On Sunday, more than 30 million Argentinians went to the polls to vote for their new president. The winner, Alberto Fernández, won more than 47 percent of the vote, but it was his running mate, former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who set off a panic. Markets have gone haywire, with the peso losing over 25 percent of its value against the US dollar since August, and political observers are predicting the return of “Kirchnerismo,” a modern brand of Peronismo that defined Argentina’s political and economic landscape for most of the 2000s.
Named after Juan Domingo Perón, who ruled in Argentina from 1946 to 1955 and then again from 1973 to 1974, Peronismo can roughly be described as a populist movement that has shaped itself to accommodate the ideologies and agendas of whoever was in power. Typically, it includes a heavy dose of populism and extreme nationalism, eschewing political pluralism in favor of a dominant ruling party. Cristina Kirchner’s brand of Peronismo included granting large-scale subsidies on public services like electricity while picking fights with the IMF, increasing export taxes for key sectors of the economy, and instituting foreign currency controls that depleted the country’s foreign reserves.
The incumbent president, Mauricio Macri, who has been voted out after only four years in office, was one of the few non-Peronista presidents to be democratically elected in seven decades. Voters at the time were tired of Kirchner’s autocratic style, capital controls, widespread corruption, and massive debt, and saw in Macri the possibility of turning the economy around. But historically, non-Peronista candidates of all stripes have fared quite poorly in Argentina. Since 1946, the only exceptions have been a military junta, which viciously went after anyone even perceived to be associated with Peronismo, and three elections lost by Peronistas in 1983, 1999, and 2015. President Fernando de la Rúa, who was a member of the non-Peronista Radical party, had to flee the presidential residency in a helicopter amid violent protests during the 2001 economic crisis. In a country with severe economic instability and accompanying political disarray, the Peronistas’ promise of representing the people’s best interest still resonates for hundreds of thousands of Argentinians.
Why is this strain of populism so persistent in Argentina? To begin to understand, it’s important to clarify some misconceptions about Peronismo and how it’s portrayed in most English-language media.
Peronismo is a unique political ideology that differs from other common Latin American forms of leftism. In fact, calling Peronismo a leftist ideology isn’t quite right at all. In 1946, civil servant Juan Domingo Perón became president of Argentina after cultivating a base of power among army generals, trade unions, and working-class Argentinians. During Perón’s first years in power, he nationalized key industries involved with infrastructure and energy, passed protectionist policies in the form of export quotas, and approved huge subsidies for social programs. While this initially ushered the country into a period of prosperity, the free-spending nature of these economic policies soon manifested themselves in high inflation and stagnating economic growth.
Soon, the antidemocratic leanings of the Perón government became evident. Workers who went on strike against nationalized companies were expelled from trade unions and even imprisoned, and censorship of newspapers and intellectual figures became par for the course. Perón was a huge fan of Italian fascism and considered Mussolini to be a role model. He also welcomed Nazi war criminals like SS Commander Erich Priebke or Josef Mengele to take refuge in Argentina.
Peronismo’s main function became maintaining its power through strong nationalist rhetoric and sentiment. To pull that off, it helps itself to every kind of policy on the political spectrum, whether right-wing, leftist, or centrist. There are Peronistas who have veered into standard neoliberalism, like Carlos Menem in the 1990s, and leftist-identifying Peronistas who have invested in social services, but managed to cripple hugely vital industrial sectors such as agriculture with export tariffs (as Cristina Kirchner did during her tenures from 2007 to 2015). The common thread is an “us versus them” rhetoric that’s used up to pump up support and flatten opposition.
Alejandro Grimson, an anthropologist who’s taken on the herculean task of trying to define Peronismo in all its complexity in his book ¿Que es el peronismo?, explains: “In the middle of the 20th century it became very clear that when Peronismo said: ‘We are the people and the others are oligarchs,’ it aimed to occupy the entire political space, which puts pluralism at risk. This is what’s been hanging like the sword of Damocles over Argentina.”
Peronismo has gone on to permeate every corner of Argentinian government. In fact, outgoing President Macri’s running mate was Miguel Ángel Pichetto, a member of the Partido Justicialista, the largest Peronista party in Argentina. The ticket was clearly Macri’s last-ditch attempt to finally reach across the aisle after a whole term of refusing to enter into coalitions with even more moderate Peronistas, a decision that likely contributed to his political isolation in the past years. Peronistas—regardless of political direction—are everywhere, and attempting to govern in Argentina without including them is a vital mistake.
There is widespread misperception of Peronismo abroad. English-language publications and politicians still tend to equate Peronismo with other Latin American leftist movements, without actually considering that Peronismo can’t be divorced from its historical context. That’s how you end up with situations like the time US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted quotes from Evita Perón, a first lady who had a decidedly fraught legacy. It also leads some Americans to assume Cristina Kirchner is a leftist icon for policies like extensive welfare services and progressive social reforms, while she simultaneously pursued a politics of anti-intellectualism, fought to muzzle the liberal newspaper Clarín, and censored the publishing of financial statistics such as rates of inflation and poverty released by independent agencies.
As Sunday’s election hangover fades, Fernández has a tough job. He’s inheriting an economy in shambles, with a 55 percent inflation rate, over $100 billion in foreign debt, a plunging peso, and over 30 percent of the population in poverty. After decades of economic chaos in Argentina, all we can hope is that Fernández manages to control Kirchner’s divisive and indiscriminate spending policies that promise quick economic fixes, and instead steer the country in a direction more open to political pluralism. Peronismo is here to stay; the question now is whether it can be harnessed to something more sustainable than its previous iterations.