Economy Politics

Are fears over Peronism’s return justified?

19th September 2019

By Amadeo Gandolfo

Are fears over Peronism’s return justified?

Peronism has been usually seen as a totalitarian threat to Argentina by its upper middle classes and by foreign observers.

With its return to power now likely, President Mauricio Macri’s campaign rhetoric has centered on amplifying these fears, looking to tie his opponent Alberto Fernández or Buenos Aires province gubernatorial favorite Axel Kicillof with Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, and painting them as threats to democracy, republican values and even capitalism.

But does Peronist history really justify these views, or is this a one-sided narrative tailored by its political enemies?

Authoritarian at times, but never dictatorial

Juan Domingo Perón’s initial ascent into power came from his position within the country’s military, which was involved in multiple coup d’etats throughout Argentina’s 20th century. But although he benefited from prominent roles during the non-democratic early forties, his presidential terms were won at the voting booth in 1946 and 1951 – widely seen as the cleanest national elections since the 1920s.

It is true, however, that Peronism indulged in authoritarian practices during its first two terms: public employees were expected to join the party, opposition figures were removed from universities and opposition media was curtailed.

But all these measures were possible thanks to the support of the popular vote, which Perón always acknowledged. It was higher wages and an extension of workers’ rights which secured his popularity, and which gave rise to the combative labor movement that backed his return afterwards.

In fact, it was the coup that overthrew Peronism in 1955, the so-called “Revolución Libertadora” (Liberating Revolution), conducted by the military, that most indulged in anti-democratic practices: Peronism was outlawed, its union representatives persecuted, and even naming Perón and Evita was forbidden.

These measures were inspired by denazification practices in Europe, but they vastly underestimated the strength of the movement among the working classes, which started a decades-long resistance to allow Perón to come back from exile and participate in open elections. The military ended up yielding and allowing the 1973 general election, which Perón won by an astounding 61.85 percent of the vote.

More difficult to assess is Perón’s role in the political violence of the 1970s: during his exile he supported the youth left-wing armed resistance of the movement, but when he came back to Argentina, he tried to put an end to fractious violence siding with the unionist right wing. His involvement in the creation of the Triple A (Argentinian Anticommunist Alliance, an armed group that targeted leftists) is hotly debated.

Nevertheless, since the return of democracy in 1983 Peronism has been an integral part of the democratic process. They have won and lost elections, have always accepted the outcome, and generally refrained from authoritarian practices.

Not anti-capitalist

Perón’s political philosophy disregarded extremes. He was staunchly anti-communist and his aim was to deactivate the communist attraction over workers. He believed in a strong state-led capitalism, and in creating an ample political movement inside which different ideological orientations coexisted.

In addition to this, Peronism has been economically pragmatic. During its first administration, Perón supported industrialization and Keynesianism, boosting the economy through worker’s consumption and public spending. But, starting in 1949 when the economy took a downturn, public spending and salaries were frozen and some austerity measures took place, which were being winded down when the 1955 coup d’état happened.

Afterwards, Peronism has rescued Argentine capitalism from the brink on two occasions, the 1989 hyperinflation and the 2001 financial crisis. And in each case, it did so employing quite different tactics.

In 1989, in contradiction to some of his campaign rhetoric, Carlos Menem adopted orthodox economic measures ranging from massive budget cuts to privatization, leading to the 1-to-1 ‘convertibility’ between dollar and peso throughout the 1990s. His tenure included austerity in wages and pension payments, an opening up to imports, and even tolerated rising unemployment, with peaks near 20 percent.

When Eduardo Duhalde took power in 2002, the 1-to-1 fixed exchange rate was looking increasingly irrational, with the state and private firms flooded in debt, and social conflict making the country highly volatile. But, as opposed to his non-Peronist predecessor Fernando De La Rúa, Duhalde broke with the convertibility dogma. He also asymmetrically converted dollar deposits into pesos to halt the financial crash.

On top of this, Duhalde’s successor Néstor Kirchner added a policy of stimulating worker’s purchasing power, coupled with neo-Keynesian politics aimed at increasing local production, taking advantage of the raise in the international price of commodities, which benefited Argentina’s agricultural exports.

Throughout its history, Peronism has usually been associated with state intervention and worker’s rights, especially during Perón’s first two terms and Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández’s administrations. But, if necessary, it has also modified and curtailed them, as was the case during Carlos Menem’s administration, which privatized social security pensions and tried to sanction a labor reform law. Even during the Kirchner’s years, they accepted the heavily segmented and unequal labor market left behind by Menem.

This pragmatism extends to the present moment. Faced with mounting debt obligations and a contracting economy, Alberto Fernández proposed debt renegotiation and cuts to interest rates, something which was anathema to the orthodox government policymakers until a couple of weeks ago.

So what exactly is Peronism?

This is the question that has vexed journalists, academics and even politicians in Argentina since 1945.

Firstly, Peronism is a wildly diverse ideological movement which has traditionally housed a rightist wing, friendly towards orthodox economic practices, order and authority; and a leftist wing inclined towards Keynesian and redistributive practices, with a strong emphasis on human rights.

But, more than this, Peronism is the party of the working classes and the poor masses. The experience of 1946-1955, which saw a huge increase in worker’s rights, compounded by the 2003-2015 Kirchnerite administrations, which extended many of them, looms heavily on their political preferences. Even though Peronism has arguably betrayed these principles on occasion, it is still seen as the political movement that can improve their living conditions.

Additionally, Peronism has also been a movement that has tried to reconcile different classes and factions. This was present in Perón’s original writings, which called for an alliance between workers and industrialists as a way to develop the country. Peronism has rarely expropriated land (though it has paid for the nationalization of some companies), nor enacted sweeping economic reform along socialist guidelines. Its expectation is of a smoothly functioning state-led-capitalism in which class conflict is controlled.

Once again, this pragmatic resolve will be put to the test if the primaries’ results are confirmed on October 27th. Alberto Fernández will have to reconcile a society heavily polarized between Kirchnerism and anti-Kirchnerism, as well as the different factions within the newly-unified Peronist movement.

And although his rhetoric already reflects these aspirations, the difficulty of the task will be compounded by the need to fix a chaotic economy, balancing workers’ demands with those of the agricultural, industrial and financial sectors, as well as those of private creditors and the IMF, while attempting a likely difficult integration into the world economy. A tall order for any candidate.

Amadeo Gandolfo

Amadeo Gandolfo is an historian, journalist and researcher. He has worked at the CONICET (National Council For Scientific and Technical Research), writes at the Revista Crisis magazine and teaches at the University of Buenos Aires.