The results of Sunday’s primary elections in Argentina sent shockwaves across the political landscape. The right-wing coalition associated with former president Mauricio Macri and his allies easily surpassed the governing Peronist coalition in nearly every district in the country. Far-right and ultra-neoliberal figures also had an impact in the city and province of Buenos Aires. The true test for the center-left government will come in the general midterm elections in November, but the coalition led by President Alberto Fernández and Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has a lot of ground to make up before then.
A Surging Anticapitalist Force
The Fernández-Kirchner government is one of many reformist governments in Latin America referred to as the Pink Tide, which enacted some modest reforms in times of economic prosperity but in times of crisis has carried out many of the same counterreforms and austerity measures as past governments. Beyond the return of the Right, one of the most important conclusions from Sunday’s primaries is that within the working class, there is growing support for an electoral force to the left of the Pink Tide. More than one million people cast their votes for the Workers’ Left Front – Unity (FIT-U), an electoral coalition of four Trotskyist parties. It was a historic result for the coalition, which now represents the third-largest electoral force in the country. The coalition’s anti-capitalist and radical-democratic demands, including the nonpayment of the external debt, the reduction of the working day to six hours without any decrease in pay, and a minimum wage equal to the true cost of living, resonated with voters in cities and provinces throughout the country.
It was the best performance yet for the FIT-U — commonly referred to as the Left Front — which formed 10 years ago. The results for the Trotskyist left were most impressive in some of the poorest and most remote parts of the country. In the province of Jujuy, home to tens of thousands of indigenous people and farm workers, the coalition won 20 percent of the vote. Its Congressional candidate in Jujuy, Alejandro Vilca, is himself a long-time sanitation worker. In Chubut, located in the far south of the country, and home to major fishing, mining, and oil industries, approximately 9 percent of voters backed the Left’s candidates. In the province of Neuquén, the bloc took around 8 percent. In the latter province, the Left Front slate was led by Raúl Godoy, a leader in the worker-occupied and managed Zanon tile factory. In the city and province of Buenos Aires, home to 70 percent of Argentina’s population, the coalition earned 6 and 5 percent, respectively.
What Led to the Peronists’ Defeat?
“We must have done something wrong,” said Argentinian president Alberto Fernández in response to the shocking results of Sunday’s primary elections. This bewilderment was shared by many within the president’s circle. Fernández’s electoral bloc, Frente de Todos (Everybody’s Front), suffered big losses throughout Argentina, even in provinces of the interior, which are traditional Peronist strongholds. The right-wing and neoliberal coalition of Juntos por el Cambio (Together for Change) earned the higher vote totals in the country’s five most populous provinces. Meanwhile, the Far Right, represented by personalities like Javier Milei and José Luis Espert, who profess admiration for the dictatorships of the country’s past, also gained ground. Throughout Argentina, the scenario is marked by growing political polarization, a result of the deep economic, social, and public health crises the ruling Peronists have overseen. If the results hold in November, Frente de Todos would lose its majority in the Senate and its plurality in the Chamber of Deputies.
The results of Sunday’s primaries point to deep dissatisfaction with the Peronist government of Alberto Fernández and its handling of the pandemic and the subsequent economic crisis. The official unemployment rate in Argentina now hovers around 10 percent. The true figure is likely far higher. An astonishing 40 percent of the country’s citizens live in poverty today. The cost of living increases each day and far outpaces salary increases — inflation may reach as much as 45 percent by the end of the year. Like most Latin American countries, the coronavirus pandemic has hit the country hard, particularly the poorest sectors. Argentina ranks third in Covid-19 deaths per capita in South America, trailing only Peru and Brazil.
It was in these circumstances that Argentinians went to the polls to vote in primary elections ahead of the November midterms. The country has had a “simultaneous, mandatory and open” primary system since 2009, called PASO in Spanish, in which all parties must participate on the same day. Although voting is required by law in Argentina, less than 70 percent cast ballots.
The Left Front and Its Demands
The Left Front is an electoral bloc composed of four revolutionary Marxist parties, launched in 2011. Despite political differences, all of its adherents fight under the banner of Trotskyism. These parties include the Party of Socialist Workers (PTS), the Argentine sister organization of Left Voice; the Workers’ Party (PO); Socialist Left (IS); and the Workers’ Socialist Movement (MST). The coalition currently holds two seats in Congress, along with dozens of seats in local legislatures and city councils throughout the country. If the FIT-U’s performance in the November midterms is comparable to yesterday’s primaries, it could take as many as six seats in Congress, according to some analysts. It has now become the third electoral force in the country, behind only the Frente de Todos of President Fernández and Vice President Fernández de Kirchner, and Juntos por el Cambio, which represents the allies of former president Mauricio Macri.
Faced with the major social, economic, and public health crises in the country, only the Trotskyist Left has put forward a response during this election campaign that could provide a way out. The crisis, say the parties of the FIT-U, must not be unloaded on the backs of the workers but rather “paid for by those who caused it: the biggest employers, the banks, the landowners, and the imperialist countries.”
Overcoming the deadly coronavirus pandemic, says the FIT-U, requires the annulment of all patents on vaccines, medicines, and equipment needed for treatment. The Mabxience laboratory in Argentina currently produces the principal ingredients for AstraZeneca’s vaccine but only for export. This laboratory and all laboratories capable of producing vaccines and life-saving medicines must be declared public utilities and put under workers’ control.
In order to fight the high levels of unemployment combined with low wages and long hours for the employed, the FIT-U has put forward a demand similar to Trotsky’s call for a sliding scale of hours, as outlined in the Transitional Program. The coalition calls for reducing the working day to six hours, without any loss of pay, and the distribution of hours among the employed and unemployed. Despite all the technological advances in the past 100 years, the working day has remained the same length. Reducing the working day would allow for the employment of millions more workers who are currently jobless.
Inflation and rising costs of living have hit the pockets of the working class and the poor most. The prices of rent, health care, beef, and transport have all increased. Meanwhile, the government has raised fees on internet, cable, and television by 5 percent. Faced with the rising prices of goods, the Left Front demands a minimum wage equal to the true cost of living and indexed for inflation on a monthly basis. The monthly emergency payment provided to families suffering the worst effects of the pandemic and economic crisis, which is currently around $100 — far from what’s needed — must be raised four-fold. Taxes on workers’ salaries and sales taxes on necessary goods must also be eliminated, says the Left Front.
Argentina’s external debt represents approximately 45 percent of the country’s total GDP. Among the creditors are the world’s richest countries, institutions such as the IMF, and the so-called vulture funds which cashed in on the 2001 crisis. The Fernández administration continues to pay the debt even at a time of high levels of poverty, and when major public expenditures are needed in health and social services. This commitment to repaying the debt is not held by the Peronists alone, however. Every major political figure and grouping believes in the need to continue servicing the external debt. Only the Left Front denounces the debt as illegitimate and demands nonpayment and the cancelation of existing agreements.
Finally, the parties of the Left Front are not content with a “left-wing government” that administers a capitalist state, like so many of the reformist parties and figures have been content to do, such as Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, which have had disastrous results. Rather, they fight for the creation of a workers’ government and a planned economy, prioritizing health, education, and a sustainable management of the environment.
Worker-Candidates, not Career Politicians
What makes the candidates of the Left Front stand out, aside from their revolutionary platform, is that they are not career politicians or business leaders, as so many candidates of the other parties are. Instead, they are workers, teachers, students, and activists. Most who obtain positions in legislatures or city councils will go back to work after legislative sessions are over. Below are just a few of the dozens of worker-militants who stood as candidates representing the Party of Socialist Workers (PTS) and the Left Front.
Alejandro Vilca, a trash collector in the city of San Salvador de Jujuy, is one of the most visible examples of worker-candidates from the Left Front. When he is not serving as a provincial deputy, a position he won in 2017, he wakes before sunrise and carries out the physically demanding work of trash collection until 6:00 or 7:00 at night. Throughout his workday, he is exposed to every type of pathogen and environmental pollutant. Like many residents of Jujuy, he is Kolla, a member of an indigenous community. Indigenous communities in the north of Argentina have been historically oppressed, robbed of their land and resources, and forced to work low-paying jobs. Like so many others around him, Vilca grew up in a poor, working-class household. He was raised by a single mother of five who worked as a maid to support her family. It’s for this reason that the residents of San Salvador see him as “one of their own.”
Nicole Salvatierra is a 25-year-old woman who took part in a courageous struggle in the town of Guernica last year. Salvatierra, whose name fittingly translates to “save the land,” together with thousands of other poor, unemployed or homeless people, occupied and encamped on the vacant lands in the town. They faced violent repression and eviction, as ordered by the Peronist Governor of Buenos Aires province. Several of Nicole’s comrades in the Guernica struggle are also standing as candidates for the Left Front.
Raúl Godoy, who earned around 8 percent of the vote in the province of Neuquén, is a factory worker, a long-time socialist militant and a founding member of the PTS. Following the economic crash of 2001, when the Zanon tile factory was shuttered by the bosses, Godoy and his fellow workers occupied the plant and restarted production themselves. For more than 20 years, the plant has operated under worker ownership and management, with decisions made democratically in assemblies.
How the Left Front Was Built
The Left Front was launched in 2011 as a defensive measure. Two years earlier, the government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner mandated that every party would begin to participate in Simultaneous and Mandatory Open Primaries (PASO) ahead of all elections. The law’s stated objective was to remove smaller parties; that is, those that did not obtain 1.5 percent of the vote or higher before the general election. This highly anti-democratic measure was a way for the government to remove both far-left parties and dissident Peronist parties that could siphon votes away from the Kirchnerists.
The country’s largest Trotskyist parties, who had long put forward candidates on separate slates, forged an agreement to come together on a single slate to ensure they’d collectively surpass the 1.5 percent threshold. They achieved that objective and more. In subsequent elections, they earned vote totals as high as 11 percent in the province of Mendoza and 17 percent in the province of Jujuy. Nationally, the bloc consistently earned between 3 to 5 percent, still far from representing an electoral challenge to the Peronists, but enough to get the attention of the bosses’ parties.
This year, the goal of the FIT-U was to become the “third-largest political force in the country.” It achieved its objective on Sunday. It was an ambitious goal in a scenario in which the Far Left has been fractured and weak around the world and in which the only challenges to the establishment have come from the Far Right or from reformist phenomena like the Pink Tide governments in Latin America or neo-reformist groupings like Podemos and Syriza in Europe or Bernie Sanders and the Squad in the United States.
Confronting the Peronists and the Right
The administration of Alberto Fernández and Cristina Kirchner has failed to provide a real alternative to the Right, such as the Juntos por el Cambio coalition of Macri. Despite its campaign demand of “Out with the IMF,” Fernández has continued to prioritize paying off the external debt to the detriment of the health care and education systems. The government has fought the demands of public sector workers for salary increases. Monthly payments to retirees have fallen. Thousands continue to die of Covid-19 because of an underfunded health care system and a lack of access to vaccines.
The government’s policies have opened the door to far-right and demagogic “anti-establishment” candidates like Javier Milei or José Luis Espert, who echo the rhetoric of Bolsonaro in Brazil and Trump in the United States. Yet their demands differ little from the neoliberal programs of the past. They call for new labor “reforms,” including an end to severance pay for laid off or fired workers.
Only a force such as the Left Front, which brings together workers, indigenous people, women, youth, and the most oppressed sectors of society under an anti-capitalist program can offer an alternative to the misery faced by millions of Argentinians today. Sunday’s primary elections show that major support exists for such an alternative.