In Sunday’s legislative primary elections, Peronism obtained 31% of the vote, one of the worst results in its history, with no detachments to explain such a large loss of votes, anchored in poor management, the consequences of the pandemic and the deteriorated image of the president.

By Aram Aharonian

On Sunday 12 September, when Alberto Fernández, two years after assuming the presidency, was awakened by the results of the Primary, Open, Simultaneous and Mandatory (PASO) elections, the debt, hunger, poverty and 40% of the marginalised, which had been swept under the carpet during the election campaign, were still there …and his vote was a punishment for his administration.

The ‘Frente de Todos’, formed around Peronism, only won in seven northern provinces, among the poorest in Argentina, and fell in all of southern Patagonia, where just two years ago it had won a 30 percentage point lead over the neoliberal Mauricio Macri’s candidacy in the presidential elections.

These elections showed the real wage as a major voter and a middle class that refuses to disappear, and outlined a scenario of rejection of the current administration and favourable expectations for a liberal expression that replaces that of former president Mauricio Macri, who – some believe – has just witnessed his demise as a party leader, although others predict that he will be resurrected.

The people are punishing: Peronism obtained 31 per cent of the vote, one of the worst results in its history, without there being any detachments that could explain such a large loss of votes, anchored in poor management, the consequences of the pandemic and the deteriorated image of the president. Kirchnerism, however, could reinvent itself in the run-up to 2023, if it marks its differences with the president’s inertia.

The pandemic landed in the country at one of the worst moments in its economic history, after the destruction of the four years of government of the economic groups and the IMF, with poverty, indigence and unemployment multiplying. And to make matters worse, a decaffeinated electoral campaign, following the directives of image consultants and focus groups, without people. And Peronism without the street is not the same thing.

The ruling party has nine weeks to try to get back on track in the elections that hurt, that of legislators next November. Surely the 24 months that remain before the 2023 presidential elections offer a more solid space for those who must analyse what has happened, develop new policies and present electoral proposals that regenerate those majorities. What is not known is whether there will be the will to do so.

One of the government’s great weaknesses is communication, understood as the distribution of official guidelines and not as a way to raise awareness and a channel for citizen information. Obviously, government communication must, above all, “exist”, and that will be very difficult when the official television channel has already been destroyed and the official news agency is not accompanying the necessary measures that are being generated.

Today, official communication is reduced to the loose pieces of a jigsaw puzzle or the advice of a quiet, kind-faced gentleman who is unable to seduce even the fat ladies, and who has been losing affection and followers with some “memorable” phrases such as “the Mexicans came from the Indians, the Brazilians came from the jungle, but we Argentines came from the ships. They were ships that came from Europe”.

And add to that the reversal of the expropriation of the agro-exporting company Vicentin, the photo of his partner Fabiola Yañez’s birthday in the middle of the pandemic, the presence in schools and even the occasional attempt to criticise the passing of the legal abortion law.

Some analysts define Alberto Fernández as a president-wimp, who was able to win an election but could not govern. Others point out that he did not realise that he is the boss and not the courtier of previous presidents, crafty in conciliating with the power groups. Not all Fernandezes are the same. Today Alberto sees his delusions of a second term fading and many are praying that he can finish his current term.

The gravity of the social crisis is deep and for the moment it has been expressed in votes and not in popular outbursts as in Colombia, Peru or Chile. This may have to do with the fact that Alberto Fernández retained a positive image among citizens (in contrast to Sebastián Piñera’s 18% approval rating or Iván Duque’s 20%) and the appreciation of formal democracy after the popular struggle against the civic-church-military dictatorship and the trial and punishment of the genocidaires.

Expert economists draw attention to the fact that in an economy like Argentina’s, with a low level of activity and high unemployment, it is vital to boost aggregate demand, whose components are the population’s consumption, public spending, Gross Domestic Fixed Investment (GDFI) and exports.

The growth and radicalisation of the right-wing and its links with the far right is a global phenomenon that is also rooted in this country. According to data from the consulting firm Ejes Comunicación, in 2018 the “libertarian” Javier Milei was the most consulted economist on radio and television. He was granted almost 200,000 seconds of air time.

“This is not magic either. They penetrate. They don’t do it alone. It is a plan of financial capitalism and we know it. Milei seemed ridiculous but he is ferocious and our audiences have lost their compass, bewitched by media that are no longer about communication or confusion,” says Sandra Russo.

But it is clear that if a large part of the electorate is susceptible to being attracted by the messages of the political and media right, it is because there is an underlying dissatisfaction with the work of the government; with its programme itself or with the way it is executed… or not.

Among those who celebrated on Sunday were the three founding parties of the Frente de Izquierda y los Trabajadores (now FIT-U), the PTS, the Partido Obrero and Izquierda Socialista, who won the internal elections over the MST and achieved in this PASO their declared objective of being the third force at the national level, with the best result in the capital and in the province of Buenos Aires since its formation.

Change, nothing changes?

At a time when many sectors are calling for resignations, the ministerial architecture should be analysed in depth and not fall victim to revenge or petty interests. The reality prior to the elections already showed a series of fissures in management, in addition to the “communicational” ones.

Different sectors of the government coalition, which defines itself as “progressive”, stress the importance of having a Chief of Cabinet who coordinates the team of ministers and a Minister of Economy who is not just “Secretary for Negotiating the Foreign Debt” and spends months and years “negotiating” with the International Monetary Fund.

Others consider it essential to bring the heads of the country’s main security prevention and control apparatuses into line, an issue that is among the population’s top three concerns and which is exploited daily on prime-time television.

But what is more urgent is the development of policies that accelerate the process of mass construction of decent work and popular housing and the generation of local public works. Will there be anyone in the government who can translate these needs into concrete and feasible programmes?

It is tiresome: every day there is talk of the announced shipwreck, but the 46 million Argentines receive no sign that the government is going to act in the face of the current devastating crisis, much less that it has any foresight about the post-pandemic period, when it will surely multiply.

Change, everything changes. The pandemic has changed everything, from sexual behaviour to funeral parlours, social customs, work and educational practices. Even football, Argentina’s “passion of the crowds”, became a solitary, televised sport. The sediment of this situation was the grumpiness, the discomfort.

Meanwhile, the right-wing newspapers, television stations and social networks have played their cards and imposed media terror on the danger that the country is seven seats away from becoming Venezuela, which would be the number the government needs to have its own majority in both houses of Congress.

Translated into political language, the aim is to slow down the government, to control it, in the face of the government’s campaign to consolidate a legislative majority that would allow it to carry out the necessary structural reforms.

The country seems headed for an institutional debacle and some foreign analysts wonder whether President Alberto Fernández will complete his four-year term in office, while others warn of a fascist threat.

Change, everything changes. The general malaise is imposing itself on a country without a compass, which seems to be falling apart, with poverty continuing to grow and reaching 40 percent of the population, with the fall in real wages, with unemployment that the state’s welfare plans are unable to alleviate, with more than 110,000 deaths due to Covid-19.

Paradoxically, the measures to avoid catastrophe have (further) paralysed the country. There is not only an economic and financial crisis, inherited from the previous government, but also a serious social crisis.

Everything is changing. The leaderships and trade union organisations are no longer decisive. Or looked at from another angle, there is a notorious absence of the workers’ movement on the political scene. And, to add to this, there is a so-called “revolutionary” left, more concerned with participating in the electoral battle for a parliamentary seat and access to state resources.

Change, everything changes, even if the word change no longer means the same as before. What rules is the theory of the possible, the choice of the lesser evil, the loss of utopias and ideas. And, with this in mind, people voted for Alberto Fernández and the new “Peronism”, disguised as progressivism to get out of Mauricio Macri’s neoliberalism.

Yes, from Peronism in government, the previous neoliberal government is blamed for the drama. But beyond the new names, the policy is similar. There is no plan, no programme. The government joins in the measures taken by others, for example the International Monetary Fund. The two main coalitions are much more interested in the fight for the presidency (the elections will not take place until 2023), although no one can predict what will happen next month.

If the neoliberal government of Cambiemos redesigned an extractivist, agricultural and industrial model in the country, dependent on financial capital, and for this it indebted the country heavily and in peremptory terms, the government of “everyone” has done little to change the model, and name names but not proceed against those who benefited from this indebtedness, which was favoured with the same procedures in debt and flight with the military dictatorship and its legitimisation by the following government of Raúl Alfonsín.

We are not going to talk about ideology or a government programme, because the premise seems to be that of “as it comes, we will see”, a phrase popularised by Eudomar Santos, a character – a bad guy, a gallant – from the Venezuelan soap opera of the 1990s “Por estas Calles”, who caricatured that fateful, over-zealous nature that leads us to permanent improvisation, a lack of planning, a lack of awareness and leaving things to the good fortune of destiny.

Some say that it was Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner who demanded that the signing of the agreement with the IMF be postponed until after the elections, because of how unpopular it would have been to defend the commitments in terms of public spending and state regulations in parliament. Foreign currency debt stood at $148 billion in 2015, while in 2019 it closed at $249 billion.

The government preferred not to sign with the IMF so as not to have to explain itself before the elections. But it is public that the decision is to continue paying; to pay the odious, fraudulent, illegal and, of course, illegitimate debts. This is one of the keys to the social unrest and the national drama.

The elections cover it all up

On 14 November there will be elections for the partial renewal of legislators. The electoral campaign – empty, of Franciscan poverty – based on the media, was left in the hands of national and foreign image consultants: the only strategic response of capital is to bet on the uncontrolled worsening of social life, with the fragmentation of those at the bottom.

Change, everything changes. An unsuspecting international analyst cannot understand when some commentators and editorialists of the hegemonic media affirm that in Argentina the catastrophe is due to the fact that “we are in socialism”.

The “progressive” sectors insist that the national and popular vote can only be to support the government of Alberto and Cristina, regardless of the number of mistakes (or not) that are being made in some ministries and that more and more sectors are denouncing.

The fundamental problem, in concrete political and social terms, is the government’s (lack of) communication policy – as has been the case with all progressive governments in the region so far this century – and also the incomprehensible handling of the figure of the president.

Nobody knows what communication means, nobody is aware that we live in a cultural war, in the battles of ideas, and so the figure of the image consultant is bought from the enemy, and from the spheres of power it is believed that communicating means managing advertising campaigns (obviously for one’s own benefit or for the benefit of one’s own forces).

It changes, everything changes. Suddenly, the president announces that the government is going to expropriate the agro-exporting company Vicentín and its port on the Paraná River – environmentally unsound – but then he listens to the big agro-exporting businessmen, dominated by the big transnationals, and backs down because it seems that much more important than making a sovereign decision is to guarantee the privatisation and foreignisation of the waterway and the business of the big multinationals.

And so, sovereignty continues to be postponed (and lost) and the internal disputes in the crazy Ministry of Transport, between Macristas and Radicals, also reach the Peronists. And they don’t care if they ignore and offend thousands of workers in the shipping industries, shipyards, the Port Administration, the National Directorate of Navigable Waterways?

The demoliberal policy is no longer enough. And a new social contract capable of aiming at a Constituent Assembly that includes the new social actors is essential.

There is an impassable gap between the candidates and the socially excluded who survive thanks to the solidarity of the soup kitchens, and the real majorities do not understand the language of the focus groups.

Everything changes. The government changes, progressivism is recited, but deep down the workers – and those who have lost and continue to lose their jobs – perceive that beyond the verses, what persists is business, spurious business at the expense of them and the country.

The Guatemalan Augusto Monterroso wrote the shortest story in history: When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there.