October 27th marks a potential watershed moment in Latin American politics as Argentine voters head back to the polls for midterm elections for Argentina’s national legislative body, the National Congress (Congreso de la Nación). At stake are 127 seats in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies (Cámara de Diputados) and 24 seats in the upper house, the Senate (Senado), but more importantly the legacy of Peronism as well as the future of the Argentine economy.
A uniquely Argentine political ideology, Peronism (peronismo) emerged at the onset of the Cold War with political leader Juan Perón’s rejection of capitalism and communism in favor of a “third way.” His initial movement focused on economic development through heavy state interventionism in the domestic economy and the unionization of workers. However, years of political instability transformed Peronism into an ideological chameleon, changing its colors as new leaders co-opted the movement to apply a needed sense of continuity to their policies. For example, in the 1990s, President Carlos Menem cited Peronist principles during his institution of neoliberal economic reforms and the incorporation of the fledgling Argentine economy into a capitalist international economy.
In the aftermath of the 2001 economic collapse, the late Nestor Kirchner reinvented Peronism into its current incarnation and renewed its status as the nation’s leading political party. Under his tenure and that of his widow and successor, current President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the movement developed a populist flavor. This new direction led Argentina to default on its record $95 billion of foreign debt, nationalize major industries including energy giant YPF, and enact strict import and foreign exchange controls. Critics of the kirchnerista brand of the movement claim such policies are autarkic in nature and make Argentina, South America’s second largest economy, untrustworthy and hostile to international investors. Yet, supporters cite Fernandez’s attainment of 54% of the popular vote in her reelection as unwavering proof of the success and longevity of this iteration of Peronism.
This 54%, which carried Fernandez easily into a second presidential term with a majority in both houses of the legislature back in October of 2011, is quickly becoming an impossibility in wake of devastating defeats in last month’s primary elections. In the August vote, Fernandez’s ruling Peronist coalition, the FPV (Frente para la Victoria) garnered a mere 26% of the popular vote, its worst performance since the election of Nestor in 2003. Overall, the FPV lost in 14 of the 23 provinces of Argentina, including Santa Cruz, the home of Nestor Kirchner and the birthplace of the FPV Peronist movement.
However, the most critical loss for Ms. Fernandez’s coalition occurred in the province of Buenos Aires, which houses 37% of the country’s electorate. Here, opposition candidate, Sergio Massa won 33% of the vote, beating FPV-backed candidate, Martin Insaurralde by 5 percentage points in the primaries over a hotly contested seat in the lower house of the National Congress. Massa, who currently serves as mayor of Tigre, a city of 376,000 just outside the nation’s capital, is the former Cabinet Chief for Fernandez and has risen as the face of a coalition of Peronist dissidents called the Renewal Front (Frente Renovador).
The ex-Fernandez ally has gained support from Argentina’s powerful private business sector for his sharp criticisms of the country’s runaway inflation rate, privately estimated to be around 25% nationally. Furthermore, this focus on fighting inflation has also struck a high note with voters in the poor and lower middle classes of Buenos Aires, the historic source of the FPV’s electoral base, who finds themselves at the mercy of inflation rates as high as 36.2% despite Fernandez’s massive expansion of welfare programs. As a result, Massa’s lead in the polls over Insaurralde as of Sunday, September 29th surged to an 11 point advantage.
With Massa and the Renewal Front positioned to win a substantial amount of seats in the Argentine legislature, their victory would effectively end the FPV’s control of the National Congress and their efforts to gain a two thirds majority in order to amend the Constitution to allow Fernandez to run for a third term in office. More importantly, it would effectively mark the beginning of the demise of the decade-long rule of Kirchnerismo, signaling a new era and brand of Peronism in Argentina.
While Massa personally would only take one seat in the Chamber of Deputies, his victory would elevate his national profile and make him the likely favorite in the 2015 Presidential election. As a result, Sergio Massa is poised to forge his own brand of Peronism that many believe will see the Argentine economy shift from its high spending, populist policies in favor of reopening itself to international investors in order to ensure positive economic growth. Regardless of such rosy economic expectations, the potential birth of Massaismo represents an exciting new chapter in the evolution of the Peronist ideology.