The Argentinian option: What could the Brazilian left learn from its neighbor?

. Aug 28, 2019
argentina alberto fernandez cristina kirchner Alberto Fernández (L) and Cristina Kirchner (R)

Given electoral trends across Latin America in recent years, the recent primary results in Argentina came as somewhat of a surprise. With former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as his running mate, Alberto Fernández of the Peronist Justicialist Party (PJ) comfortably defeated the center-right incumbent Mauricio Macri. Mr. Fernández won 22 of 24 constituencies, gaining a total of 47 percent of the vote, compared to just 32 percent for Mr. Macri. General elections will now be held on October 27, and the indications are that the PJ will return to power.

</p> <p>The result is all the more surprising given that Argentina was the country where the so-called &#8220;<a href="">Pink Tide</a>&#8221; first appeared to have begun its retreat. Since 2003, Argentina had been one of several Latin American countries to be led by leftist governments that carried out significant redistributive programs. However, in 2015, amid economic crisis and corruption scandals, Mauricio Macri defeated Cristina Kirchner on an anti-corruption and economic liberalization platform.</p> <p>Subsequently, left-wing governments across the region were either toppled by impeachments (Brazil and Paraguay), drifted to the right (Ecuador, Chile) or adopted <a href="">increasingly authoritarian</a> measures to hold onto power (Venezuela, Nicaragua).</p> <p>In 2018, Brazil and Colombia, two countries with mainstream right-wing governments, lurched even further right by electing <a href="">proto-authoritarian leaders</a>. The Pink Tide seemed to have crashed into the rocks of crisis and an insurgent conservatism that was determined to take advantage. Argentina, then, could be the first case of a leftist party managing to reverse the rightward shift.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img src="" alt="pink tide" class="wp-image-7610"/></figure> <h2>Neoliberal therapy in Brazil and Argentina</h2> <p>In its recent political trajectory, Argentina exhibits interesting parallels to Brazil and may have some lessons for its larger neighbor. Despite being removed from power in different ways—Mrs. Kirchner in a democratic election and Dilma Rousseff via an <a href="">impeachment process</a>—both leaders lost popularity in a context of deteriorating economic conditions, where popular opposition was mobilized primarily based on corruption accusations. These campaigns were <a href="">highly successful</a> in attributing international and structural financial crises to economic mismanagement and personal immorality, arguments that stuck in the minds of many voters.</p> <p>Claims of corruption and economic populism also smuggled in the assumption that what was needed was economic liberalization. If the problem was a corrupt and irresponsible state, surely the solution was to privatize state interests, deregulate markets and cut back <a href="">welfare spending</a>. 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 created the Pink Tide in the first place.</p> <p>Here, again, the similarities between the two countries are striking. Mauricio Macri, during his four-year presidential mandate, and Michel Temer, who assumed the presidency for two years following Dilma&#8217;s impeachment, both <a href="">demonstrated that neoliberal policies</a> did not have the answers to the demands of the population. Economic growth in both countries remained <a href="">anemic</a> and unemployment high, while reductions in social spending ensured that middle and lower-income voters would bear the brunt.&nbsp;</p> <p>For those who had been persuaded that leftist governments &#8220;stole&#8221; their hard-earned money through corruption, things only got worse under their successors. By 2018, Michel Temer&#8217;s popularity rating was three percent. Today, Mr. Macri&#8217;s approval level hovers around 30 percent, considerably lower than even the much-maligned former president Mrs. Kirchner. Both countries have had a dose of neoliberal medicine, and most agree it tastes significantly worse than what came before.</p> <script src="" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <h2>Brazil veers from democracy</h2> <p>This is the point where the similarities end. Many who voted for Mr. Macri based on the supposed failures of the Kirchner government soon found out that he didn&#8217;t 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 at the next elections.&nbsp;</p> <p>Brazil&#8217;s case was quite different. While Temer&#8217;s government represented a similarly dramatic deepening of neoliberalism in Brazil, the fact that it occurred via a democratic rupture led many to feel that no significant political change had occurred. While pro- and anti-Workers&#8217; Party partisans battled it out on social media and in the streets, for many less engaged voters, the <a href="">Temer period</a> did not have a clear political identity.&nbsp;</p> <p>In the eyes of many, the stitch-up of the impeachment looked a lot like the same kind of corrupt, elite politics they had been incessantly told was the hallmark of the Workers&#8217; Party. These segments of the population saw the Workers&#8217; Party under Ms. Rousseff, Michel Temer&#8217;s Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB) party, and the mainstream right-wing Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) as being cut from the same cloth.&nbsp;</p> <p>When they were finally given the chance to vote in 2018, the Brazilian electorate was left with few options to register its dissatisfaction. One possible choice might have been former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who led the polls by a significant margin until <a href="">he was imprisoned</a> on dubious corruption charges in April 2018. The other was Jair Bolsonaro, a previously marginal figure, far to the right of someone like Mauricio Macri.</p> <p>Though Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s program included proposals to continue the neoliberal reforms initiated by Michel Temer, his campaign was centred upon a radicalized version of the anti-corruption and anti-left politics that had surrounded Dilma Rousseff&#8217;s impeachment in Brazil and brought Mr. Macri to power in Argentina, 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 an outlet in Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s victory.</p> <h2>The Workers&#8217; Party dilemma</h2> <p>The critical question for the Workers&#8217; Party during the election—which remains the crucial issue today—was how the party could both retain its core vote while also reaching parts of the dissatisfied electorate. Here again, though 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 polarizing figure who may turn off many non-partisan voters. </p> <p>Her decision to stand as a vice-presidential candidate alongside the less-divisive Alberto Fernández is an acknowledgment of this fact, allowing her to contribute to the party&#8217;s public image without dominating it. This strategy appears to have been vindicated by the primary election result.</p> <p>The situation the Workers&#8217; Party faces is far more challenging. Its biggest electoral asset, Lula, is in prison, meaning the party had to choose between either centering the campaign for his release or launching a new unknown candidate. It also had to decide whether it would ally with a smaller center-left party, the Democratic Labor Party (PDT), led by <a href="">Ciro Gomes</a>. The Workers&#8217; Party opted to focus its campaign on Lula for as long as possible until it was eventually forced to launch another candidate, former São Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad, and reject an alliance with the PDT. The ghostly presence of Lula in the campaign probably helped the party maintain a relatively strong presence in Congress and win some state governorships. </p> <p>However, it also helped to consolidate the <a href="">anti-Workers&#8217; Party vote</a> for Jair Bolsonaro.</p> <p>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 Workers&#8217; Party, and oppose the neoliberal assault on the state inflicted by Michel Temer and Jair Bolsonaro. The question is how this majority can be reconstituted into an electoral bloc. </p> <p>The <a href="">fragmentation of Brazil&#8217;s party system</a>, weak levels of partisan identification (even for the Workers&#8217; Party), and the understandable reluctance of the party to enter into alliances that may disadvantage its electoral machine, all seem to work against it replicating the &#8220;Argentinian option.&#8221; </p> <p>However, these are not ordinary times. Given the damage Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s government is inflicting on the basic institutions of the state, the <a href="">environment</a>, and the lives of millions of ordinary Brazilians, it&#8217;s an option that is at the very least worth considering.

Matthew Richmond

Visiting fellow at the Latin America and Caribbean Centre, London School of Economics, and research associate at the Centro de Estudos da Metrópole, University of São Paulo. He holds a Ph.D. in Human Geography from King's College London

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