Sunday’s election in Argentina was deeply polarized, reflecting fear of the deepening economic crisis, nostalgia for better economic times, and the specter of class struggle in Latin America.
President Mauricio Macri was defeated in the elections by Peronist leader Alberto Fernández, accompanied by former President Cristina Kirchner as vice president. In a climate of polarization, support for Fernández expresses the rejection by the masses of the austerity and misery imposed by the IMF—although Fernández has made clear he will continue the IMF’s plan. With 40% of the vote, Macri has emerged as the leader of the opposition with significant support from the middle classes, while the Left Front has consolidated its base in a difficult election.
The Elections: Polarization and Conservatism in the Face of the Economic Crisis
In the August primaries, Macri was defeated 45% to 32%. This resounding defeat expressed the discontent of the working and poor majorities with the economic crisis, which has even further worsened since the agreement between Argentina and the IMF in 2018. Poverty and unemployment are on the rise, and the value of the peso against the dollar has fallen 25% in the few months since the primary elections, affecting workers’ wages and the cost of basic necessities. President-elect Alberto Fernández struggled to portray himself as a “responsible” capitalist candidate, meeting with the IMF and reaching agreements with the most conservative sectors of Peronism, while former president Cristina Kirchner attracted sectors of the progressive middle class, workers, and the urban poor, especially in the province of Buenos Aires, where almost half of the country’s voters are concentrated. Kirchner led this alliance with Fernández, who is in the right wing of Peronism, to attract the votes of people who were disappointed with Macri but wanted to vote for a moderate opposition. While the masses voted for Peronism with expectations of an end to austerity, Fernandez affirmed that he is going to continue paying the foreign debt. (The debt amounts to at least $200 billion for 2020 to 2023, which means allocating more than 10% of national resources a year just to paying it). Also, he promised the industrial businessmen that he would maintain a high dollar (which results in lower salaries due to devaluation). He has called on the masses “not to go out to the streets” against Macri’s government as well. This is how he managed to reach 47% in Sunday’s election without going into a runoff.
Macri managed to reduce the gap that separated him from Fernández in the primary elections in August, with the support of big capital and the rural and urban upper-middle classes. The 40% who voted for Macri comprise a hard core of support for his most conservative and reactionary policies. This was not surprising, since under his government the rural and financial bourgeoisie made millions in profits. Now, Macri’s coalition will have almost half the votes in Congress, although Peronism will retain a majority in the Senate. This legislative power, added to that of the governors of the capital and central region of Argentina, will force the Fernández government to constantly negotiate with the big capitalists of the country. Both candidates led a conservative electoral campaign, in which only the Left Front denounced the role of the IMF in Argentina and the region, calling for nonpayment of the foreign debt. It also denounced the role of the union bureaucracy, which refused to call for Macri’s austerity to be confronted with strikes and mobilizations.
Perspectives: The Shadow of the IMF and the Specter of Class Struggle
The new Peronist government will have the difficult task of leading the country in the midst of an unfavorable economic situation and a weakening of the right-wing governments of the region, under pressure by the mobilization of the masses in Chile and Ecuador. Fernández will have to oscillate between the expectations of the masses, who want to put an end to Macri’s austerity plan, and the brutal agreement with the IMF that seeks to impose anti-worker and anti-popular reforms (labor reform, pension and tax reform, reduction of salaries, less public employment). In addition, there is a strong right-wing opposition, which will try to hold on to what was won for the businessmen under Macri’s government.
Inflation is already climbing after elections (it is around 40% now), and Macri announced a limit for buying dollars at just $200 per person, trying to avoid capital flight. He met with Fernández to agree on an “orderly transition”: that is, to avoid mobilizations and struggles until December, when Fernández takes office. Meanwhile, the working people will suffer the consequences of this pact. Yet the discontent of the masses directs our attention to the examples of Chile and Ecuador, which show a way out through struggle in the streets.
Is Fernández a Counter-power Against Neoliberalism?
Jacobin magazine published an analysis of the Argentine elections, in which they argue that this result demonstrates that mass mobilizations can be led to a progressive electoral strategy that puts an end to neoliberalism. The truth is that, contrary to this view, the Fernández government seeks precisely to put an end to mass mobilization and to lead an orderly transition that guarantees capitalist profits under the tutelage of the IMF. Kirchner talked about her and Néstor Kirchner’s government as “serial payers” of the foreign debt, and Fernández follows this line. Peronism warned, during its electoral campaign, that if a change was not achieved with the elections, Argentina would end up in a situation like Chile’s.
This government is far from confronting neoliberalism: both the United States and the IMF have already congratulated Fernández and proposed working together, and the president-elect has received the greetings of Chilean President Sebastián Piñera. Fernández affirmed that they must collaborate, at a time when the workers and the people of Chile are struggling to tear down the neoliberalism inherited from Pinochet. Fernández is not an electoral manifestation of the Ecuadorian and Chilean protests. He is on the side of the IMF and of Piñera.
Moreover, the Peronist electoral alliance that won the elections is made up of both the progressive Kirchner sector and the Peronist right wing represented by Fernández. This may bring about tensions within the Peronist coalition, as now Vice President Kirchner had referred to the situation in Chile as an expression of the need to eradicate neoliberalism from the region. But she led the electoral strategy of putting Fernández at the head of the ticket as a way to negotiate with all wings of Peronism.
After all, Fernández had been part of Kirchner’s first government in 2007, before resigning in 2010 after he opposed a law that increased taxes on soy and another that reformed the media system. Both laws, though minimal, triggered opposition and protest from the rural bourgeoisie and the owners of the monopoly media.
Yet both the more progressive and the more right-wing sectors guaranteed Macri’s governability during these four year. The right wing supported countless measures put forward by Macri and the right wing. They voted for debt with the IMF, pension cuts, and labor reforms such as the reduction of compensation for work accidents. While these laws were voted by Congress, the unions linked both to the right and left wing of Peronism refused to call for a general strike to defeat these attacks. Many sectors of Peronism also voted against legalizing abortion, while millions of women mobilized for this right in the streets. Although Kirchner voted yes, her government rejected even a debate on abortion. And many of the representatives who voted no were part of her coalition in the previous elections.
Fernández’s alliance also includes the Peronist bureaucracy of the principal unions, which passively allowed the austerity measures to run over the working class without calling for any serious plan of struggle against devaluation and wage attacks (contrary to the assertion that the unions did not allow the austerity plan to advance). The leadership of the social movements linked to the more progressive wing, like that of the unemployed workers, maintains an alliance with the Catholic Church (the leader of the movement of unemployed is Juan Grabois, an ally of the Pope), which pressured against approving abortion and sex education in schools, and also seeks to contain the mobilization of the sectors most affected by the crisis.
The Return of the Pink Tide?
Some see Fernández’s triumph as a return of the Pink Tide in Latin America. The pink tide of the beginning of the century took place at a time of international economic growth, with high raw commodity prices. To varying degrees, the governments of Evo Morales in Bolivia, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Lula da Silva in Brazil and Cristina Kirchner in Argentina created social programs for the working class and poor in this moment of economic growth, while at the same time the capitalists profited like never before. Their objective was to contain the mass mobilizations against neoliberalism in Latin America and lead them toward an institutional solution. The governments of the pink tide did not confront the roots of power in the region: the big multinationals, the country owners, the financial speculators. The slight redistribution of income ended with the international economic crisis of 2008. The growing economy would have allowed deeper measures in favor of the people, but Pink Tide governments limited themselves to cosmetic changes. But if, in one of the most favorable recent economic moments, these Latin American governments did not take such measures as nationalizations, employment plans, and industrial development (not even socialist measures), how would they do it now, in a much more challenging economic context? In this framework, the right took power with Macri, Piñera, and Bolsonaro, or in other cases this right-wing turn was led directly by the governments of the pink tide: Lenin Moreno in Ecuador and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela.
With the current economic crisis and the United States trying to regain its influence in the region, no government that does not seek to definitively break with imperialism will be able to give great concessions to the Latin American people. In addition, there is no government of the pink tide that is proposing basic measures such as nonpayment of the debt with the IMF or the nationalization of the banking system and strategic resources. The prospect of a new cycle of growth and the end of neoliberalism seems unrealistic unless there is a real way out for the workers. The Pink Tide moment—limited as it was—has not returned.
The Left and the Struggle for a Real Worker’s Alternative against Capitalism
If anything slowed down austerity measures during these years, it was the struggle of the grassroots sectors of the workers, women, and poor people, among whom the Left Front has an important presence. These sectors played an important role in the opposition against the pension reform in 2017, which resulted in street mobilizations and repression. Faced with this, Peronism turned its discourse toward the electoral arena, trying to divert discontent from “the streets” to “the palace,” in the words of Antonio Gramsci.
In addition to its own limits, Fernández’s government will face a consolidated Trotskyist leftist opposition, which collected more than half a million votes for Nicolás del Caño as president, and more than 800,000 votes for legislative seats. Since 2011 presidential elections, the Left Front became a notorious political actor, related to workers struggle, human rights, and women and LGBT demands. In addition, it is part of many unions’ opposition to the Peronist union bureaucracy.
The new cycle of class struggle in Latin America will also inevitably impact Argentina. Macri is leaving, but the IMF and its structural adjustment remain, and Peronism will try to fulfill its historic role: that of containing the working class and avoiding a revolutionary process that crushes national and imperialist capitalism by establishing a workers’ government. In this context, constructing a working-class political force, one that is not subordinated to any of the capitalist projects, becomes a strategic necessity. The performance of the Left Front, which remains in the field of class struggle and promotes political independence of the workers, women, and youth, becomes even more valuable.
It is necessary to warn of the demobilizing role of these “Pink Tide” political forces, which are trying to compromise with the U.S. government and the IMF at the expense of the workers and the popular sectors. In Chile, neo-reformism also calls for an institutional transition that does not touch the foundations of the neoliberal regime. These positions end up strengthening the right, as we saw in the previous cycle of governments in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Argentina, among others. The lesson of the elections in Argentina cannot be to withdraw the forces from the streets to the institutions of bourgeois democracy, but on the contrary, to build a working-class political alternative.