Elections in the Southern Cone

Francisco T. Sobrino

DURING THE LAST three months of 1999, presidential elections took place in the three southernmost countries of the Latin American continent. [See the accompanying box on the results of the Chilean election runoff, which occurred after this article was written—ed.]

In Argentina, the Alianza, a coalition of the Union Civica Radical (a traditional party of the center right) and Frepaso (an amalgam of Peronistas opposed to President Menem, social democratic and center-left elements), triumphed over the ruling Justicialista [Peronista] party, bringing to an end ten years of Menem’s rule.

In Uruguay, the first electoral round witnessed the candidate of the Encuentro Progresista-Frente Amplio (composed of socialists, communists, former Tupamaro guerrillas, left-wing groups and small splits from the traditional parties) obtain a plurality of the votes. But in the absence of a majority, there was a second electoral round in which the traditional Colorado Party, supported by the Blancos (the other main traditional party) defeated the EP-FA alliance.

In Chile, the candidate of the right-wing alliance almost tied with that of the Concertación (formed by the Socialist Party, Christian Democracy and other small groups) which has been in the government for the last ten years. There will be a second round in January.

These results show a common tendency: By applying very generous criteria of political classification one could say that “the right” has grown at the expense of “the left,” thus reflecting a certain displacement of the electoral mass to the right. But the neoliberal “model” predominating in the three countries is shared by winners and losers alike.

Therefore, nobody speculates (as could be the case in Venezuela) about a possible halt to the neoliberal economic policies implemented throughout the subcontinent since the beginning of the nineties. Nevertheless, one can derive additional conclusions from the analysis of each case.

Chile Under the Concertación

The government has been run by the Concertación since 1990, with Presidents Aylwin and then Frei. Ignoring their electoral promises, both assumed a policy of economic adjustments and gave away the economy to foreign capital, culminating with the insertion of Chile (as a subordinate country) in the capitalist globalization, a process which had already begun under the Pinochet dictatorship.

This is a clear example of the “democratic transitions” which followed the Latin American dictatorships throughout the decade of the eighties. While these new governments signified progress in relation to the totalitarian regimes, they maintained to a considerable degree the juridical and institutional structures inherited from the dictatorships.

They continued and even expanded economic policies favorable to the big corporations. Thus, for example, the distribution of national income became even more unequal under the two Concertación administrations in Chile. In March of 1998, a report about human development in Chile, prepared by the United Nations Program for Development, showed that the population suffered great insecurity with respect to issues like jobs, health, education and protection from crime.

This report was prepared before the grave economic recession, which by the end of 1999 registered more than one million unemployed (10% of the labor force). Ricardo Lagos, the government’s candidate, was a minister in both administrations, and his promises to end economic misery in Chile don’t look very credible to a population overwhelmed by this recession.

The journal Punto Final was correct when it affirmed in 1999 that “things are clear. If Ricardo Lagos wins the elections, business will win. And if Joaquín Lavín (the candidate of the right-wing coalition) wins, business will also win. In either case, the application of the neoliberal model will not be set back and the process of privatization will be accelerated.

“The political and social hegemony of the Chilean process is not in dispute in this election. Whoever the winning candidate will be, the interests of the ruling classes will be safeguarded.”

This belief is also shared by large sectors of the working class. In surveys published by the press, there were many statements such as “I have complete distrust of all the candidates,” or “I am not convinced by any candidate, one doesn’t see the project for the country that we workers have been expecting,” or “no matter how one votes, there will not be any changes. They can talk a lot about the right to education and health, but anyone can see that these rights have been diminishing throughout these years.”

It is thus possible to conclude that the electoral progress of the right-wing coalition is not due to an ideological displacement, but rather to a disenchantment with the “center left” governments, and to the lack of alternatives.

The Communist Party, which traditionally was one of the most powerful in the continent, has also suffered the consequences of the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, it retained enough strength to obtain 3.2% of the votes. Although it has not taken a position as of the time of this writing, it is assumed that the CP will support a vote for the Concertación in the second electoral round in January.

“In the Uruguayan Way”

On October 31 there was an explosion of jubilation and euphoria among the Uruguayan people when Tabaré Vázquez, the candidate of the Encuentro Progresista-Frente Amplio, obtained the most votes with 39% of the turnout.

In the capital of Montevideo alone (where one and half million people, more than half of the population of this small country, is concentrated), these events brought together more than 300,000 people.

For the first time in 169 years, a country which had been ruled by the two big traditional parties, the Partido Colorado and the Partido Nacional (Blanco) and by military governments, had now the possibility that its left coalition born in 1971 would win the second round of the national elections.

This two round system was a result of the new electoral mechanism of “ballottage,” established by the constitutional reform of 1996. The traditional parties pushed this reform because in 1994 the electorate was divided into thirds, and in this manner they were trying to prevent a future victory of the Frente Amplio if the latter managed to obtain an electoral plurality.

In the October 1999 elections, the Frente Amplio, which already ran the municipal government in Montevideo since 1989, grew enormously in the interior of the country.

Undoubtedly, this growth was influenced by the situation facing the people of the interior, where not only were jobs lost because of the closing of the few existing factories, but also because agriculture, closely tied to trade with Brazil, had suffered a serious breakdown due to the economic crisis affecting the giant neighbor. This provoked the mobilization of rural producers toward Montevideo in mid-1999.

There were no significant differences in the party programs. The Frente Amplio proposed a “change in peace,” moderation and humanization of capitalism, a better administration of the neoliberal model, and payment of the foreign debt, thereby emphatically negating the socialist program. The principal candidate stated that his program “did not even have socialist nostalgia,” and that he was in favor of privatizing the remaining state-owned enterprises “under certain conditions.”

The U.S. Ambassador returned the favor and in an unusual gesture, gave his OK to the possible triumph of Tabaré Vázquez. The Ambassador publicly declared that he found in the program of the Frente Amplio “nothing against the democratic philosophy nor against the interests of the USA.”

There is no doubt that the people voted for a change, and to get rid of the traditional parties and their corruption. For that purpose, the Frente Amplio appeared as a left “in the Uruguayan way,” and its local government record in Montevideo acted as a counterweight to the propaganda of the traditional parties attempting to create fear of “the communist and Tupamaran left.”

The social situation in Uruguay is grave. According to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA), one out of four Uruguayan live below the poverty line. In comparison with Latin America as a whole, where two out of every three people are considered to be poor, Uruguay may appear to be in an optimal situation, but the fact remains that misery will be aggravated by the accelerated rhythm of the reform of the state and the massive closure of factories in the last four years.

In the end, the winner of the second electoral round was the Colorado candidate, Jorge Battle, who obtained 51% of the votes thanks to the support of the Blancos. Although this was the outcome favored by the high Uruguayan bourgeoisie, there are doubts about the government’s future because the new administration will have to face the growing discontent of the masses, with two greatly weakened traditional parties.

In fact, we will witness a new “bipartisanship,” because the triumphant coalition will have to “cohabitate” in power with the Frente Amplio, which continues to rule Montevideo and the principal cities, and which also occupies an important number of positions in the state and parliament. Tabaré Vázquez has already shown his willingness to collaborate, stating that “we must work together to push the country forward.”

Argentina After Menem

On October 24, the candidate of the Alianza, Fernando de la Rua, obtained more than 50% of the vote, defeating the candidate of the ruling Justicialista Party. Domingo Cavallo, former economics minister in the Menem administration and a strong neoliberal, came in third with 10% of the vote.

With this election, the bourgeois democratic regime has lasted seventeen uninterrupted years. This is by far the longest period of democratic stability in almost two hundred years of Argentinian history.

There were practically no programmatic differences among the contending candidates. The Alianza has attempted to convince the inspectors of the International Monetary Fund that it will continue to apply the IMF’s economic recipes, but in a more careful manner than the corrupt Menem administration.

On the basis of the votes received by the three principal contenders (over 94%), one could conclude that there is a generalized acceptance of the social and economic policies that Menem implemented in the last ten years. However, the experience of two hyperinflationary episodes, suffered at the end of the eighties and beginning of the nineties, were a very hard blow for those who lived from salaries, small rental incomes, or those with dollar debts.

The unjust economic policies applied since then, with privatization and an extraordinary concentration of wealth in a few business groups, have been accompanied by a monetary stability without precedent in the Argentina of the last fifty years. This stability provided the population, which remembers the inflationary epoch with terror, with a certain degree of tranquility.

Because of this, there was a certain popular passivity that allowed Menem to rule without major setbacks, and to favor the big economic interests, domestic and foreign, and to let them acquire the big state enterprises, often at ridiculous and corrupt prices.

The opposition to these policies began to grow, however, especially in the cities and towns in the interior of the country which have been particularly punished by unemployment (18%), low wages, and the delay in the payment of salaries to government employees.

Strikes and blockades of highways and bridges are becoming frequent events, and in the first week of his administration, De La Rua marked his debut by violently repressing the workers and people of the city of Corrientes, with several people dead and dozens injured.

Weakness of the Left

The other side of the electoral outcome was the poor performance by the six left candidates, who altogether obtained a mere 3% of the vote.

It is worth noting the high level of struggle and great deal of combativity shown in various social explosions, and the development of highly democratic assembly-type organizations. These could not be controlled by the union bureaucracy, but were short lived, lasting only for as long as the conflict that brought them about.

One could have hoped that these struggles would have been reflected in the political sphere in their adherence to left movements, even if only in the electoral arena. But this has not occurred. The electoral climate has been one of apathy, if not of repudiation of all candidates, regardless of their political coloration.

The lack of hope about the elections producing some solution to the grave economic and social problems affecting the poorest sectors of the population suggested a possible growth in the rate of abstention (voting is obligatory, although in practice people who don’t vote are not punished) and of blank ballots.

Nevertheless, the turnout (80%) was similar to that of other elections, and the blank ballots advocated by some organizations was lower than in previous elections, barely reaching 3%.

It is evident that the masses don’t see an alternative to capitalism and opt either for the “punishment vote” (voting for the opposition candidate most likely to defeat the government), or for directly supporting the government, without much hope, but fearing the return of inflation.

This TINA [There Is No Alternative] effect, as it is called in Europe and the USA, is a common element among the working-class masses in the three Southern Cone countries, and of course in the whole world, and is due to deep changes that have occurred in the last decades.

These changes are not limited to the collapse of the USSR and its satellites. The “really existing socialism” symbolically represented socialism in the eyes of the workers of the world, and it remains a task for libertarian and revolutionary socialists to demonstrate that those countries represented the opposite of what socialism stands for.

The working class has also suffered serious defeats in the international scene (Great Britain, the Central American revolution, etc.). The pressures transmitted by international financial flows, capital and commodities have generated drastic increases in the rate of exploitation of labor.

Except for some developments still in their initial stages, neither the workers’ organizations nor the left in general have been able to create an international socialist movement which can offer a realistic and convincing alternative to the existing order.

In the case of Argentina, these new problems do not seem to exist for the majority of the left organizations: For them, it is just a matter of “more of the same.”

Just as fifteen or twenty years ago, it is said that there is a retardation in mass consciousness, and that all we need is a revolutionary party that, based on the scientific truths of Marxism-Leninism, takes root in the masses, educates them, and leads them in their struggles until these culminate in the revolution and seizure of state power.

Today, it is evident that it is not that simple: Paraphrasing a well-known thesis, “the educator must himself be educated.”

ATC 85, March-April 2000