The New Politics of Argentina

Against the Current, No. 96, January/February 2002

Francisco Sobrino

IN A PREVIOUS article (“Elections in the Southern Cone,” ATC 85, March-April 1999) we analyzed the Argentinian elections that took place at the end of 1999. The triumphant Alliance — a coalition of the center-right Union Civica Radical and Frepaso, an amalgam of dissident Peronistas, social democrats and elements of the center left — received 50% of the vote, the Justicialista (Peronist) party 34% and the neoliberal Domingo Cavallo, the former Economics minister in the Menem administration, 10% of the vote.

These results suggested the general acceptance of the neoliberal model implemented by former Peronista President Menem in the last decade of the twentieth century. This model, imposed after two brutal hyperinflationary blows that took place in Argentina in 1989 and 1990, has been applied in most of the dependent countries provoking, in the case of Argentina, a dramatic growth in the rates of poverty and unemployment (over 20% at present).

The extraordinary (for Argentina’s standards) long period of monetary stability which has lasted until the present day* was, among other factors, the reason why an important sector of the population resigned itself to the application of the neoliberal model.

To be sure, this policy provoked a growing opposition involving strikes and the blocking of streets and highways, along with the hardening of repression. However, this awakening of social and political struggles was not reflected in the 1999 electoral results.

As we pointed out then, the left, dispersed over half a dozen electoral slates, only managed to obtain a meager 3% of the vote. We attributed this meager outcome to various causes: the effect of TINA (“There is No Alternative”), common among the working classes of most of the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites, and the serious defeats suffered by the working class in the international scene since the eighties.

Dramatic Changes

Only two years have elapsed since then. The parliamentary elections of October 14, 2001 registered dramatic changes that need to be underlined. In the first place, the ruling Alianza lost five million votes, or more than 60% of the votes it received in 1999.

Everybody agrees that this reflected an overwhelming condemnation of the government and its policies. Popular repudiation was so great that even the candidates of the Alianza made an effort to distance themselves from the government and criticized its rightist policies.

Peronism, portrayed by the media as “the big winner,” did better than the ruling Alianza, but lost more than 1.2 million votes compared to its performance in the 1999 elections and didn’t even reach 33% of the total votes cast.

Cavallo’s neoliberal party (the discredited creator of the Menemista economic stability who, through the curious twists and turns of Argentinian politics, became the new minister of Economics in the present government) suffered the fate of everything that is solid and dissolves into air, losing almost 90% of its previous voters.

It is also worth noting the collapse of “progressivism,” that is, the center-left. Having taken office in 1999 (the leader of Frepaso, Chacho Alvarez, was anointed Vice President) with the illusion of reforming the traditional corrupt practices, they ended up being swept along by the neoliberal policies and endured a continual political erosion interrupted by occasional eruptions of resistance within their own ranks.

Two new progressive currents drew some strength from the remaining electoral fragments. These were the “Alliance for a Republic of Equals,” the intentions of which, notwithstanding its association with the name of Babeuf, didn’t go beyond the struggle against corruption and the humanization of capital; and the “Social Pole,” led by the priest Farinello, with a supposedly “national and popular” discourse in favor of the poor.

These new outbreaks of progressivism, however, did not attain the expected results, and their very unimpressive growth demonstrated that, in present day Argentina, the discourse about the domestication of capital was not very credible.

The “anger vote” was the great electoral protagonist (1.6 million blank plus 2.2 million “voided” ballots accounting for 30% of the total votes cast), along with more than six million abstentions (in spite of the vote being obligatory), equivalent to more than 30% of the registered voters. In this manner the traditional mechanisms of the “punishment” and “lesser evil” votes were discarded.

What Does It Mean?

We cannot boast with superficial optimism that this massive protest represented a homogeneous message of a break with, and rejection of, the principal majoritarian bourgeois parties. Nevertheless, we would be guilty of one-sidedness if we saw in this vote only another sign of the political confusion of the masses waiting for the appearance of the revolutionary party to finally point the way towards liberation.

We must make an effort to interpret these results in light of the social and economic situation of a practically bankrupt country, after four years of recession and waves of layoffs and reductions in salaries and pensions.

At the same time, resistance is taking on new strength. The calls for general strikes have been massively followed (even though the union bureaucracy has isolated them so they lose effectiveness).

A new social actor has also emerged. The unemployed and “picketers” — who have set up barricades and have obstructed streets and highways thereby wresting concessions from the authorities — have made themselves felt by their increasing importance.

Also, we must note the emergence of a collective climate, which has been reflected in public opinion surveys, rejecting U.S. imperialism. A large majority of the population has rejected the militarist crusade of the United States, and the subordination of the Argentinian government to it.

Modest Growth of the Left

Finally, the other important factor that we must analyze has been the electoral progress of the left, which must be considered in its articulation with the “anger vote.”

In the first place, the massive desertion of voters from the traditional parties has contributed to the left getting a relatively higher percentage of the vote. Undoubtedly, the same dynamic of repudiation of the regime’s electoralist ritual has led a small but significant section of the people to “vote for the left.”

Indeed, at the national level, the left candidates obtained 1,450,000 votes. The most notable result was that of “Self-Determination and Liberty,” a small group founded by Luis Zamora (former deputy of the MAS — Movement Towards Socialism — at the beginning of the nineties), which after practically no campaigning and only running in the capital, obtained 100,000 votes.

The scarce resources of “Self-Determination and Liberty” were combined with the political weight possessed by Zamora, the only deputy who publicly repudiated President Bush (father), in the middle of a tribute to the latter in the national parliament.

Zamora pushed forward the policies of the MAS in the eighties, refused the privileged pension that all parliamentarians receive at the end of their terms, and then supported himself as a bookseller. After the crisis of the MAS, Zamora retired and began to engage in a process of self-critical reflection about the sectarianism and bureaucratism of left organizations.

Toward A New Left?

In his campaign themes and slogans, Zamora put forward a strong criticism of the political and representative mechanisms of the bourgeois regime, insisting on the need for popular self-determination and for the creation of a new “horizontal” political entity that would put an end to the dogmatism and sectarianism of the extreme left organizations.

The significance of the “Zamora phenomenon” has been questioned by certain leaders of the extreme left as “apolitical,” “classless” and “confused.” While it is true that part of Zamora’s supporters voted for him only because of his honesty, it is necessary to reflect on this issue. What does it mean to those voters that they had to go to the extreme left to find a truly honest candidate?

In his public pronouncements, Zamora echoed the views of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, as well as the thoughts of intellectuals such as John Holloway, who express a welcome interest in searching for and advancing through new roads towards the revolution.

It is evident that an important sector of the left voters voted for “Self-Determination and Liberty” because they agreed that there is a need for a change in the politics and methodology of the organizations that proclaim themselves to be socialist and revolutionary. But this brand new grouping, with an ill-defined profile, could easily lead to political inconsistency, or end up in new sectarian forms, albeit still covering itself with claims of horizontality.

Time and struggle will have the last word. In light of these considerations, this incipient but significant advance of the left presents important challenges to our organizations.

For the first time in its history, the new national parliament will have several left deputies. Moreover, the left has appeared in the national political panorama of the country with a potential capacity to form, in articulation with the social movement of protests and struggles, a massive social-political force.

This possibility, in the almost catastrophic framework in which the country finds itself, can be a great opportunity for the revolutionary movement, provided that the left becomes conscious of these developments and acts accordingly.

from ATC 96 (January/February 2002)