For almost three-quarters of a century, Argentina has been under the spell of Peronism. When Juan Domingo Perón first came to power, her economy produced more than all the rest of South America put together and per capita incomes here were among the highest in the world, outranking those of France, Italy, Spain and, of course, Japan and South Korea. They are now much lower than in neighbouring countries such as Chile and Uruguay and the outlook facing all but a few Argentines could hardly be bleaker. Even so, it is at least conceivable that Sergio Massa, the Peronist candidate who doubles as a singularly unsuccessful economy minister, could win the upcoming presidential elections.
How could he manage to pull off such a remarkable trick? By making the most of the scare tactics the Peronists have used time and time again. Perón himself had it right when he said that, while the governments led by his followers had not been that good, those formed by his foes had been even worse. He forgot to add that, while in opposition, loyal Peronists had been more than willing to go to just about any lengths to make life impossible for whoever happened to be in office. For hardcore Peronists, general strikes supplemented by huge rallies, organised looting and, when fashionable, brutal terrorism, are legitimate weapons in the holy war they are waging against the wretched ‘gorillas,’ ‘sepoys’ or ‘oligarchs’ who are foolish enough to question their right to call all the shots.
As a result of decades of this, many Argentines came to take it for granted that, on the whole, it would be better to let the Peronists rule because, corrupt and incompetent though so many of them most certainly were, they would be fully capable of preventing anyone else from doing a decent job. This alleged fact of political life may be less influential now that it was until, under the Kirchnerites, an already enfeebled economy started unravelling and low-life thugs let out of jail because they were victims of an unjust society took to gunning down people in the badlands that surround the nation’s capital, but it is still something that has to be reckoned with.
To have any chance of retaining power, the Peronists will need to convince many understandably frightened people that a future government headed by Javier Milei or Patricia Bullrich would soon face a massive rebellion because it would immediately deprive millions of desperately poor men and women of their livelihoods. Some are already at it, talking about blood in the streets and military-style repression if an attempt is made to rein in public spending.
For such individuals, the recent outbreaks of looting are surely welcome. Even though they are taking place before the Peronists have completed their withdrawal (Alberto Fernández goes missing for weeks and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is holed up in deepest Patagonia, but Massa remains at his post) they can blame them on Milei and Patricia who, needless to say, have no good reason to want to see Argentina go up in flames before the elections take place.
Over the years, the Peronist game plan has worked very well. It allowed them to cut short the terms in office of Raúl Alfonsín and Fernando de la Rúa and disabled the Unión Cívica Radical by persuading the electorate that it was simply too feeble to rule, which is why since March 1915 it has played second fiddle to the upstart PRO party created by Mauricio Macri. Nonetheless, the Peronists desisted from giving Macri the same treatment when he was in the Pink House, limiting themselves to going on about helicopters in the hope that, like De la Rúa, he would eventually flee from office aboard one, perhaps because the polls suggested they would win the forthcoming elections by a landslide and it would therefore be in their interest to do things by the book.
The situation confronting the Peronists today is a bit more complicated than it was then. For her own very personal reasons, Cristina must hope that this time they do well when the polling booths reopen, presumably in October, and there can be little doubt that Massa really wants to win, but most others must understand that, given the appalling economic circumstances, it would be wiser for them to let a ‘neoliberal’ try to clear up the ugly mess they will leave behind. In that case, they could wait for a while before going back on the attack and tell folk that the intruder is entirely responsible for the country’s unhappy state. This is what they did, to considerable effect, after Macri left office, and they can be expected to do the same before the next government has done much more than announce a packet of sweeping reforms designed to put the country back on track.
In other parts of the world, governments, and the parties that support them, expect to be judged by their performance while in power. Here, what tends to matter most is what they claim to stand for. The Peronists have always made the most of their allegedly benevolent intentions and have regularly accused their rivals of being mean-minded skinflints who enjoy making people suffer. This is what they are currently up to. Hardly a day goes by without some Peronist office-holder warning the populace that those dreadful right-wingers – by which they mean anyone who takes economic realities into account – are determined to reduce almost everyone to beggary.
In some poor districts in Greater Buenos Aires and even the feudal provinces of the north that have long been Peronist strongholds, more and more people are coming to the conclusion that if economic liberals such as Milei are as fearful as government supporters say they are, it would be better to join forces with them. After all, the Peronists have taught them to respect strength of purpose, which is something Milei and (albeit to a lesser extent) Patricia Bullrich appear to have in greater abundance than anyone else. It is also becoming more difficult for the Peronists to deny they have had anything to do with Argentina’s fall from grace. It was already underway before Perón took charge but, in the following years, it continued on and on until she earned the distinction of being the only significant country which, despite never having had the misfortune of experiencing rule by Communists, went from riches to rags in the space of a normal lifespan.