5 lessons from Argentina’s primaries

Argentina’s primaries have reshaped the country’s political landscape. The collapse of “Macrism” and the rise of “Peronism” were the distinguishing features of the elections. But what can we learn from the results? Español

Maristella Svampa
29 August 2019, 12.00am
July 28, 2019, Buenos Aires, Argentina: Image of paper ballots for August 13 Primary elections in Argentina.
Claudio Santisteban/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.

On the 11th August the Argentine primaries took place, in which Alberto Fernández and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner gained a 15-point difference over Mauricio Macri and Miguel Ángel Pichetto. Given the levels of political turmoil and economic crisis, there are numerous lessons that Argentines can take from these elections which are, in fact, the first round of the presidential elections that will take place on October 27th. I will offer 5, as a way of contributing to the ongoing debate, while the country recovers from the political earthquake that the primaries set off.

1.The power asymmetry masked electoral preferences and created a disconnect

Electoral polarisation simplifies politics and has become increasingly common in Argentina in recent years. Polarisation not only simplifies political debate; it also impoverishes it, creates a toxic and stifling political environment and, in the medium term tends to depoliticise citizens because it limits political options by closing down the possibilities of change and the construction of alternatives beyond the binary positions associated with polarisation.

In 2019, the government consciously tried to strengthen polarisation in order to win the primaries, after its poor economic and social performance. To intensify this polarisation and to win voters over to their side, the government used the powerful allies that it had established over the past 4 years whilst in office. They used the mainstream media and well known journalists who took on the opposition and they took the temperature of the markets; the International Monetary Fund, Donald Trump and the financial markets, promised financial stability if there were no major investments by government. Meanwhile, during the campaign, support was drummed up on social media and pollsters worked day and night to try and understand the electoral mood of the voters.

An electoral campaign has rarely been so unequal. So much so that beyond the networks of unconditional support, and the government echo chambers, it was almost impossible to see the real social context and the public’s opinion.

There were so many interventions from the governing party that it was easy to forget the successive defeats they endured in the provincial elections in 2019. They thought they could transform reality (or at least radically influence undecided voters), when in fact they were simply trying to cover over earlier mistakes and previous losses. As a result, they created a disconnect with reality. Nothing demonstrates it better than the fact that polls just days before the primaries seemed to show that the gap between the governing party and the opposition party was decreasing and some even suggested that the current government might win.

As a result of the power asymmetry which can be seen in politics, the media and the economy and despite the previous electoral defeats for the government which suggested that that government would do badly, the devastating results for the government on 11th August was treated a shock result.

An electoral campaign has rarely been so unequal.

2. Extreme polarisation is not only dangerous but can also have a boomerang effect

Macri’s rise to the presidency in 2015 took place within a context of intensifying polarisation, shaped by electoral exhaustion following a long period of populism and the first signs of economic crisis. People wanted a change in government, and better economic opportunities. Cambiemos (Republican Proposal (PRO) and the Radical Civic Union (UCI)) promised that economic growth, investment and economic efficiencies would be possible with the end of populism. These promises fitted with demands of the urban and rural middle classes, small and medium entrepreneurs and the regions, all of whom voted for Macri because they believed that, as an entrepreneur himself (and, in addition, the son of European immigrants), he would understand and support them.

At the same time, there were lower middle-class Argentines who voted against the “welfare state” in order to distance themselves from the poorest, who were dependent on the state. And then there was the discourse of anti-corruption and the promise of a new post-political, less conflictual country.

However, in the confusion between changing the government and providing an alternative, Macri not only failed in programmatic terms but he also failed to build conservative, post-political populism. Little by little, he abandoned the promises of "zero poverty" and dusted off the lexicon of the neoliberal right, typical of the 1990s: adjustments, tariffs, market dominance, high unemployment rates, a return to the IMF, a high-risk country. The very idea of “a new right” disappeared with neo-liberal adjustment and class politics, despite the fact that the government increased social spending for socially excluded groups in the context of increasing poverty and unemployment (which in June of this year reached more than 10%).

By 2019 the political climate had changed: the atmosphere of economic, social and financial crisis and austerity all of which had allowed Macri almost unexpectedly to the Casa Rosada was over. The links to the past meant what the government stubbornly opted for was antikircherism in its purest form – invoking the legacies of the past, ‘irresponsible’ populism, corruption, international isolation, a return to social conflict, but without being able to offer a positive set of conservative ideas as an alternative.

In summary, the peculiarity of these elections was that at no point- whether it was the primaries, the first round or the second – was it possible to escape this system of toxic entrapment, which pushed for polarisation from the fear that the opposition candidate could take an advantage that would guarantee a victory in the second round. The government was betting on a knock out. Macri forgot that he himself could be the first victim of the extreme polarisation that he had fed in a boomerang effect. This was linked to his disconnection with reality, and his denial of the devastating impact that his economic policies have had.

3. High social costs mean that electoral strategies didn’t work, not even symbolically

Until a year ago, some Macri voters still blamed the legacies of Kirchnerismo and argued that the government needed to be given time and to be allowed to govern. The primaries showed that these excuses no longer worked.

Many Cambiemos voters have been speaking openly about their disappointment for some time. The middle-class voters because they have felt the impact of economic policy, high inflation, endless tariffs, a fall in real wages, high levels of unemployment and indiscriminately opening up to imports. Their working-class voters because they saw increases in unemployment and employment insecurity, in the price of food in schools and increases in inequality.

There were no longer any expectations that the change in government could become a genuine alternative; very few trusted the supposed expertise of the “success” CEO, who came from the business world, in fact it was quite the opposite. They felt mistrust and unease towards those who lived in the bubble of the super-rich, made profits through shady financial deals which they kept in offshore accounts and offered only one solution to solve the economic crisis – a return to the IMF and neoliberal principles which historically have failed.

Many have also realised that militant anti-kirchnerism alone is not enough to guarantee good economic management and compensatory social policies in themselves do not mean that the government is a “conservative populist” one. Redundancy payments to workers who have lost their jobs is not really a sign of a social conscience. As a result, the electorate decided to limit the damage by voting for a different option. The defeat is a message of rejection of crisis and exclusion as well as condemnation of a future full of lying aspirational promises. As the sociologist and former legislator of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires Pablo Bergel said when the results of the primaries were released: “Society has put the emergency brake on”.

Many have also realised that militant anti-kirchnerism alone is not enough to guarantee good economic management.

4. It wasn’t only polarisation, but class blindness

In the face of social costs, and economic crisis with the government lost in a labyrinth of its own making and increasingly revealing as fraudulent, something else was made evident, typical of Argentina: class blindness. Nothing shows this better than what happened the week after the primary elections, those 7 days in which the ideology of the ruling elite was made clear while the government itself was unable to process the result or why it had happened and refused to accept the election as legitimate.

The president's statements in the first 48 hours were not unfortunate; rather, they revealed his real thoughts, that is, the dominant view, the set of ideas and assessments that nourish the political practices of a social class. It was not just that he said that his policies are "the right way" (or indeed, "the only right way") and that a different approach would be a complete "mistake". He also makes it clear that the only possible ethos in politics is one that identifies with and uses markets. The vote highlighted that many in society believe instead in an ethos that places limits on the market and defends production and social reproduction. Yet the government time and time again defended the supposed universality and the ethos of the (financial) accumulation of capital.

The run on the currency that broke out on the 12th August, to which the government response was simply a lack of response - or rather illicit consent – confirmed the conviction of the ruling elite. It was not only the punishment for the "incorrect" vote of the citizenry, it was an affirmation of economic-financial fatalism coherent with their world view.

Class blindness displays itself in different ways. From the absence of the Minister of the economy, Nicholas Dujovne, a man of exceptional wealth, even in this government, who was said to be badly affected by the electoral defeat (and who would resign almost a week later), to the consistently controversial remarks of Deputy Elisa Carrió who was applauded for acknowledging a defeat of epic proportions at the meeting of the Cambiemos cabinet at the Kirchner Cultural Centre, having denounced the opposition as fraudulent and alleging actions by the “drug dealers” in the election.

There, on the stage of defeat, Carrió could be seen as she is: dressed in jewels, bracelets and necklaces, as glamorous as someone who has just arrived from a gated community, proclaiming ‘the votes will change. There are a lot of people away skiing. Friends of ours. I am not sure they fully understand. The European summers wonderful but they are putting the country’s future at risk’. Another phrase she used was ‘they are not going to throw us out of the Presidential Palace, they will have to take us out dead’. Carrio is an indication of what early socialization does. By this I mean that she comes from a well-off family even though she was known for some of her career has a caring politician, when she moved to the right and allied herself with Cambiemos, she simply returned to her class origins. Now her main aim to defend the wealthy. Is this the result of polarization or an inevitable consequence of her class? Who could say …?

In 2019 in Argentina, with few exceptions, pollsters didn’t predict the 15-point difference between the current president and his opposition.

5. We must demand a moratorium on poll and pollsters

There is frequent discussion about polling errors, not only in Argentina but also in other countries. Nobody foresaw Trump’s election or Brexit or even Macri’s presidential win in 2015. Today, thanks to the revelations about Cambridge Analytica's role, we can explain those results a bit better.

In 2019 in Argentina, with few exceptions, pollsters didn’t predict the 15-point difference between the current president and his opposition. Yet although the validity of surveys the validity of surveys is increasingly distrusted and their credibility is doubted, at each election it seems this seems to be forgotten.

Two reflections from this repeated failure can be drawn. Firstly, in many cases the pollsters have the same political interests as those who hire them, which was made worse in this case through by adverting revenue from the ruling party to the media who then sought to reinforce the idea of a tie between the government and the opposition, thereby enabling the government to triumph in the second round. This means that in fact many of the polls and pollsters are simply part of the power asymmetry of Argentine electoral politics.

The second issue is simpler but equally important. The increasing prevalence of polls and their growing place in the media has allowed them to replace political debate. They also become more important in the absence or weakness of true political debate; it gives Argentine media and journalists something to write about and fills up voids left by the lack of creativity in the Argentine press. Given the loss of credibility of polls, their biases towards certain political ideas and their tendency to feed false debates it seems sensible to demand a moratorium on polls and surveyors, during the electoral campaign up to the elections on October 27th, especially given the new financial crisis that could have deadly consequences for the majority of the population.


This article was originally published in Spanish on Nueva Sociedad. Find it here.

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