Alberto Fernández’s victory in 2019 represents a return to populist governance – at least to a certain extent. Although it is too early to tell, deteriorating economic conditions might soon force his hand, leading to a more personal and semi-authoritarian style of leadership. Such a shift would probably result in the forgiveness of cases of abuse of power and corruption, even at the highest levels. At the moment, his future remains uncertain.
Located in the southern half of South America, Argentina, officially the Argentine Republic, is the eighth-largest country in the world by area. Populism is not a new phenomenon for Argentinians. Populism’s roots date back to the early 1940s when a political movement known as Perónism emerged under the Argentine military man, Juan Domingo Perón (1895-1974). After a coup d’état in 1943, Perón assumed the position of vice president of the established military dictatorship. For the next two years in office, he led the implementation of a nationalist economic policy that included major improvements for workers, such as social security and a minimum wage (Muno 2019, 10). These policies dramatically increased his popularity with poor and working-class voters. In 1946, he was elected president with 52% of all votes. Less than a year later, in 1947, Perón established his Justicialist Party (PJ) – Partido Justicialista – which superseded the Labour Party (LP) from which he was elected. Until Perón was overthrown in a coup d’état in September 1955, the JP maintained a majority in both chambers of Parliament. After the coup, however, all the party entities were banned by the military, and Perón himself was sent into exile.
For the next eighteen years, politics in Argentina became a vicious cycle in which Perónists maintained their popularity and won elections, while anti-Perónists revolted with coups d’état and oppression (Muno). When Perón eventually returned to power in October 1973, he immediately set out to implement social and economic policies that were akin to those of the 1940s, such as the nationalization of the country’s bank, taxation and agricultural reforms, severe restrictions on foreign investments, and support for social welfare programs (Lewis, 2014). His second term, however, ended abruptly when he died of a heart attack in July 1974. Perón was succeeded by his wife, Isabel Perón, but she was overthrown in March 1976 by a military junta headed by General Jorge Videla.
Throughout his political career, Perón employed populist rhetoric in an effort to secure popular support for his presidential goals. Appealing to the Argentine workers and peasants, whom he called the country’s “true people,” he supported the formation of unions in every industry and made social security universal. He introduced a wide-scale housing project for low-income Argentines and made education free at all levels. By 1950, workers’ share of the national income was around 50 percent (Semán, 2020). The average caloric intake of an Argentine worker was about 3000, which is about 500 calories above the recommended daily calorie intake for men (Semán, 2020). All workers were also granted a right for paid vacations and accommodations at free union hotels (Gerass 1965). Many of these reforms are still intact.
However, Perón’s heavy-handed populist style paved the way for his critics to accuse him of exploiting the working class for his political ambitions (Wolfenden, 2013). Many argued that he manipulated workers and poor voters, co-opting their rhetoric (James 1998, 2). He’s also criticized for his authoritarian tendencies, which had links to fascism, as well as his corrupt electoral practices (The Conversation, 2019).
A second populist wave came to Argentina with the Perónist return in 1989, when Carlos Menem won the presidential election with almost 50% of the vote, and the PJ managed to secure an absolute majority in the Senate. When Menem was elected, Argentina was going through one of the worst economic crises in its history. Although he campaigned on classical Perónist rhetoric, once in office, the crisis forced him to implement a set of neoliberal economic policies that included the privatization of some of the country’s largest companies. Menem also accepted the Washington Consensus, a set of ten economic reform packages for crisis-wracked states by US-led institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Although Argentinian voters elected liberal Fernando De la Rúa in place of Menem as president in December 1999, De la Rúa resigned only two years later following the December 2001 crisis, known as the Argentinazo, a period of civil unrest and rioting in the capital, Buenos Aires, and other large cities.
2003 saw the rise of Kirchnerism, a political movement based on populist ideals formed by the supporters of Néstor Kirchner (president between 2003-2007) and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (president between 2007-2015). In the run-up to the 2003 presidential election, Néstor Kirchner appealed to marginalized Argentinians by using populist rhetoric based on pledges of overarching remedies for the poor. He portrayed himself as an anti-establishment candidate and thus heavily employed an “us vs. them” rhetoric, with “us” being ordinary citizens and “them” being the military dictators, foreign powers, and international financial organizations, such as IMF, and the private sector that profited from neoliberal policies popular during the 1990s (Muno, 17). To that end, during his time in office, N. Kirchner revised Perónism by expending the focus from workers and organized labor to the collective well-being, or the well-being of all Argentines. He introduced a set of assistance programs, extended benefits to the unemployed, and dramatically increased the top marginal tax rate (Seman). He also abolished amnesty laws that were enacted to protect the perpetrators of human rights violations during the military dictatorships. These policies were often accompanied by populist, nationalist rhetoric that appealed to the poor.
Kirchner’s relations with other nations were highly defensive. He was opposed to neoliberal policies as well as the bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements favored by the United States. Instead, he was in favor of establishing a Latin American economic pool by strengthening Argentina’s relations with neighboring states. Domestically, his statist policies led to a stricter labor market and business regulations, which made private enterprise more costly due to heavy administrative requirements and bureaucracy (Finkel, 2017).
When Néstor Kirchner decided not to run for re-election in 2007, his wife, Cristina Elisabet Fernández de Kirchner announced that she would run for a second Kirchner term. Defeating a crowded field of candidates with just over 45% of the vote, she became Argentina’s second female president. It should be noted that she was elected with the votes of the suburban working class and the rural poor and did not receive significant support from the urban middle class in the large cities of Buenos Aires and Rosario (Goni, 2007).
Once in office, Cristina Kirchner continued her husband’s populist policies and rhetoric. Among her most notable populist reforms was her creation of “Fútbol para Todos,” which transferred the rights of broadcasting football games to the government, making them free for all Argentines. She also introduced the “Milanesas para todos” program, as part of which Milanesa, a dish of very thinly and sliced breaded beef, was sold at 21 pesos per kilo – but only for Argentines (Ambito, 2011). Naturally, these moves were widely cheered by large segments of the populace, and thus granted Kirchnerpopulist legitimacy (Bar-On, De Gaetano, 2018).
The latest of Argentina’s populist leaders is Alberto Ángel Fernández, who won the 2019 general election with 48% of the vote, defeating conservative president Mauricio Macri. From the moment he announced his bid for the presidency in 2019, Fernández has employed a populist discourse that appeals to different segments of society, including the working class. His speeches are often designed to deepen the people’s already-declining trust towards the political establishment. He is also consciously stepping away from Perónism, while carefully preserving his “man-of-the-people” image. His final campaign speech in October 2019 broadly revealed the expected pattern of his populism once he seized power: “If you want justice, solidarity, employment, public education, and public health, then let’s work together to build the Argentina we all deserve.” To that end, one of the first steps Fernandez took after coming to office was to unveil a judicial reform bill to restore Argentina’s “much-maligned” justice system (Buenos Aires Times, 2020). Opposition parties criticized this abrupt move as they believed that the bill was aimed at protecting Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner from facing charges for a string of corruption allegations dating back to her time as president (Buenos Aires Times b, 2020).
Fernández also announced a plan for what he calls “Argentina sin Hambre” (Argentina without hunger), which creates a Federal Council made up of universities, unions, and social organizations, while also promoting food markets and the social economy (Menendez, 2019). The plan aims to lower the price of food; generate more income for families; break the cycle of hunger/exclusion/poverty; create jobs; and improve public health, education, and local development (Menendez, 2019).
In terms of civil and political liberties, Argentina is a free country (Freedom House, 2020). Political liberties are often respected, and Argentine voters enjoy regular and competitive multiparty elections. Same-sex sexual activity has been legal since 2010 and Argentina today remains one of the most culturally liberal and LGBT-friendly countries in Latin America. The country also has the largest Muslim minority on the continent. The Islamic Organization of Latin America (IOLA) is the largest and most active Muslim organization in the country. The country faces major problems, too, including economic instability, corruption at high levels of the state bodies including the judiciary, and human rights violations by drug-related, non-state actors.
Argentina’s history is dominated by military dictatorships and populist authoritarian leaders. Fernández’s victory in 2019, without a doubt, represents a return to populist governance – at least to a certain extent. Deteriorating economic conditions might soon force his hand, leading to a more personal and semi-authoritarian style of leadership. Such a shift would probably result in the forgiveness of cases of abuse of power and corruption, even at the highest levels. At the moment, his future remains uncertain.
August 10, 2020.
— (2011). “La Presidente recomienda comprar “Milanesas para todos” a $ 21 el kilo,” Ambito, February 9, 2011. https://www.ambito.com/politica/la-presidente-recomienda-comprar-milanesas-todos-21-el-kilo-n3667685 (accessed on August 9, 2020).
— (2019). “Argentina elections: is frontrunner Alberto Fernández a populist?” Conversation, October 24, 2019.https://theconversation.com/argentina-elections-is-frontrunner-alberto-fernandez-a-populist-125629 (accessed on August 9, 2020).
— (2020). “Fernández’s judicial reform bill enters Senate amid opposition outcry,” Buenos Aires Times (a), August 1, 2020. https://www.batimes.com.ar/news/argentina/fernandezs-judicial-reform-bill-enters-senate-amid-opposition-outcry.phtml
— (2020). “Fernández to unveil judicial reform bill as opposition cries foul,” Buenos Aires Times (b), July 28, 2020. https://www.batimes.com.ar/news/argentina/fernandez-to-unveil-judicial-reform-bill-as-opposition-cries-foul.phtml(accessed on August 9, 2020).
— (2020). Freedom House. “Freedom in the World 2020 Narrative Report for Argentina,” https://freedomhouse.org/country/argentina/freedom-world/2020 (accessed on August 9, 2020).
Bar-On, Tamir, Andrés M. De Gaetano. (2017). “Fútbol para Todos (Soccer for All): Democratization, Populist Legitimization or Quasi-Authoritarianism?” The International Journal of the History of Sport, 34:11, 1061-1087.
Finkel, Matt. (2017). “Navigating the Leftist Spectrum in Argentina: An Economic Classification of the Kirchner Era,” Inquiries Journal 9/1, 2017. http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/1517/navigating-the-leftist-spectrum-in-argentina-an-economic-classification-of-the-kirchner-era (accessed on August 9, 2020).
Gerassi, John. (1965). “Great Fear in Latin America,” MacMillan Publishing Company; Reprint. New edition (March 1965). http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/state_and_revolution/Juan_Peron.htm (accessed on August 9, 2020).
Goni, Uki. (2007). “A Mixed Message in Argentina’s Vote,” TIME World, October 29, 2007. https://www.webcitation.org/6DsDOEp17?url=http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1677374,00.html(accessed on August 9, 2020).
James, Daniel. (1988). “Resistance and Integration: Peronism and the Argentine Working Class, 1946-1976,” Cambridge University Press (1988).
Lewis, Daniel K. (2014). “The History of Argentina,” 2nd Edition (Greenwood; November 25, 2014).
Menendez, Daniel. (2019). “Por una Argentina sin hambre,” Infobae, October 9, 2019. https://www.infobae.com/opinion/2019/10/09/por-una-argentina-sin-hambre/(accessed on August 9, 2020).
Muno, Wolfgang. (2009). “Populism in Argentina” in Populism Around the World: A Comparative Perspective ed. Daniel Stockemer (Springer 2009): 9-26.
Semán, Ernesto. (2020). “Argentina: A Tentative Case for Democratic Populism,” Nacla, January 30, 2020. https://nacla.org/news/2020/01/29/argentina-democratic-populism-peronism (accessed on August 9, 2020).
Wolfenden, Katherine J. (2013). “Perón and the People: Democracy and Authoritarianism in Juan Perón’s Argentina,” Inquiries Journal 5/2, 2013. http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/728/2/peron-and-the-people-democracy-and-authoritarianism-in-juan-perons-argentina