All change in Argentina as sun sets on the Kirchner era

Buenos noches, Buenos Aires. Reuters

Argentina’s open presidential primary is over, and the stage is now set for the election in October. With the current president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, constitutionally barred from running again, the autumn poll looks set to be a fight between Argentina’s two main political coalitions.

On the left is Daniel Scioli, the current governor of Buenos Aires province, who leads the official Peronist party Front for Victory. He is Cristina de Kirchner’s candidate of choice, though has stayed shy of taking on an explicitly Kirchnerist political identity. On the right is the current mayor of Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri; he heads a coalition of strange bedfellows called Cambiemos (Let’s Change), which comprises Macri’s conservative Republican Proposal party, social democrats, and the Radical Civic Union.

The primary system pits all the parties' candidates against each other in one poll to determine who runs in the general election. Scioli and the Front for Victory got the biggest share with more than 38%. That sets him up well for the elections in October, bodes well for the nation’s verdict on the highly contentious and deeply personalised Kirchnerist legacy.

Twilight

When Fernández de Kirchner’s term ends in December 2015, she and her late husband and predecessor Néstor Kirchner, who ruled from 2003-7, will have enjoyed the longest unbroken presidential tenure since Argentina became a democracy, in the course of which they left a profound mark on their country. As Juan and Eva Peron did before them, the Kirchners have managed to establish a political style that will bear their name long after Cristina finally leaves office.

Governor Scioli: Cristina’s best hope? Reuters/Martin Acosta

The political project now known as Kirchnerismo (Kirchnerism) is undoubtedly very divisive. For some, it stands for a return (at least in aspiration) to economic growth, prosperity, and the expansion of citizenship rights, all led by the state. For others, it represents a corrupt quasi-authoritarianism, combined with cynical populism and meddlesome state intervention.

Nonetheless, the expansion of rights and welfare provision under the Kirchners has been so widely welcomed in Argentina that none of this election’s contenders dares to challenge it. And with such a strong consensus on a big tranche of Kirchner-era social policy, the campaign might fast descend into a game of character mudslinging.

That’s partly a factor of the weakness of the candidates themselves. De Kirchner has failed to cultivate a strong heir, and the opposition isn’t faring much better. Cambiemos, for its part, has not developed a convincing and comprehensive political platform to take Argentina in a new direction.

All it seems able to do is mount fierce attacks on the personal and political style of Fernández de Kirchner and her entourage – something the last few years have hardly made difficult.

Counting the days

Throughout their 12 years in office, the Kirchners have been dogged by accusations of corruption, which have badly eroded Fernández de Kirchner’s popularity and legitimacy. Things have only gotten worse in recent years. Discontent and distrust have grown under Kirchnerist statism, with its apparent reluctance to protect private property, and alleged propensity to favour government cronies with subsidies and contracts.

Conflicts with the media and opposition media groups have also led Argentine investigative reporter Jorge Lanata to investigate a possible network of international bank accounts and unaccounted wealth connected with the state.

Things reached a fever pitch when prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found dead in his apartment on January 18 2015. His body was discovered just hours before a judicial inquiry was expecting to examine claims that Fernández de Kirchner and her foreign minister, Héctor Timerman, tried to cover up Iran’s role in the country’s deadliest ever terrorist attack. Nisman’s case against Fernández de Kirchner and Timerman was dismissed on February 2, but it dealt a heavy blow to the government’s credibility and authority.

Adding to the twilight atmosphere is a seriously beleagured economy. Some pessimists are even predicting collapse, a forecast born of creeping inflation, slow to non-existent growth, a serious dependence on commodities markets, and a deeply destructive default.

Detractors of Fernández de Kirchner, and Kirchnerism, want Argentina to save itself from true disaster with a return to capital markets, even becoming a major regional economic power again if the right economic policies are implemented and sustained. Such accommodation with global neoliberalism would mark the true end of the Kirchnerist project.

A lasting legacy

Latin American politics expert Steven Levitsky argued that we might in fact be facing “the end of the left in Latin America”. The commodity boom has all but ended, and many of the leftist movements that rode it to power in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay are running out of steam after too many years in power.

But what this analysis misses is the depth of the left’s legacy – a plethora of policies for social inclusion, citizenship and rights that has left a deep imprint on the continent. Kirchner-era Argentina, for its part, has taken bold steps to widen its social safety net and citizenship rights. Targeted cash transfer programmes, which were initially short-term, were extended by the plan Argentina Trabaja, supporting co-operative enterprises in poor neighbourhoods.

On to the next one. Reuters/Marcos Brindicci

Cristina’s government also introduced a targeted programme for children, the Universal Child Benefit (Asignación Universal por Hijo or AUH). It’s not the country’s first child benefit scheme, but it covers the population on an unprecedented scale. The AUH provides around 200 Argentine pesos (US$50) a month to nearly 4m children and families, and 80% of Argentina’s children now receive some form of child benefit.

For the first time, the government is extending welfare programmes directly to children and to workers who are not unionised. In fact, most beneficiaries will be self-employed or in the informal economy – groups that were particularly active in the protests of 2001.

The Fernández de Kirchner government also introduced a “reasonable” minimum wage for non-unionised workers (including domestic workers) in 2008, and has put pressure on private health companies to extend their coverage and reduce their charges. An anti-poverty strategy has brought poverty down to around 25% from more than 50% in the wake the 2001-02 economic crisis.

In this scenario, it is not surprising that the poor voters who have benefited from state largesse over the past eight years remain loyal to the Kirchnerist project. This explains why Scioli is riding high, for now at least. His ascendance is a sign that despite all the problems they and their country have faced, the Kirchners have managed to construct a legacy of inclusion and social rights that may yet endure.