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Argentina elections: is frontrunner Alberto Fernández a populist?

Presidential candidate Alberto Fernández with his running mate, former president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. JULIO GELVES

Argentina’s presidential election on October 27 is expected to swing power back to the centre-left following four years of right-wing rule under Maurico Macri. The former president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, is now set to hold the vice-presidency and serve under the experienced yet until recently little-known candidate Alberto Fernández.

Following Fernández’s shock victory in national primaries in August, international commentators were quick to ask whether Argentina’s likely next president is a populist.

Although not an unreasonable question in a country where populism has a well-established tradition, it tends to be posed in derogatory terms and implies something sinister. So, what exactly is populism and is it returning to Argentina?

A notoriously slippery term, populism has recently received a flurry of interest in an attempt to make sense of our turbulent political times, applied to everything from Brexit and Donald Trump to the rise of leaders such as Italy’s Matteo Salvini and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

One of the most used definitions in political science comes from Cas Mudde who argues that populism is an ideology that splits society into two opposed camps of the “pure people” and “the corrupt elite”. A recent report by The Guardian used this approach to look at speeches of world leaders and found that populist rhetoric was steadily on the rise.

Read more: What is populism – and why is it so hard to define?

As well as an ideology, populism is commonly understood as a strategy through which excluded sectors of society are mobilised in support of a common political project, often by a charismatic leader. This approach is best associated with the political theorist Chantal Mouffe, who recently launched a debate on populism as a left-wing project, and her late partner Ernesto Laclau, who used Argentinian “Peronism” – named after Juan Domingo Perón – as a key example of of populism.

From Peronism to Kirchnerism

Perón, elected in 1946 for his first term as president, led Argentina’s first major process of politically incorporating the working-class masses, known affectionately by his wife Evita Perón as “the shirtless ones”, into Argentine society.

Juan Perón at his inauguration parade in 1946. Wikimedia Commons

Critics have highlighted the authoritarian tendencies of Peron’s administrations, with links to Fascism, and have lambasted Peronist organisations for corrupt electoral practices. Supporters have celebrated Perón’s massive project of wealth redistribution, significant investment in industry, health and education as well as introduction of universal suffrage.

Although deeply divisive, Perón’s presidency is seen as populist in recognition of his struggle to represent “the people” against “the oligarchy”. His confrontational approach provoked his opponents and he was ousted as president in 1955. After 18 years in exile in Spain, he returned to power in Argentina in 1973 before dying in office the following year.

The first elected Peronist president in Argentina following Perón’s death was Carlos Menem, the country’s leader between 1989 and 1999. Menem has been categorised as a right-wing or neoliberal populist for his struggle for free-market liberalism in the name of the Argentine people.

Yet it’s been the 21st-century presidencies of centre-left Peronists, Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, that have received most praise and hostility for re-invigorating a populist mode of politics in Argentina, at a time when left-wing populism took hold across the region.

The jury remains open on whether the Kirchners were populist. The Guardian’s recent study of presidential speeches judged neither Kirchner president to be populist. Many detractors of both presidents, but especially Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, use populism as a slur and relate it to corruption. Yet supporters suggest that the political strategy of Kirchnerism is a good example of left-wing populism.

Is Alberto Fernández a populist?

While the 2019 frontrunner Fernández is not strictly a populist, his Peronist credentials and closeness to the Kirchners create some latent populist tendencies that could be unleashed during his presidency.

Fernández is a renowned pragmatist, a master of appeasing different sectors in society. On major controversial issues he has sought compromise and a conciliatory tone.

Team Fernández: pragmatist or populist? Juan Ignacio Roncoroni/EPA

Nowhere is this clearer that his position towards Kirchnerism. Once the chief of the cabinet for Néstor Kirchner he became openly critical of Fernández de Kirchner, yet tended to avoid all out confrontation or alliance with her enemies. Instead of polarising positions, Fernández strives for the middle ground. For example on foreign policy, he gave lukewarm support to Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro by stating that he is “not a dictator” – hardly a glowing endorsement of one of the region’s more divisive leaders.

The clearest indication that Fernández is not a populist is on the economy where initial signals suggest moderation and reform would be key to his future policy, with no assault on economic “elites”. His economic adviser, Guillermo Nielsen, prefers a middle-of-the-road approach and suggests renegotiation rather than an outright rejection of deals with the International Monetary Fund.

A common slogan in his “Front for All” electoral campaign has been that he will govern “for all Argentines” and he insists on moving beyond a polarised society towards a new “social pact”.

So where could populism be lurking? For any Peronist leader in Argentina the temptations of populism exist both inside and outside the Casa Rosada, the president’s home. If struggling to gather sufficient votes for policy approval in the Congress or Senate, Fernández could take inspiration from the “superpresidenialism” of the Kirchners and other left-wing presidents in the region who used their executive powers to implement social policies targeted at the poor.

If he is elected, Fernández will be his own president, however, and while his victory would signal a return to the left, it would be a more centrist and pragmatic left than what has come before, with populism an unlikely feature.

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