Máximo Kirchner to take over the chairmanship of the Buenos Aires provincial chairmanship of the Justicialist Party.
In conclusion, the autistic reactions of the ruling coalition still leave us awaiting the “day after” the following weekend – the people have spoken and their president has yet to listen. All he has offered to date is an agreement with the opposition parties while heaping on them all of the blame for his shortfalls which does not belong to the pandemic and explicitly excluding from that agreement both his predecessor Mauricio Macri and the most dynamic innovation of these midterms, the libertarians. I hope that this does not remain the situation on my return to this space in February – it only remains to wish all readers, somewhat in advance, a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Editor's note: Starting next week, Mr Soltys will be in Britain for two months, during which he will be resting this column although continuing to assist the newspaper in a multitude of other ways via remote communication methods – not least with ‘The year that was,’ our traditional annual review. Over the coming weeks, you’ll see a host of writers joining our pages to share their views and replace the irreplaceable. Safe trip Michael! – JG