The two main opposition figures in Argentina are united by a common goal: to put an end to Kirchnerism. The differences between the far-right Javier Milei and the conservative Patricia Bullrich disappear when it comes to beating the political movement that has dominated Argentina’s political life for the past two decades, but which is in a moment of unprecedented weakness. In the first kilometers of the 2023 electoral marathon, the ruling party lost control of provinces that were historical bastions; in the middle of the race, the primaries on August 13, he crashed: he came third, with 27% of the votes, behind Milei’s La Libertad Avanza, and Bullrich’s Juntos por el Cambio alliance.
If the result of the primaries in the general elections on October 22 is repeated, the pro-government candidate and current Minister of Economy, Sergio Massa, would be left out of a second round and Kirchnerism would become the opposition. Defeat would be a much harder blow than the one inflicted at the polls by conservative Mauricio Macri in 2015, when he succeeded Cristina Kirchner to power.
Macri welcomed a country with a stagnant economy, but in 2015 the memory of 12 years of Kirchnerist Peronism was still positive for many sectors. From the opposition, they could exhibit the recovery of the indicators after the economic and social crisis of 2001. The reality now is quite different. With inflation exceeding 113% year-on-year, 40% poor, fiscal and trade deficits, and Central Bank reserves in the red, his opposition role would be much more complex, government sources acknowledge. If eight years ago Kirchnerism left the fridge full, today it leaves it empty.
exit to the left
Kirchnerism was born as a response to the corralito crisis of 2001-2002. It was an exit from the left to the collapse of the neoliberal model of Carlos Menem (1989-1999). President Fernando de la Rúa fled by helicopter on the eve of the 2001 Christmas holidays, with 39 dead on the streets as a result of police repression, record poverty rates and the savings of Argentines trapped in banks. Argentina had five presidents in little more than a week, until the Peronist Eduardo Duhalde took the reins. He devalued the currency, adjusted the economy, and distributed money among the hardest hit.
In the 2003 elections, Duhalde turned to the unknown governor of the remote Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, Néstor Kirchner, to defeat Menem. He was second behind the former president, with 22% of the votes, but he did not have to compete in the second round because Menem resigned, convinced in advance of his defeat.
Kirchner took office on May 25 and in a short time distanced himself from Duhalde and built his own power that led the fragmented Peronism to line up behind him. The international increase in food prices and a devalued and competitive currency allowed the Argentine economy to grow by more than 8% between 2005 and 2007. With the promotion of trials for crimes against humanity, Kirchner also became the benchmark for human rights organizations. Many young people educated in the neoliberalism of the nineties saw in the progressive version of Peronism a reason to enter politics.
With the regional tailwind, Kirchner delivered state aid to the most disadvantaged —poverty went from 50% to 30%—, boosted domestic consumption and hoisted another banner, that of debt reduction. In January 2006, the Government canceled in advance almost 10,000 million debt with the International Monetary Fund. After four years in office, Néstor Kirchner chose his wife as his successor. Cristina Kirchner completed two consecutive terms. In those years, the laws of equal marriage and gender identity were approved, which put Argentina at the forefront of the rights of sexual minorities.
In 2015, after twelve years in power, the wearing down of Kirchnerism was evident. The 2009 rural crisis — caused by a tax increase that had to be withdrawn — turned the economic engine of the South American country against it. It weathered the blow, but the economic slowdown has since accelerated, as has inflation, and the downward curve of poverty has been reversed, despite the statistical blackout to hide it. Massa knew how to read the weakness of Kirchnerism in those years and attacked it: he took the field in the 2013 legislative elections and won as an opponent. In 2015, however, his ambition to reach the presidency outside the Peronist apparatus ended in resounding failure.
Macri was the winner of those elections and with his arrival at the Casa Rosada in 2015, Kirchnerism was presumed dead. Cristina Kirchner did not even manage to retain her great stronghold, the province of Buenos Aires, the largest electoral district in the country. The macrista María Eugenia Vidal was elected governor of Buenos Aires. But Kirchnerism reinvented itself during Macri’s term and in 2019, with the country plunged into an economic crisis and again in debt to the International Monetary Fund, it returned to the presidency with a formula headed by Alberto Fernández and with Kirchner as vice president.
The internal alliance was soon broken and the pair ruled against each other. Massa took advantage of the fights to seize power from within, as a super minister of the Economy. A year later, the support of the governors allowed him to prevail as a candidate for the unity of Peronism, despite later allowing an unequal competition with the social reference Juan Grabois in the internal party.
The disappointment of Argentines with the Government is enormous. Between the 2019 primaries and those of 2023, Kirchner’s Peronism lost almost half of the votes: it went from 12.2 million to 6.4 million. He won only in five provinces, although among them is the most coveted piece, that of Buenos Aires. Kirchnerism is committed to withdrawing there in case of defeat and the opposition seeks the opposite, to snatch that possible refuge. It will be the great battlefield for October 22.
“Neither back nor to the right. Right to the future”, read the electoral posters for the re-election of the Kirchnerist Axel Kicillof as governor of Buenos Aires. There is not a trace of the pro-government Union for the Fatherland alliance in the propaganda, in an attempt to get rid of Massa’s luck in the presidential race.
Kirchner’s departure in the final stretch of Massa’s campaign and his silence since the electoral defeat in the primaries worry some bases that are still baffled —and angry— by the transfer of votes in the poor neighborhoods from Kirchnerism to utlra Milei. If 20 years ago the exit was on the left, today the country looks for the door on the right.
From Unión por la Patria they assure that the vice president is committed to the electoral campaign and they deny that the end of Kirchnerism is near. “It is the same as always: if it is there a lot it is because it is there a lot and if it is not there it is because it is not there. It is difficult to find a middle ground,” says a source from the Peronist coalition. The polls will have the last word.
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