Something big has happened in Argentina, something full of lessons and of hope too.
The presidential race will now be decided in a runoff, which only adds an extra charge of emotion to events. But that’s not the only surprise, nor the only threat to the hegemony of Peronism and of Kirchnerism.
What’s really worrying for them is the narrow gap between the contenders, with the government’s candidate Daniel Scioli getting 36.86 percent of the vote, barely more than 2 percent ahead of Mauricio Macri, the charismatic and efficient Mayor of the City of Buenos Aires and leader of the “Cambiemos” alliance.
Argentina is now in a state of economic stagnation. Its economy grew by just 0.8 percent in 2011 (in relative terms, a spectacular fall) and has continued to show minimal levels of growth since then, averaging less than 1 percent a year, with 0.9 percent forecast for this year and 0.8 percent for 2016.
Of course there is also the question of the split within Peronism, with 21 percent of the vote going to Sergio Massa, a pragmatist and congressman whose career has included a spell as Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s cabinet chief and a former Mayor of the municipality of Tigre in the greater Buenos Aires region.
There are those who analyze the outcome of the first round of voting in the traditional way and claim that Scioli will win the runoff through the usual political maneuvers and operations as well as dark alliances with the regional barons of Peronism, or that those Peronists who voted for Massa in the first round will return to their natural home in the runoff election. This could happen but neither of these options are guaranteed to work well in the current dynamics of Argentine politics.
In electoral politics, there’s no doubt that it’s the defense of the vote and popular mobilizations, in short, the ground game, that is crucial to deciding the outcome. But there are moments when underlying spirals of silent anger produce opposition votes from just those sectors the ruling parties regard as their own by right. That’s what happened in Venezuela in 1998. The “maquinaria adeca” (the name given to the efficient electoral ground operations of AD -the strong historical socialdemocratic party), was able to win a majority of the governorships in the country and consolidate itself as the leading force in parliament just a month before the triumph of Hugo Chávez. This created an illusory impression in a system which many condemned as made to measure for the two traditionally dominant parties of the period.
Back then in Venezuela, and the same may be case in Argentina today, the marches, meetings and mobilizations gave little hint of the immense underlying discontent, the desire for change and the punishment vote to come. The anger had been simmering beneath the surface.
Argentina is suffering from terrible economic and social chaos. The administration of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is besieged by corruption allegations and has made enemies in all sectors of the political and business maps as a result of its arrogant style and drift toward authoritarianism.
To give an idea of this socioeconomic crisis, according to a study by the Economic Analysis Unit of the Center for Development and Democracy in the Americas; having reached a growth rate of as much as 8 percent in 2011 – helped by Chinese demand, the commodity boom and aid from Venezuela – Argentina is now in a state of economic stagnation. Its economy grew by just 0.8 percent in 2011 (in relative terms, a spectacular fall) and has continued to show minimal levels of growth since then, averaging less than 1 percent a year, with 0.9 percent forecast for this year and 0.8 percent for 2016. And all of this accompanied by a collapse in the value of the currency, an inflation rate of at least 20 percent and a huge international balance of payments deficit.
Thus while many assume that the first round vote constitutes no threat to Daniel Scioli because they think he will pick up the bulk of Massa’s vote in the runoff, the truth is that it may have shown, with its signs of silent discontent, the beginning of the collapse of Peronism and, more specifically, of the hegemony of Kirchnerism.
While all eyes are on Argentina we should also be alert for a broader change. The political earthquake in the south, with its epicenter in Buenos Aires, may soon produce an aftershock in Caracas as Venezuela is witnessing not only enormous popular discontent but also turmoil beneath the surface within the regime itself.