A Victory for the Big Center

“To my left, the wall,” Argentina’s President Cristina Fenández de Kichner (CFK) had expressed some months ago. Many of her detractors agreed with her on this opinion, while some others doubted where exactly to place the wall -and how far. The label of “Populist” might be subject to controversy as well, but everyone will at least agree on one single definition: her political strain could be everything but centrist.

Notwithstanding “Peronism vs anti Peronism,” “Populism vs Rule of Law,” “Left vs Right,” “Kirchnerism vs anti Kirchnerism” were some of the terms articulated along the presidential campaign whose run off has just had been won by Mauricio Macri, from the challenging front “Cambiemos” (Let’s Change), the decisive point of discussion of the past election was “Big Center vs Hegemony.”

The Big Center could be defined as the coalition of the Center-Left and the Center-Right in order to preserve a political system which allows the competition between both wings from the menace of a radical hegemonic force. That is why it would be a mistake to characterize the winning coalition as a Center-Right or a non-Populist political party. “Cambiemos” (Let´s Chance) has won the election with the support of both Centre-Right and Centre-Left voters and both Populist and non-Populist strains. Its political platform contains an orthodox monetary policy as well as the continuity of the policies on helping to alleviate poverty. Mauricio Macri won in the main cities with European ancestry population, such as Buenos Aires, Córdoba, Rosario, Mendoza, and also won in the Province of Jujuy, where he finished his campaign with a ancient ritual salutation to the Pachamama, one of the most important pre-Columbian deities.

By the width of “Cambiemos” coalition one could imagine how much was at stake. Which will be the final turn of the new government is something that generates no concern among its supporters. It is clear that it will remain circumscribed to the “Big Center.” Perhaps the definition will depend upon the ability of the Peronist Party -from now on in the opposition- to reassess its political strain: to turn into a Center-Right party, or into a Center-Left one or to insist on becoming a radical force. Given that “Cambiemos” has been delimiting its political discourse as a mirror of the “Kirchnerism,” we can expect the former to place itself in the political spectrum in reaction to its opposition. Nevertheless, all of us are convinced that Argentina’s political language will return to the categories of the Modern democracies.

Assessing Elections in Poland and Argentina in the Context of Populism and Liberalism in Europe and South America II (liberalism in the classical sense of course).

The Argentine election was for the state president, who is head of government as well as head of state. An expected first round victory for the Peronist party (formally known as the Justicialist Party) candidate Daniel Scoli disappeared as he failed to clear 45%. He is clearly ahead of Mauricio Macri, Mayor of Buenos Aires, running on behalf of a three party centre-right alliance which contains the less statist, and populist elements of Argentine politics, but at least the hope exists of a second round triumph over the Peronists.

The third candidate is also a Peronist, showing the difficulty of overcoming that legacy and why even just turning the Presidential election into a competition between a Peronist and a non-Peronist is a victory of some kind. The sitting President Christine Kirchner pushed at the limits of the Argentine constitution, which prohibits more than two terms for any President, by alternating in power with her late husband Nestór Kirchner. If he had not died in 2010, we might now be looking forward to a fourth consecutive term in power for team Kirchner.

Peronists or the army have run Argentina almost constantly since the 1940s. The periods of army rule give a good indication of how successful Juan Perón and his widow Isabel (the third wife) were in stabilising Argentine society and political institutions. Nevertheless the Peronists have been the only party with a record of electoral success in Argentina and have improved from the chaos that Juan and Isabel instigated in more recent appearances in government.

As such a dominant party they have relatively centrist technocratic elements (most notably ex-president Carlos Menem) as well as the hard core statist populist nationalists. The Kirchner years have tended increasingly towards the more populist end, stoking nationalist sentiment over the islands in the south Atlantic known in Argentina as the Malvinas and in the UK, which has sovereignty over the islands, as the Falklands.

There has been economic growth under the Kirchners, but it has now very much slowed as policy has tended towards high inflation, currency controls, confrontation on debt owed to foreign creditors and increasing budget deficits. There has been social liberalism, most obviously, on attitudes to the LGBT communities, but in a context of nationalist sovereigntist politics. At least we can hope that if Scoli wins, he will feel obliged to shift towards genuine economic sustainability and a less populist politics.

In general, this adds to a feeling that South America has passed the peak of leftist populism which has influenced most countries outside Colombia in the last two decades. The more respectable end of that spectrum in Brazil’s Workers’ Party, which had been fairly successful economically, appears to be declining under the weight of corruption scandals, economic recession and incapacity in delivering on the more populist side. On the less respectable side, Venezuela has lost its status as model for the world’s radical left as corruption, economic decay, state brutality, election rigging and persecution of the opposition has become too extreme to ignore, particularly since the state socialist hegemony no longer has Hugo Chavez as a charismatic frontman.

Brazil and Venezuela were the models of the left, reformist and revolutionary respectively, and no longer have that status. If there is a model now it is the Evo Morales Presidency in Bolivia, which in some respects is radical left, but not consistently enough to get the kind of model status previously accorded to ‘Lula’ (now caught up in corruption scandals as his successor Dilma Rousseff) in Brazil and Chavez in Venezuela (whose successor Nicolás Maduro is a blatant and charmless neo-Stalinist thug-apparatchik). The Morales regime has received some cautious support from those inclined towards liberty on the grounds that he has pursued an overdue reduction of the power of traditional rent seeking elites in Bolivia and engaged in an economic pragmatism certainly distasteful to former Chavez admirers, and not even entirely comfortable for former admirers of Lula.

The leftist populist tide in south America has not entirely receded, but is now discussed with increasing nostalgia and an increasingly elegiac tone by left socialist observers, and as it has receded has tended to leave only embarrassments for the socialist left or reformist pragmatist examples of at least some interest to the liberty community. We are not looking at a strong shift towards liberty in all its forms in that region, but at least we see some shifts opening the possibilities of new movements towards liberty in markets, rule of law, individual rights, and social openness.

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