This article was published in The Brazilian Report
Given electoral trends across Latin America in recent years, last week’s primaries in Argentina came as somewhat of a surprise. Presidential candidate Alberto Fernández of the Peronist Partido Justicialista (PJ), whose running mate is former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, comfortably defeated the incumbent Mauricio Macri of the centre-right Cambiemos. Fernández won 22 of 24 constituencies, gaining a total of 47% of the vote, compared to just 32% for Macri. General elections will now be held on October 27 and the indications are that the PJ will be returned to power.
The result is all the more surprising in that Argentina was the country where the so-called “Pink Tide” first appeared to have begun its retreat. From 2003, Argentina had been one of several Latin American countries to be led by leftist governments that carried out significant redistributive programmes. However, in 2015, amid economic crisis and corruption scandals, Macri defeated Kirchner on an anti-corruption and economic liberalisation platform. Subsequently, left-wing governments across the region have either been toppled by impeachments (Brazil, and earlier Paraguay), drifted to the right (Ecuador, Chile) or adopted increasingly authoritarian measures to hold onto power (Venezuela, Nicaragua). In 2018, two countries with mainstream right-wing governments, Brazil and Colombia, lurched even further right, electing proto-authoritarian leaders. The Pink Tide seemed to have crashed onto the rocks of crisis and an insurgent conservatism that was determined to take advantage. Argentina’s elections are therefore significant in that they would be the first case of a leftist party that had lost power succeeding in reversing the rightward shift.
In its recent political trajectory Argentina exhibits interesting parallels to Brazil, and may have some lessons for its larger neighbour. Although the processes by which they were removed from power were totally different – Cristina Kirchner in a democratic election, Dilma Rousseff via an undemocratic impeachment process – both leaders lost popularity in a context of deteriorating economic conditions in which popular opposition was mobilised primarily on the basis of corruption accusations. These campaigns were highly successful in attributing international and structural economic crises to economic mismanagement and personal immorality, arguments that stuck in the minds of many voters.
Claims about corruption and economic populism also smuggled in the assumption that what was needed was economic liberalisation; if the problem was a corrupt and profligate state, surely the solution was to privatise state interests, deregulate markets and cut back welfare spending? However, there was little evidence that such policies would end the crises, let alone improve financial conditions for the majority of the population. Nor did they appear to carry significant popular support in their own right, in the absence of populist anti-corruption campaigns. They represented nothing other than the unreconstructed economic dogma of the 1990s that had created the Pink Tide in the first place.
Here, again, the similarities between the two countries are striking. Macri, during his four-year presidential mandate, and Michel Temer, who assumed the presidency for two years following Dilma’s impeachment, both demonstrated that neoliberal policies did not have the answers to the demands of the population. Economic growth in both countries remained anaemic and unemployment high, while reductions in social spending ensured that middle and lower-income voters would bear the brunt. For many of those who had been persuaded that leftist governments had “stolen” their hard earned money through corruption, things only got worse under their successors. By 2018, Michel Temer’s popularity rating was 3%. Macri’s today hovers around 30%, but that is now considerably lower than even the much maligned former president Kirchner. Both countries have had a dose of neoliberal medicine and most agree it tastes significantly worse than what had preceded it.
This, however, is where the similarities end. Many who voted for Macri on the basis of the supposed failures of the Kirchner government soon found out that he did offer any solutions. As the country was still operating on the principle of democratic, agonistic politics, they could once again return to vote for the PJ. Brazil’s case was quite different. Although, economically, Temer’s government represented a similarly dramatic deepening of neoliberalism in Brazil, because it had occurred via a democratic rupture many did not feel that a significant political change had occurred. While pro- and anti-PT partisans battled it out on social media and in the streets, for many less engaged voters, the Temer period did not have a clear partisan identity. In the eyes of many, the stitch-up of the impeachment simply looked like the same kind of corrupt, elite politics that they had been incessantly told was the hallmark of the PT. To many, the PT under Dilma, Temer’s Movimento Democrático Brasileiro and the mainstream right-wing Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB) (which had supported Dilma’s impeachment and propped up the Temer government), all looked much the same.
When they finally were given the chance to vote in 2018, the Brazilian electorate was thus left with few options to register its dissatisfaction. One possible option might have been former president Lula, who led the polls by a significant margin until he was imprisoned on dubious corruption charges in April 2018. The other was Jair Bolsonaro, a previously marginal figure, far to the right of someone like Macri. Although Bolsonaro’s programme included proposals to continue the neoliberal reforms initiated by Temer, his campaign was centred upon a radicalised version of the kind of the anti-corruption and anti-left politics that had surrounded Dilma’s impeachment and had brought Macri to power, adding to it a vicious brand of penal populism and cultural ultra-conservatism. The anger generated by the crisis and the democratic rupture eventually found expression in Bolsonaro’s victory.
The key question for the PT during the election, and which remains the key question today, was how the Party could both retain its core vote while also reaching parts of the electorate that had become disaffected with it. Here again, although circumstances diverge significantly, the Argentinian case may have some pointers to offer. Cristina Kirchner is an electoral asset in helping the PJ to retain its traditional base, but is also a polarising figure who may turn off many non-partisan voters. Her decision to stand as vice presidential candidate alongside the less divisive Fernández is an acknowledgement of this fact, allowing her to contribute to without dominating the Party’s public image. This strategy appears to have been vindicated by the primary result.
The situation the PT faces is far more challenging. Its biggest electoral asset, Lula, is in prison, meaning the Party had to choose between either centring the campaign for his release or launching a new unknown candidate. It also had to decide whether it would form an alliance with a smaller centre-left party, the Partido Democrático Trabalhista (PDT), led by Ciro Gomes. The PT opted to focus its campaign on Lula for as long as possible, until it was eventually forced to launch its own candidate Fernando Haddad, and to reject an alliance with the PDT. The ghostly presence of Lula in the campaign probably helped the Party to maintain a relatively strong presence in congress and win a number of state governorships. However, it also helped to consolidate the anti-PT vote for Bolsonaro.
Stepping back from the contingencies and personalities that shaped the 2018 election, most evidence suggests that a majority of Brazilians continue to support the kind of redistributive politics promoted by the PT in government and to oppose the neoliberal assault on the state inflicted by Temer and Bolsonaro. The question is how this majority can be reconstituted into a electoral bloc. The fragmentation of Brazil’s party system, weak levels of partisan identification (even for the PT), and the understandable reluctance of the PT to enter into alliances that may disadvantage its electoral machine all seem to militate against it replicating the “Argentinian option”. However, these are not ordinary times. Given the damage Bolsonaro’s government is inflicting on the basic institutions of the state, the environment and the lives of millions of ordinary Brazilians, it’s an option that is at the very least worth considering.