Argentina elections: is Alberto Fernández a populist?

. Oct 28, 2019
Presidential candidate Alberto Fernández with his running mate, former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. Photo Julio Gelves President-elect Alberto Fernández with VP and former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. Photo: Julio Gelves

Argentina’s presidential election on October 27 has swung power back to the center-left following four years of right-wing rule under Mauricio Macri. The former president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, is now set to hold the vice-presidency and serve under the experienced—yet until recently little-known—candidate Alberto Fernández.

Following Mr. Fernández’s shock victory in the August national primaries, international commentators quickly went about learning everything they could about Argentina’s next president, and asking a recurring question with many Latin American leaders: is he a populist?

</p> <p>Though not an unreasonable inquiry in a country where populism has a well-established tradition, it tends to be posed in <a href="https://www.clarin.com/opinion/argentina-lucha-populismo_0_B13JOtBKG.html">derogatory terms</a> and implies something sinister. So, <a href="https://theconversation.com/what-is-populism-and-why-is-it-so-hard-to-define-107457">what exactly is populism</a>? And is it returning to Argentina?</p> <p>A <a href="https://global.oup.com/academic/product/populism-a-very-short-introduction-9780190234874?cc=gb&amp;lang=en&amp;">notoriously slippery term</a>, populism has recently received a flurry of interest in an attempt to make sense of our turbulent political times, applied to everything from <a href="https://time.com/time-person-of-the-year-populism/">Brexit and Donald Trump</a> to the rise of leaders such as Italy’s <a href="https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-44921974">Matteo Salvini</a> and Brazil’s <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/22/world/americas/bolsonaro-populist-davos-forum.html">Jair Bolsonaro</a>.</p> <p>One of the <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1477-7053.2004.00135.x">most used definitions</a> in political science comes from Cas Mudde, who argues that populism is an ideology that splits society into two opposed camps of the “pure people” and “the corrupt elite.” A recent report by <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2019/mar/06/revealed-the-rise-and-rise-of-populist-rhetoric"><em>The Guardian</em></a> used this approach to look at speeches of world leaders and found that populist rhetoric was steadily on the rise.</p> <p>As well as an ideology, populism is commonly understood as a <a href="https://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198803560.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780198803560-e-2"><em>strategy</em></a> through which excluded sectors of society are mobilized in support of a common political project, often by a charismatic leader. This approach is best associated with the political theorist Chantal Mouffe, who recently <a href="https://theconversation.com/in-defence-of-left-wing-populism-55869">launched a debate</a> on populism as a left-wing project, and her late partner <a href="https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/1575-ernesto-laclau-s-last-interview-with-la-nacion">Ernesto Laclau</a>, who used Argentinian “Peronism”—named after Juan Domingo Perón—as a <a href="https://www.versobooks.com/books/2811-on-populist-reason">key example</a> of populism.</p> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/833127"></div><script src="https://public.flourish.studio/resources/embed.js"></script> <h2><strong>From Peronism to Kirchnerism</strong></h2> <p>Mr. Perón, elected in 1946 for his first term as president, led Argentina’s first major <a href="https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Shaping_the_Political_Arena.html?id=uqsTAQAAIAAJ&amp;redir_esc=y">process of politically incorporating</a> the working-class masses—known affectionately by his wife Evita Perón as “<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1981/05/17/world/shirtless-ones-keep-the-faith-with-evita-peron.html">the shirtless ones</a>”—into Argentine society.</p> <p>Critics have highlighted the authoritarian tendencies of Mr. Peron’s administrations—with <a href="http://grantabooks.com/the-real-odessa-3">links to Fascism</a>—and have lambasted Peronist organizations for <a href="https://www.jstor.org/stable/2692042?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents">corrupt electoral practices</a>. Supporters, on the other hand, <a href="https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Ma%C3%B1ana_es_San_Per%C3%B3n.html?id=lRpvAAAAQBAJ&amp;redir_esc=y">celebrated Mr. Perón’s</a> massive project of wealth redistribution, significant investment in industry, health and education as well as the introduction of universal suffrage.</p> <p>Although deeply divisive, Mr. Perón’s presidency is seen as populist in recognition of his <a href="https://library.brown.edu/create/modernlatinamerica/chapters/chapter-9-argentina/primary-documents-w-accompanying-discussion-questions/what-is-peronism-by-juan-domingo-peron-1948-the-twenty-truths-of-the-peronist-justicialism-juan-domingo-peron-1950/">struggle to represent</a> “the people” against “the oligarchy.” His confrontational approach provoked his opponents and he was ousted in 1955. After 18 years in exile in Spain, he returned to power in Argentina in 1973 before dying in office the following year.</p> <script src="https://www.buzzsprout.com/299876/1422364-69-why-argentina-s-presidential-election-matters-to-brazil.js?player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <p>The first elected Peronist president in Argentina following Mr. Perón’s death was Carlos Menem, the country’s leader between 1989 and 1999. Menem has been categorized as a right-wing or <a href="https://www.jstor.org/stable/422236?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents">neoliberal populist</a> for his struggle for <a href="https://brazilian.report/money/2018/11/29/chicago-boys-chile-brazil-paulo-guedes/">free-market liberalism</a> in the name of the Argentine people.</p> <p>Yet it’s been the 21st-century presidencies of center-left Peronists, Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, that have received most praise and hostility for re-invigorating a populist mode of <a href="https://muse.jhu.edu/chapter/37989">politics in Argentina</a>, at a time when left-wing populism took hold across the region.</p> <p>The <a href="https://www.wilsoncenter.org/book/latin-american-populism-the-twenty-first-century">jury remains open</a> on whether the Kirchners were populist. <em>The Guardian</em>’s recent study of presidential speeches judged neither Kirchner president to be populist. Many detractors of both presidents—but especially Cristina Fernández de Kirchner—use populism as a <a href="https://brazilian.report/opinion/2018/07/27/ortega-maduro-brazilian-left/">slur and relate it to corruption</a>. Yet supporters suggest that the political strategy of Kirchnerism is a good <a href="https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/1575-ernesto-laclau-s-last-interview-with-la-nacion">example of left-wing populism</a>.</p> <h2><strong>Is Alberto Fernández a populist?</strong></h2> <p>While Mr. Fernández is not strictly a populist, his Peronist credentials and closeness to the Kirchners create some latent populist tendencies that could be unleashed during his presidency.</p> <p>Fernández is <a href="https://www.infobae.com/politica/2019/09/07/alberto-fernandez-cerro-la-gira-en-la-que-busco-mostrar-pragmatismo-moderacion-y-cercania-al-progresismo-europeo/">a renowned pragmatist</a>, a master of appeasing different sectors in society. On major controversial issues, he has sought compromise and a conciliatory tone.</p> <div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="aligncenter"><img src="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Team-Fernández-pragmatist-or-populist-Photo-Juan-Ignacio-RoncoroniEPA.jpg" alt="Team Fernández- pragmatist or populist? Photo Juan Ignacio Roncoroni:EPA" class="wp-image-26592" srcset="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Team-Fernández-pragmatist-or-populist-Photo-Juan-Ignacio-RoncoroniEPA.jpg 600w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Team-Fernández-pragmatist-or-populist-Photo-Juan-Ignacio-RoncoroniEPA-300x200.jpg 300w" sizes="(max-width: 600px) 100vw, 600px" /><figcaption>Team Fernández—pragmatist or populist? Photo: Juan Ignacio Roncoroni:EPA</figcaption></figure></div> <p>Nowhere is this clearer that his position towards Kirchnerism. Once the chief of the cabinet for Néstor Kirchner he became <a href="https://www.lanacion.com.ar/politica/las-feroces-criticas-hacia-alberto-fernandez-cristina-nid2248856">openly critical</a> of Ms. Kirchner, yet tended to avoid all-out confrontation or alliance with her enemies. Instead of polarizing positions, Mr. Fernández strives for the middle ground. For example, on foreign policy, he gave lukewarm support to Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro by stating that he is “<a href="https://www.batimes.com.ar/news/argentina/fernandez-in-venezuela-there-is-not-a-dictatorship-but-an-authoritarian-government.phtml">not a dictator</a>”—hardly a glowing endorsement of one of the region’s more divisive leaders.</p> <p>The clearest indication that Mr. Fernández is not a populist is on the economy, where initial signals suggest <a href="https://www.batimes.com.ar/news/economy/fernandezs-economist-foresees-labor-pension-reform-to-please-imf.phtml">moderation and reform</a> would be key to his future policy, with no assault on the economic “elites.” His economic adviser, <a href="https://www.infobae.com/economia/2019/08/28/las-9-claves-del-programa-economico-de-alberto-fernandez-segun-guillermo-nielsen/">Guillermo Nielsen</a>, prefers a middle-of-the-road approach and suggests renegotiation rather than an outright rejection of deals with the International Monetary Fund.</p> <p>A common slogan in his “Front for All” electoral campaign has been that he will govern “<a href="https://www.infobae.com/politica/2019/10/15/alberto-fernandez-no-soy-el-presidente-de-los-portenos-soy-el-presidente-de-la-argentina/">for all Argentinians</a>” and he insists on moving beyond a polarised society towards a new “<a href="https://www.pagina12.com.ar/226267-servira-el-pacto-social-que-propone-alberto-fernandez">social pact</a>.”</p> <p>So where could populism be lurking? For any Peronist leader in Argentina, the temptations of populism exist both inside and outside the Casa Rosada, the president’s official residence. If struggling to gather sufficient votes for policy approval in the Congress or Senate, Mr. Fernández could take inspiration from the “<a href="https://www.journalofdemocracy.org/articles/lessons-from-latin-america-the-rise-of-rentier-populism/">super-presidentialism</a>” of the Kirchners and other left-wing presidents in the region who used their executive powers to implement social policies targeted at the poor.</p> <p>Mr. Fernández should be his own president, however, and while his victory would signal a <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-latin-american-left-isnt-dead-yet-124385">return to the left</a>, it would be a more centrist and pragmatic left than what has come before, with populism being an unlikely feature.</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="alignleft"><img src="http://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/logo-a0073854423c0c04eddfa9074f700eaf-300x24.png" alt="the conversation brazil article" class="wp-image-398" srcset="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/logo-a0073854423c0c04eddfa9074f700eaf-300x24.png 300w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/logo-a0073854423c0c04eddfa9074f700eaf-768x61.png 768w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/logo-a0073854423c0c04eddfa9074f700eaf-1024x81.png 1024w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" /></figure></div> <h6 style="text-align:right">Originally published on<br><a href="https://theconversation.com/brazil-must-protect-its-remaining-uncontacted-indigenous-amazonians-84141"><strong>The Conversation</strong></a></h6> <img src="https://counter.theconversation.com/content/125629/count.gif?distributor=republish-lightbox-advanced" alt="The Conversation" width="1" height="1" style="border: none !important; box-shadow: none !important; margin: 0 !important; max-height: 1px !important; max-width: 1px !important; min-height: 1px !important; min-width: 1px !important; opacity: 0 !important; outline: none !important; padding: 0 !important; text-shadow: none !important"> <p>

 
Sam Halvorsen

Lecturer in Human Geography, Queen Mary University of London. Disclosure: Sam Halvorsen has received funding from The Leverhulme Trust.

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