With inflation and poverty rising, the acute state of currency reserves, open confrontation between government officials, and a vice president that constantly questions the president’s legitimacy, we may be witnessing the end of Kirchnerism’s 20-year-long hegemony over Peronism. President Alberto Fernández has confirmed that he will not run for president. For her part, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner–the Peronist leader currently performing best in polls–also announced that she will not run. Polls show a close race and no one can be sure who will win, but one thing is certain: Peronism is not a clear contender, a shock given it has been the central political party in the country since Argentina’s return of democracy in 1983. However, while the Kirchner wing of the party may be in trouble, this does not mean that Peronism is at risk of disappearing. The movement will endure, mutate, and return to power… as it always has.
Peronism is an almost invincible force in the Argentine political landscape. The Peronist movement has survived decades of proscription and repression, won eight out of eleven presidential elections since the return of democracy, and has been at least the second-biggest political force in every presidential election in Argentine history. To comprehend this strength, it is crucial to understand that Peronism is not a traditional political party with a coherent ideology. Trying to categorize it as a left or right-wing, conservative, or liberal party is pointless because Peronism has easily transformed without losing its political strength. This is because the political movement rests on two crucial pillars: its status as an “empty signifier” and its personalistic nature.
The Pillars of Peronism
As an empty signifier, “Peronism” does not designate any specific political opinion or ideology. Peronism can be applied to everything and anything: anyone can provide their own definition of Peronism. This allows the movement to encompass all of Argentine society. However, its personalistic nature makes the leadership of a powerful figure crucial to its success and its very existence. Without such, the movement would be a melting pot of divergent ideas and individuals without any coherent stance. This quality allows for a leader to endow the movement with their own definition of Peronism. Among competing interpretations, the leader will be the one that provides the understanding that resonates best within the heterogeneous composition of Peronism.
The two pillars of being empty signifier and personalistic cannot survive without each other. When both are met, the power of Peronism comes alive, allowing it to change its ideology without losing its identity. However, this also makes it essential for a leader that gives coherence to the movement by providing a triumphant understanding of Peronism. It is the very absence of a strong personalistic leader that is at the core of the current crisis of the movement under Kirchnerism.
Peronism emerged in the 1940s around the figure of Colonel Juan Domingo Perón. As the Secretary of Labor and Prevision, he encouraged union leaders to organize and met their demands such as collective contracts, retirement benefits, paid vacations, and workplace accident compensation. This position led to his growing popularity across the country. As President, he promoted the expansion of the industrial sector—an interventionist role of the State in the economy—the redistribution of wealth, and unionization of workers. In the foreign policy realm, Perón pursued the third position ideology, rejecting both capitalism and communism during the Cold War. Since then, Peronism has been reinvented by his successors to meet the needs of their times and policy preferences.
For instance, under Carlos Menem’s leadership in the 1990s, the Peronist movement underwent one of its most radical transformations. Menem privatized most of the state-owned companies and services, deregulated the labor market, and adopted an open international trade policy. At the same time, he sought close relations with the United States. Under Menem, the Peronist movement became a neoliberal right-wing party that profoundly contrasted with the movement under Perón’s leadership. The Menem experience showcased the logic of the empty signifier and the personalistic nature of Peronism to the extreme.
The Kirchnerist Hegemony Over Peronism
Menem’s version of Peronism was not compatible with Néstor Kirchner’s project. When Néstor assumed the presidency in 2003, he confronted 58.2 percent of the population under the poverty line, a rampaging unemployment rate, a defaulted external debt, and low popular support—only winning the presidency with 22.25 percent of the vote. However, he took on these challenges by transforming the Argentine economy and reinventing politics by reformulating Peronism. In doing so, Néstor Kirchner attained the much-needed legitimacy of the Peronist movement and became its undisputable leader. Peronism became a left-leaning and progressive movement that propelled regional integration with South America, leaving neoliberalism behind.
Kirchner altered the power dynamics inside the Peronist party by providing a key role to progressive and popular Peronist and non-Peronist actors compatible with his government plan. In parallel and benefitting from the commodities boom, Kirchner increased the minimum wage, supported the reunification of Argentina’s main union confederation, and implemented social policies focused on vulnerable and informal sectors. All of this ushered in an era of steady economic growth and poverty reduction. Kirchner’s understanding of Peronism triumphed.
However, Kirchnerism cannot be understood by looking at Néstor alone. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was a vital part of the rise of Kircherism. Her rising popularity was key in Néstor’s decision not to run for reelection in 2007. While a strong leader is critical to allowing Peronism to function as an empty signifier, the Kirchners found a way to maintain their power over the party without relying on a singular figure—an action reminiscent of Juan Perón himself and his wife, Evita. Unable to run after his second term, Néstor Kirchner would need another leader to continue Kirchnerism’s hegemony over Peronism beyond his figure. This leader was Cristina, who swiftly won the 2007 elections and established her leadership.
The gambit worked. Nevertheless, on October 27, 2010, Néstor Kirchner died, eliminating the ability for the couple to alternate power again. If Kirchnerism could not find a new leader to carry on after Cristina Kirchner’s second term, the hegemony would start to crack and the Kirchnerist wing would fall without a central leader.
The Fracture of the Kirchnerist Hegemony
Cristina’s main failure was not finding a new leader to continue her legacy and to secure hegemony over the Peronist movement. In the 2015 elections, her hand-picked candidate Daniel Scioli lost to opposition leader Mauricio Macri, ending 12 years of Kirchnerist governments. Cristina had chosen a candidate, but the election results proved that he was not the required leader for the Kirchner reign over Peronism to continue. She tried to maintain her authority by creating a separate party within Peronism with her as the leader for the 2017 mid-term elections. Instead, Macri’s party continued to gain ground.
With the collapse of the Kirchner hegemony seeming inescapable, Cristina announced that Alberto Fernández would be the Peronist presidential candidate with her joining the ticket as vice president. If no one could be Peronism’s central leader to continue the Kirchnerist hegemony, then she would have to return to power and do it herself. However, the government of Alberto Fernández turned out to be catastrophic for the Peronist movement under Kirchner’s hegemony. With the highest inflation figures since 1991, the loss of control over the Senate due to infighting, and government scandals during the pandemic, the administration’s image quickly plummeted.
The Kirchner hegemony over Peronism continues to weaken. Not only is the electoral defeat of Peronism a plausible scenario, but the most popular candidate from the Kirchnerist wing of Peronism is none other than Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The Kirchner wing still does not have a successor to become an undisputable leader and align the movement. Some may argue that Peronism will shift away from Kirchnerism, but the non-Kirchner wing inside Peronism barely polls at 5 percent. Without a clear leader, the forces of the empty signifier have been unleashed. Cristina remains, for now, the only Peronist that can successfully define Peronism and win elections.
With several possible presidential candidates competing to define the Peronist movement with their own understanding and become its leader, the next form of Peronism remains impossible to predict. This is the fascinating aspect of the most important political movement in Argentine politics: its unpredictability. This uncertainty begs the question: what will Peronism mutate into this time?
Salvador Lescano is a former intern with Global Americans. He holds a bachelor’s degree in International Studies from Universidad Torcuato Di Tella and lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina.