Argentina elects new president on promises to fix economy and unify a struggling nation
Argentina has elected Alberto Fernández of the Peronist party as its next president with 47.4% of the vote. Fernández defeated incumbent Mauricio Macri and four other candidates on Sunday, Oct. 27, avoiding a runoff.
Fernández and his running mate, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner – a senator, former Argentine president and former first lady – ran on a left-leaning platform, appealing to Argentines suffering from chronic economic crisis.
“If you want justice, solidarity, employment, public education and public health, then let’s work together to build the Argentina we all deserve,” said Fernández at his campaign’s Oct. 24 closing rally
The duo heads up a broad-based new political coalition that brings together distinct strands of Argentina’s Peronist party. Fernández, a moderate 60-year-old lawyer, was Fernández de Kirchner’s chief of staff early in her first administration. They publicly fell out in 2008 over economic policy.
Setting aside past differences, they’ve promised to right Argentina’s economy and restore the country’s eroded social safety net.
Economic voting prevails
The South American country has also seen record inflation – predicted to reach 53% by the year’s end – and currency devaluation. The Argentine peso lost more than half its worth last year and fell another 35% in August 2019.
Macri, a conservative businessman, blamed his Peronist predecessors for Argentina’s economic woes.
But his efforts to right the economy – which included imposing strict limits on social welfare spending, in compliance with an International Monetary Fund loan agreement – merely exacerbated inequality. Unemployment stands at almost 11%.
Macri also failed to adequately address the currency crisis, which further undermined the productivity of Argentina’s struggling industrial base.
Back to the future
President-elect Fernández has pledged to jump-start production and restore social programs aimed at curbing hunger and poverty. He says he will pay off Argentina’s staggering national debt, but insists that such payments will not come at the expense of the social safety net.
Defaulting on more than US$100 billion in loans, the Argentine government in late 2001 was forced to freeze bank accounts for weeks and abandon its policy of pegging the peso’s value to that of the dollar. Argentines with savings saw their nest-eggs evaporate as the peso lost 66% of its value overnight. Working people were plunged into poverty.
Kirchner, a little-known governor of the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, proved to be a formidable politician. He renegotiated the country’s debt, opened trials against military officials accused of human rights violations during the dictatorship of the 1980s and expanded social spending. Kirchner left office in 2007 with a record 70% approval.
He was succeeded by his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. She continued many of his policies, but by the time she left office, in 2016, Argentina’s economic growth had slowed, the currency depreciated once again and inflation had edged up.
During the 2019 presidential campaign, Fernández largely overlooked his VP candidate’s mixed economic record, appealing to Néstor Kirchner’s 2003 comeback story and the Peronists’ legacy of empowering poor people.
Argentina’s Peronist party was founded in 1947 by Juan Domingo Perón. Along with his wife Evita, Perón transformed Argentina by incorporating its growing working class and other marginalized sectors into political, economic and social life. Perón’s experiment boosted Argentina’s industrial base and expanded employment, but ended in political and economic crisis. In 1955, he was overthrown in a coup.
Though its ideological orientation has shifted from left to right and back over the decades, the Peronist party remains a central institution of Argentine politics.
Fernández de Kirchner’s long shadow
Fernández’s efforts to promote national unity were complicated by his running mate’s polarizing record.
Many Argentines remember Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s administration as a time of excessive spending, conflict with the media and scandal. Now under investigation on 12 charges of corruption, she played a low-key role in the campaign.
However, Fernández de Kirchner’s record of social inclusion endeared her to many Argentines. During two terms in office, she renationalized Argentina’s pension system, which was privatized in 1993, to protect retirees from market volatility. She also established a small stipend for low-income families who ensure their children attend school and have regular health screenings.
These reforms moved Argentina’s welfare state in a more progressive direction for the first time in decades and improved income distribution, my research on inequality in Latin America shows. Argentina’s current crisis would likely have been more severe absent this safety net.
Fernández de Kirchner was Argentina’s first elected female president. Though the country’s feminist movement has grown substantially recently, a broadly popular abortion legalization bill was rejected by Argentina’s senate in 2018. As a senator, Fernández de Kirchner strongly supported the measure.
A repeat performance of Argentina’s 2003 economic turnaround is unlikely.
President-elect Fernández, who assumes office in December, will come to power during a full-blown crisis. Fernández also faces an unfavorable international economic climate, with the trade war between the U.S. and China threatening to slow consumption in two of Argentina’s top export markets.
The last Argentine president elected under similar circumstances, Fernando de la Rua, oversaw the political and economic implosion of 2001. He was forced out of office by mass protests in December 2001.
President-elect Fernández knows this history well. He was on the Buenos Aires city council when de la Rua fled the presidential palace in a helicopter.
Fernández has assured voters he’s ready for the uphill challenge, saying “We know what needs to be done to get Argentina back on its feet.”
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