The October 27 elections returned the Peronist Party to power in Argentina. Peronist candidate Alberto Fernández won the presidency with 48 percent of the vote, the party retained a majority in the Senate, and it took back the governorship in the province of Buenos Aires. As a candidate, Fernández successfully rebranded and united a fractured party by promising to fix the economy, address pressing social issues, and respect democratic institutions. The candidate also appealed to young progressive voters, pledging to legalize abortion and address gender rights issues.
But while Fernández was able to win the election, the results reflect a highly polarized electorate, with both sides having starkly different visions for the future of the country. The fragmentation of power combined with Argentina’s uncertain economic future will likely force the Peronist party to take a more moderate stance in future policy decisions—a contrast with prior governments that encroached on democratic institutions and ignored the separation of powers.
Similar to other Latin American political parties established early in the 20th century, European fascism influenced the formation of the early Peronist Party. As a former army general, President Juan Domingo Perón ruled the country as a populist authoritarian, implementing protectionist economic policies, establishing corporatist relationships with unions, and carrying out progressive social reforms favoring workers and Argentina’s lower classes. Perón also punished dissenting voices by repressing journalists, academics, artists, intellectuals, labor leaders, and any other political figure who publicly opposed him.
Attacks on freedom of expression remain a part of the recent history of Peronist party rule.
Though Peronism has supported—indeed been the lynchpin of—sociopolitical changes, many view the party as little more than a heterogeneous, non-ideological coalition that quickly re-brands itself around its leadership and power. In the early 1990’s, Carlos Menem’s Peronist Party shifted to the center-right, embracing the privatization of state-run enterprises, free trade and other neo-liberal policies aligned to the Washington Consensus. Then in the aftermath of the 2001 financial crisis, Nestor and Cristina Kirchner’s brand of Peronism shifted the party and the Argentine state back to the left. In every case, Argentina’s Congress—dominated by peronistas—served as a rubber stamp for laws handed down from the executive.
These former Peronist leaders governed with a populist, personalist, and semi-authoritarian leadership style, leaving behind a trail of well-documented cases of corruption and abuse of power. Argentina’s courts convicted Carlos Menem for illegal arms trafficking and embezzling an estimated $466 million. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has 12 open court cases, and is accused of receiving millions of dollars in kickbacks from private sector companies seeking public contracts. Both former presidents sought Senate seats to receive congressional immunity from corruption investigations tied to these allegations.
The Peronist future
While some fear that Alberto Fernández’s victory means a return to the populist authoritarian governance style of Vice President-elect Fernández de Kirchner, the new opposition in Congress, divisions within the Peronist party between moderates and authoritarian radicals, and the current economic conditions, will likely restrain the new government.
Although Fernández won the election, a sizable portion of the country continued to support President Mauricio Macri’s vision and governance style of respecting democratic institutions and the separation of powers. That sub-section of the electorate expressed this desire during the Cambiemos party’s mass campaign rallies, and at the ballot box with 41 percent of the vote favoring Macri’s re-election.
In Congress, the center-right Cambiemos coalition established itself as the new opposition securing 119 seats and expanding its support in Argentina’s largest cities, including the mayorship in Buenos Aires. Unlike past Peronist presidents, Fernández will have to negotiate with opposition legislators to get policies through Congress.
Furthermore, the president elect will have to manage the internal division between the moderate Peronists he represents and the radical wings of the party embodied in Fernández de Kirchner. Fernández de Kirchner will control hardline supporters and preside over the Senate. Fernández (Alberto) is signaling that he will build a more moderate coalition with provincial governors who depend on the executive designation of funds to implement local projects—since Argentina’s governors serve as old party bosses who hand pick Congressional candidates, governors still maintain a strong influence on the votes in the House of Representatives. As a result, the new president Fernández may be able to balance the vice president-elect’s influence with his direct control of federal funding for the provinces.
In addition to having a sizable opposition and a fractured Peronist coalition, Fernández will have to address the country’s dire economic situation. In 2019, the country’s currency quickly devalued and inflation rates rose over 50 percent as Argentina’s economy contracted. While the country has a limited foreign reserve cushion, Fernández will have to be cautious as he renegotiates the $57 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), calms foreign investors, and finds ways to start lifting constituents out of poverty. This delicate balance will likely prevent Peronists from fulfilling promises to bring back popular subsidy and social-assistance programs, an outcome that will not please radical members of the party.
Internationally, Fernández will try to position himself as the region’s new progressive leader to find economic and political allies that can support his domestic agenda. The president-elect has already begun to realign Argentina with Latin America’s left by utilizing the Puebla Group, a new coalition of progressive leaders who want to develop a unified political agenda across the region. In a recent trip to Mexico, Fernández sought to form an alliance with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to strengthen economic ties, get assistance navigating its relationship with the United States, and renegotiating the IMF loan. Finally, given Argentina’s strong trade ties with Brazil, Fernández will have to carefully steer an already tense relationship with Jair Bolsonaro, whose populist right-wing agenda clashes with the vision that Argentina’s new president is setting for Latin America.
Despite the electoral euphoria of Peronists across Argentina, the new president will confront political and economic headwinds. For the first time since 1928, a non-Peronist president finished a full term in office and managed to turn his party into a credible political opponent. As a result, Alberto Fernández and his Peronist colleagues will have to learn to moderate their rhetoric and negotiate solutions in an increasingly challenging socio-political environment. While the outgoing President failed to resolve Argentina’s economic woes, perhaps Macri’s greatest accomplishment will be establishing a political alternative that indirectly democratized Peronism.
A global affairs and Latin America expect, Patricio Provitina is a Program Officer at the Nationals Endowment for Democracy. Follow him on Twitter @pprovitina. The views expressed in this article are the authors and do not reflect those of any current or former employer.