Argentina has a new president after the centre-left candidate Alberto Fernández and his Frente de Todos coalition won a solid majority of 48% in elections on October 27. The incumbent Mauricio Macri was pushed into second place with 40% of the vote in what was an indictment of his economic record.
Fernández comes from a tradition of Peronism – a politics tied to the ideology of former Argentinian leader, Juan Perón. His decision to have Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the former president, as his vice-presidential running mate, proved to be a brilliant political strategy. It outmanoeuvred Macri who had based his campaign around a monotonous confrontation with “Kirchnerism” and with vilifying her record. It also created conditions which led to reunification within the Peronist movement of which she and this new government are a part.
Fernández’s victory was welcomed by presidents Evo Morales in Bolivia and Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico – his preferred regional partners – but not by Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil who said that Argentinians had made a bad choice. Bolsonaro’s reaction was unsurprising, given that Fernández has openly stated that former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is a political prisoner.
This was the ninth presidential election in Argentina since the country’s transition to democracy began in 1983 after years of military dictatorship. Turnout exceeded 80% of those eligible to vote.
As other countries in Latin America such as Chile and Ecuador struggle with violent unrest, Argentinians decided to make their voice heard at the ballot box. This is significant for the wider Latin American region because it shows that insurrection can also take place when established political parties rearticulate the demands of social movements. And it regenerates the push for progressive political representation in the region.
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Argentina’s alarmingly bad economic performance under Macri is only part of the explanation for Fernández’s victory. The political programme of the winning Frente de Todos coalition – positioned in opposition to the neoliberal policies of Macri – gave Argentinians a real electoral choice. It was an election strategy that can provide lessons to other insurgent movements fed up with austerity.
Back in 2016, Macri agreed that his presidency would be evaluated on his administration’s success at reducing poverty. But according to the Catholic University of Argentina, poverty rose from 29.2% in 2015, when Cristina Fernández de Kirchner left office, to 33.6% in 2018, and 35.4% in the first quarter of 2019. This added more than 7m people into poverty in nearly four years. An initial reading of the election results suggest that voters took Macri’s pledge seriously and punished him accordingly for failing to deliver on his main promise.
The rise in poverty did not happen in isolation but as a byproduct of the government’s attempt to make the economy more competitive and attract direct foreign investment following Macri’s liberalisation strategy that included lifting capital controls, cutting down energy subsidies and lowering trade barriers.
The result was a race to the bottom, with falling minimum wages, rising inflation, a depreciation of the peso and a jump in unemployment. Argentina was left exposed to speculative international capital and when a crisis in emerging market currencies took place, Macri decided in May 2018 to request a “preventive” IMF loan that ended up totalling US$56.3 billion, the largest in the institution’s history.
Avoiding mass unrest
There were protests throughout Macri’s administration, including in September 2019 against rising inflation and poverty. But in the context of a socioeconomic crisis of such epic proportions, it’s striking that Argentina hasn’t experienced either widespread social unrest, such as in Chile or Ecuador, or a full-on political debacle like in 2001 when a state of extreme institutional instability resulted in five presidents in just 11 days. In fact, Macri should become the first non-Peronist Argentinian president to complete a full tenure in office – and he still received the support of 40% of the electorate.
In the past, Argentina’s democratic institutions have managed to resolve moments of great uncertainty that included military uprisings in the late 1980s and political movements such as the “we want them all out” campaign of 2001. Since then, “Kirchnerism” – the political ideology linked to former presidents Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner – emerged as a new progressive political identity. Its presence made the work of translating protest into institutional politics possible.
In 2019, the Frente de Todos coalition managed to build a united front against Macri’s neoliberal policies. In the process, they managed to make compromises with moderate political elites who would otherwise have been opposed to their political programme, while also allying with labour and social campaign organisations.
Challenges ahead for Fernández
While the recent demonstrations in Chile and Ecuador have been successful in reversing specific austerity measures such as price hikes in transport and petrol, it’s unclear yet whether these uprisings will result in representation within political institutions. But this is what has happened in Argentina, where Fernández’s coalition managed to listen to the demands of those mobilising in anger against the government.
The Frente de Todos coalition incorporated the social demands of angry Argentinians into their political programme. This included rejection of Macri’s plans to make labour laws more flexible and to reform the pension system, as well as a rejection of handing out moderate penalties to perpetrators of human rights abuses. It was this link between social mobilisation and political representation that prevented widespread uprisings in 2019 in the face of economic crisis and inequality.
The challenges ahead for Fernández are enormous, including how to deliver quickly on people’s demands for redistribution of state resources at time when commodity prices are low and the state finances are dire. Another is how to generate sustainable development out of the abundant shale oil and gas reserves in Argentina’s Vaca Muerta region.
That said, in the context of the global rise of right-wing, xenophobic mavericks, the election in Argentina represents a hard-won triumph for inclusive democracy. For now, there is an ample sense of hope – an elusive but important political currency.