Argentinean elections leave Fernández with further headache

Argentina’s President will have a lot on her hands when she returns to duty next month, after her party takes hit in legislative elections that see opposition flex its muscles.

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Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, President of Argentina, pictured recently. Photo courtesy of Infolatam

Sunday 27 October saw mid-term legislative elections in Argentina, in which half of the Lower Chamber seats and a third of those in the Senate were up for renewal. While such elections take place every two years, this year’s contest has acquired a considerable significance and has been closely followed, both from within Argentina and across the rest of the region, as it has come to be seen as a litmus-test of President Cristina de Fernández Kirchner’s popularity and the opening of a new phase in Argentinean politics as the twelve years of Kirchnerista government come to a close (Fernández’s husband, Néstor Kirchner, was President between 2003 and 2007, and was touted to return to the presidency in 2011 before he died of a heart attack the year before).

General and presidential elections are scheduled to take place in October 2015, and Cristina, as she often is simply referred to, is constitutionally barred from seeking re-election as she will have already served two terms (from 2007). She was re-elected in 2011 with a commanding 54% of the vote, miles ahead of her nearest rival, Hermes Binner of the Socialist Party, with less than 17% of the vote. However, her popularity has plunged over the last year or so as urban middle class sectors in particular have come to express their frustration at rising inflation, unemployment, and the odd streak of authoritarianism and attacks on press freedom.

After primaries held in August showed the extent of this loss of support, and the rise of new political actors such as Sergio Massa, a former head of Cristina’s cabinet before he left her government and party, observers began to predict a humbling defeat for the President’s Frente por la Victoria (FpV – Front for Victory) party, in particular in the more populated urban areas where the growing middle class dissent was most acute.

Things took a further turn for the worse in the run-up to the election, after the President was forced to undergo an operation at the start of October to remove blood that had collected on top of her brain after she bumped her head in an accident in August. She was prescribed a month’s rest – thus covering the rest of the pre-election campaigning and the vote itself – and was even instructed by her doctor to avoid contact with political advisors or following the news too closely, leaving her unpopular vice-president Amado Boudou temporarily at the reigns of the national government. As we shall see now, the absence of Cristina’s charismatic leadership may well have had a negative impact on her party’s electoral chances.

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, with her late husband Néstor Kirchner

In the event, nationally the FpV obtained some 33% of the votes in elections to the Lower Chamber, ahead of the bloc of dissident Peronists[i] , which includes Massa’s Frente Renovador (FR – Renewal Front), and the coalition led by the social democratic Unión Cívica Radical (UCR – Radical Civic Union) and Partido Socialista (PS – Socialist Party), who each obtained roughly 24% of the votes. National figures for the Senate votes are not really available, as seats were only up for renewal in a few of the country’s provinces, many of which were FpV strongholds anyway.

However, in many of the most important electoral districts, such as Buenos Aires city, Buenos Aires province, and Córdoba, the FpV and its electoral allies were defeated by a considerable margin, particularly in relation to their 2011 returns. The stand-out performance came from Buenos Aires province, with Massa heading a FR list that obtained nearly 44% of the vote, well ahead of the 32% won by the FpV. Massa is now being seen as a potential future president, and has certainly emerged as a leader of the opposition to Cristina’s government, an opposition that has tended to remain fractured and disorganised for much of the ten years of kirchnerista rule.

Members of the Frente por la Victoria party after the 27 October election, but without their leader, President Fernández. Photo courtesy of Infolatam

To the casual observer, the highly negative headlines surrounding the FpV’s performance last weekend might come as a bit of a surprise. After all, ten years into its rule it is still comfortably the largest party, albeit by not such a vast margin as before, and it managed to retain its majority in both the Lower Chamber and the Senate, actually slightly increasing its representation in the Lower Chamber. Cristina’s approval ratings are currently around 40-45%, lower than in previous years but by no means rock-bottom, she maintains a very solid base of supporters, and should be able to continue governing relatively unhindered over the next two years thanks to the FpV’s standing in both legislative chambers.

However, the FpV’s “success” in holding onto majorities in both chambers can be explained partly by the fact that the seats up for renewal were, after a four-year term, those that had been up for election in 2009, when the FpV also did badly, in the midst of low approval ratings for Cristina’s government after a heated dispute with the country’s agricultural sector among other issues. Back then, the party obtained just 27% of the vote, ahead of its nearest rivals on 18%. That the party has not lost out on its overall number of deputies and senators this time around does not hide the fact that it has lost a considerable amount of support in just two years: from 54% to 33%.

Furthermore, while they still just about hold a workable majority in both chambers with the help of allied small parties, the election results have put paid to some kirchnerista supporters and officials’ dreams of obtaining the two-thirds majority needed to change the country’s constitution, thus paving the way for Cristina to stand for election again in 2015. The chances of this happening are now virtually zero, meaning that Argentineans will be choosing a new President in two years’ time. What this election has also done, in this sense, is set up this future contest, one in which it seems that the anti-kirchnerista Massa has very much marked out his territory and staked his claim. With some of the FpV’s biggest losses coming in heavily-populated and important urban areas, and at the expense of some of the party’s biggest players and would-be successors to Cristina, such as Martín Insaurralde in Buenos Aires province at the hands of Massa and the FR, virtually all the early advantage with regards to the 2015 election appears to have gone to those opposed to the continuation of kirchnerista governance.

Cristina is expected to recover from her surgery in due course and resume full presidential duties. But as the clouds start to gather over teething problems with the national economy and a less-than-promising political outlook for her party and brand of governance, the events of the past couple of months have left President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner with more than one type of headache.

Opposition leader Sergio Massa celebrates his party’s results in the recent elections. Photo courtesy of Infolatam

[i] Argentina’s political landscape is, at best, complicated, and at best, a mess. Essentially, it is all dominated by the Peronist movement, inspired by the former President Juan Domingo Perón and the cult that he and his wife Eva Perón – more popularly known as Evita – sculpted out. The majority of democratic governments since the return to democracy in 1983 have been led by Peronists, formally within the Partido Justicialista (PJ – Justicialist Party). However, being such a broad movement there have almost always been different currents within the party, and indeed in recent years this has led to a formal split between that of the Kirchners – the FpV – and other strands, of which Massa’s FR is but the latest installment. This also means that various points on the political spectrum can be covered by Peronism: The Kirchnerismo of the FpV is generally of a left-of-centre populist nature, but the PJ government of Carlos Meném between 1989 and 1999 was most definitely centre-right and followed a largely neoliberal agenda.

Juan Domingo Perón, pictured in 1946 at the start of his first term as President

Of course, it isn’t all about Peronist parties, as the presence of the UCR as well as the conservative PRO show. Then again, asked for his reactions to last weekend’s elections, Uruguayan President José “Pepe” Mujica put it succinctly, effectively saying “Whichever way you look at it, it’s all the same! They’re all Peronists!” Even as Kirchnerismo goes through a particularly rough patch, the fact that Massa – who is a dissident Peronist but a Peronist all the same – has emerged as perhaps the leading opposition figure, shows that whatever happens during the rest of Cristina’s government and after the 2015 elections, it seems that Peronism is likely to remain the leading ideology and movement in Argentinean politics for the time being.