The left gains in Argentina’s elections

August 25, 2015

Todd Chretien analyzes the outcome of a national vote in Argentina--and the significance of growing support for an electoral alliance of socialist organizations.

THE LEFT and Workers Front (FIT by its Spanish initials) made impressive gains in national primary elections held in Argentina earlier this month. The FIT won over 726,000 votes for around 3.3 percent of the total, assuring Nicolás del Caño and his running mate Myriam Bregman one of six spots on the presidential ballot on October 25.

While still modest in national terms, these results will situate the FIT's far-left constituent elements squarely in the middle of international discussions of the relationship between parliamentary campaigns and grassroots social and class struggles, a dynamic expressed most forcefully in Greece. However, any simple comparison with Greece is misleading, or at least premature. Argentine politics has a flavor all its own that must be appreciated in order to make sense of the conjuncture.

In the 14 years since the Argentinazo, the mass popular uprising that caused the downfall of several governments, notes Federico Fuentes, "Argentina has changed a lot. Yet while millions may not be on the street demanding, 'All of them must go!' it is evident that the yearning for a break with the past that those protests represented still lingers."

FIT candidate Myriam Bregman
FIT candidate Myriam Bregman

Fuentes' point isn't to dismiss the "lingering" (and even growing) anger among Argentine workers, students and the poor, but he does recognize that the ruling class has successfully stabilized its state and political mechanisms in the wake of the 2001 economic meltdown and street uprisings.

DURING THOSE dangerous days, a dissident Peronist politician named Nestor Kirchner diverted the wave of anger stoking the ¡que se vayan todos! (throw them all out) sentiment into a sort of center-left populism, held together by patronage, arm-twisting and corruption, which has ruled the country for the last 14 years.

Kirchnerismo survived partially due to a spectacular commodity boom--soy exported to feed China's increasing demand being the most important--which led to average annual GDP growth of 7.7 percent from 2004 to 2010. This allowed Nestor--and, when he died unexpectedly, his wife and successor Cristina Fernández de Kirchner--to simultaneously raise social spending, blunt union opposition and win praise from Wall Street as an emerging market gem throughout most of the Great Recession.

But dark clouds are gathering on the economic horizon. Falling commodity prices and the rapid devaluation of the Chinese yuan (a quarter of Argentina's foreign currency reserves are held in the yuan) are forcing the government to slowly devalue the peso--the currency has lost more than 10 percent of its value this year. And everyone knows the government is spending cash it doesn't have in order to prop up the economy until after the fall elections.

Against this backdrop, Kirchner's handpicked successor Daniel Scioli, governor of the province of Buenos Aires, led the dominant section of the traditional Peronist forces in the Front for Victory (FpV) to first place in the August 9 elections, with 38 percent of the vote. Polls showing that Kirchnerismo may well survive another round of elections by relying on its remaining reserves of support.

On the right, Mauricio Macri, mayor of the city of Buenos Aires, came in second with 30 percent of the votes for his Let's Change coalition (Cambiemos). The darling of national and international finance, Macri has promised to "let the market decide" on devaluations and economic policies. However, Macri is doing his best to brand himself as a centrist, and his coalition includes the Radical Civic Union (UCR), the Argentine section of the so-called Socialist International, along with parties such as the French Socialist Party, Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party and the British Labour Party.

Placing a surprisingly close third, Sergio Massa, an ex-Kirchner-cabinet-minister-turned-rival, headed the New Alternative slate (Una Nueva Alternativa), uniting Christian Democrats with anti-Kirchner Peronists. Massa picked up 20 percent of the vote.

All together, the mainstream candidates won nearly 90 percent of the turnout, setting up a hotly contested race in which Macri will likely form a tactical alliance with Massa to try to prevent Scioli from getting the 45 percent needed to win on the first vote on October 25. Scioli is still the odds-on favorite, but if he falls short of the 45 percent in October, all bets might be off for the November runoff if the Kirchner machine is seen to crumble and Peronists of all factions scatter.

ALL OF this brings us back to the significance of the FIT's showing. Compared to the U.S., elections in Argentina are models of accessibility and bottom-up democracy; corporate cash plays an enormous role, but the system of nationally unified, open, simultaneous and obligatory primaries (known as PASO, by its Spanish initials) in place since 2011 allows for a broad political spectrum.

The August 9 elections settled two questions: which parties would collectively attract 1.5 percent of the national vote to move onto the general election in October, and which candidates within the parties received the most votes in order to represent their party in the next round. In addition to the presidential primary, thousands of candidates competed under the same rules for the National Assembly, provincial offices, Mercosur parliament and more besides.

The FIT took advantage of this multifaceted competition and drafted several thousand candidates to stand across the country. Many came directly from activism in their workplaces, neighborhoods, schools and social struggles, including 300 classroom teachers.

In this context, the 1.5 percent barrier provided both a spur and an obstacle to the left's success. Fear of falling short of the target forced the main elements of the FIT to work together in a series of elections in the run-up to August 9. Although they could not agree on a unified presidential ticket in the PASO, the cumulative effect of their organizing easily raised the combined vote of their competing primary tickets over the 1.5 percent line.

On par with France, Argentina is home to one of the most popular and best-organized revolutionary socialist movements in the world.

Paradoxically, the strength of Juan Perón's national-populist political movement, extending all the way back to the 1940s (sometimes called Justicialismo--meaning "social justice"), alternated between co-optation and repression of the Moscow-oriented Stalinist party, while narrowing the space for moderate social democratic parties. Principled and tenacious anti-Stalinist revolutionaries, both Trotskyists and supporters of Che Guevara, survived repression during the 1970s military dictatorship and emerged as serious political forces in the 1980s when the junta collapsed in the face of economic crisis and escalating class struggle.

During these years, the Movement for Socialism (MAS) won hundreds of thousands of votes while recruiting and training thousands of cadre. The untimely death of Nahuel Moreno, one of the movement's central leaders, in 1987, and the collapse of the former USSR two years later, fractured the movement into competing, and often ferociously hostile, components.

But by 2001, the Trotskyist organizations began to regain their balance, playing significant, if minority, roles in the street and piquetero protests of the 2001 Argentinazo. Yet when the Argentine ruling class was at its most vulnerable, the left was unable to forge any sort of national alternative.

THE FIT's August 9 success and the potential to increase its vote in October is in many ways the story of its immersion in the social struggle over the years since 2001, defending political prisoners, supporting unions, opposing police brutality and demanding prosecution of the crimes committed under the dictatorship. Myriam Bregman, the 43-year-old FIT vice presidential candidate, radicalized in the late 1980s and emerged as a leading movement lawyer during the difficult 1990s and 2000s, typifying this trajectory.

The FIT also crystallized a set of working-class demands which speak to the growing frustration with politics as usual. These included planks calling for a living wage, a freeze on layoffs, increased pensions, non-payment of international debts, nationalization of banks and a state monopoly on foreign trade, land reform, an emergency fund for low-income housing, abortion rights and opposition to violence against women, free health and education, and an end to police brutality.

Last but not least, the FIT raised the question of a workers government, challenging the results and prospects of leaving political power in the hands of the capitalist class.

Internally, the FIT is composed of two main trends. On the one hand, the Workers Party (PO) is likely the single biggest organized bloc, claiming a related, yet distinct history from the Moreno-inspired Trotskyist groups. Until recently, its founder and current leader, 73-year-old Jorge Altamira, was perhaps the best-known revolutionary figure on a national scale.

Alongside the PO, the smaller Socialist Left (IS), Puebla en Marcha, Unified Socialist Workers Party (PSTU), Comunismo Revolucionaria, as well as a few well-known independent figures, comprise the "Unity" trend of the FIT.

On the other hand, the Socialist Workers Party (PTS) traces its lineage directly from the MAS of the 1980s and has emerged as the most successful organization rooted in the Moreno tradition of Trotskyism. Widely considered by its rivals to be excessively polemical and organizationally rigid in terms of alliances with other left forces, its Renovation trend, which also includes Convergencia Socialista, headed by presidential candidate Nicolás del Caño, narrowly defeated Altamira in the internal PASO primary.

Losing by just 15,000 votes out of the total of 725,000 cast in the internal FIT primary, the PO has tended to explain del Caño's victory as based on an admittedly better-run press campaign and a huge showing for del Caño in his home province of Mendoza. The PTS rejects this characterization and insists that the primary results demonstrate that a measurable number of workers agree with them that the PO too strongly emphasized the need for alliances with moderate left organizations, instead of building the FIT by appealing directly to radicalizing workers and activists.

The truth may be somewhere in between. As Pablo Stefanoni writes, "For its part, the PTS is a paradox: it's 'harder' in some aspects of its discourse (an emphasis on industrial workers, its criticism of new, non-Trotskyist organizations in the FIT, hostility to international left forces such as Evo Morales, Podemos, or Syriza), but at the same time it appears more open to debate [than the PO]."

Yet as Stefanoni also points out, del Caño's success should not be chalked up to hipster marketing. Rather, 35-year-old del Caño is not only an experienced socialist leader--both as a street organizer and an elected member of the National Assembly--but his political life is organically linked with a whole generation of radical and radicalizing Argentinians.

Comparing him to Olivier Besançenot, the French Trotskyist who won 4 percent of the presidential vote in 2002 and 2007 while in his late 20s and early 30s, thousands of young workers and students identify with "Nico" as a genuinely popular figure who tells it like it is and seems slightly uncomfortable with fame.

WHAT IS clear is that both trends within the FIT are growing and extending an influence far beyond their memberships. They will each enter the October elections with hundreds of candidates up and down Argentina.

Meanwhile, the debate about how to expand the FIT and unite the revolutionary left--or even how the revolutionary left should work with the broader left--is not confined to the FIT. Significant Trotskyist and other revolutionary organizations remain outside the FIT.

The New Movement for Socialism (Nuevo MAS) and the Socialist Workers Movement (MST) each gained around 100,000 votes in the PASO, but missed the 1.5 percent threshold, disqualifying them from the October general election. But they each will have candidates running for other offices and their votes are not insignificant when compared to FIT.

Both the Nuevo MAS and the MST--although with different emphases--argue that the FIT must be expanded beyond its existing organizations, and must become broader than a front of, more or less, self-defined Trotskyist organizations. They emphasize the potential example set by SYRIZA, or at least its left wing.

This debate will remain open (and very public), but for the moment, substantial internal changes seem unlikely because there is a clause within the FIT pact which requires unanimity to include new member organizations.

The FIT's big showing will raise expectations inside Argentina and intensify the debates both internally and externally. Both sides within the FIT agree with Altamira when he says leaving the FIT means committing political suicide. Yet avoiding disaster is clearly not enough. As activist and writer Claudio Katz of the Economists of the Left, points out, "The FIT's appearance has modified the electoral picture, but it will require new forces to change the political scenario."

The test now will be if genuine revolutionaries from all trends can use these elections to forge internal working unity, popularize a program and knit together a social base on campuses, in unions, the neighborhoods and the social movements. There is no sense in underestimating the divisions or endlessly repeating calls for immediate unity, but the opportunities and responsibilities are real.

Like the SYRIZA experience in Greece, although under markedly different social and political conditions, the FIT's campaigns and actions, and the campaign to unify and build the revolutionary left in Argentina, is a school for revolutionary strategy and tactics which deserves international study, dialogue, critique and solidarity.

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