Shadow of Perón looms large over Argentina's presidential election

Decades after the deaths of Juan and Eva Perón the shape-shifting movement they founded is more influential than ever. The question is not whether the next president will be a Peronist but what sort of Peronist he will be

Among the quirkiest revelations to emerge from the Argentinian presidential election campaign has been the lengths that frontrunner Daniel Scioli is willing to go to feel loved on a football pitch.

Ahead of Sunday’s vote, it has emerged that the wealthy 58-year-old built his own pitch within his private residence, arranged sponsorship for his team-mates and commissioned an artist to fill the viewing gallery with life-sized figurines of his political heroes, including Barack Obama, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi.

Such self-indulgence raised a few eyebrows, but nobody was surprised to find that pride of place in his fantasy football audience was given to Argentina’s historical first couple: Juan and Eva Perón.

Decades after their deaths, the Peróns continue to dominate the country’s political discourse.

Scioli, the candidate for the Peronist Justicialist party (as head of an electoral alliance called Front for Victory), is poised to be the primary beneficiary. Most recent opinion polls suggest the former Buenos Aires governor is on course to win a knockout victory in the first round this Sunday, which would require 40% of the vote and a lead of at least 10 percentage points over his nearest rival.

But even if he fails, Argentina’s next president is still likely to claim political kinship with the Peróns. Third-ranking candidate Sergio Massa, a former cabinet chief, is a longstanding member of the Justicialist party.

And earlier this month, Mauricio Macri, the pro-business mayor of Buenos Aires, and the only one of the three frontrunners who is not a Peronist – unveiled a statue of Perón and sang a Peronist anthem.

It would seem that running for high office in Argentina without declaring faith in Peronism is now like standing for the US presidency as an atheist.

President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner waves alongside the Buenos Aires governor and presidential candidate Daniel Scioli.
President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner waves alongside the Buenos Aires governor and presidential candidate Daniel Scioli. Photograph: --/AFP/Getty Images

“Peronism is now as strong as it has ever been,” says Luis D’Elía, a prominent Peronist activist with the Land, Housing and Habitat Federation. “The only comparable time was during the height of Evita’s popularity.”

As evidence, he cites the appeal of outgoing president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who leaves office with impressively high ratings of about 50% largely due to her focus on income redistribution and job creation.

But Peronism is a flexible label. Whoever next occupies the presidential residence, known as the Pink House, the question is not whether they will be Peronist, but what kind of Peronism they will adopt.

The movement’s roots are in the poor neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires, where workers formed unions and propelled Perón to power in 1946. In those days, the pillars of Peronism were full employment, a strong industrial policy, income redistribution and a welfare state.

In the years since, the movement has drifted from left to right and back again. Peronism paved the way for the dictatorship in the 1970s, but was then decimated by the military death squads that followed.

Bereft of its most radical leaders, Peronism supported the ill-fated invasion of the Falkland islands in 1982, and embraced Thatcherite economic policies under President Carlos Menem in the 1990s.

More recently it has shifted back to a focus on wealth redistribution – albeit with a strong focus on consumption – with the presidencies of Néstor Kirchner and, after his death, his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Given the movement’s ability to retain influence for decades despite its wobbles back and forth across the political spectrum, some have compared it to the world’s other great electoral machines, such as Brazil’s PMDB, Mexico’s PRI, or even Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party.

Pizzas with the faces of presidential candidates are shown at the Los 36 Billares pizza restaurant, in Buenos Aires earlier this month.
Pizzas with the faces of presidential candidates are shown at the Los 36 Billares pizza restaurant, in Buenos Aires earlier this month. Photograph: Martín Zabala/Xinhua Press/Corbis

But while there are similarities in terms of collecting votes and kickbacks, Argentina’s dominant political force is different in its continued ability to attract idealistic believers rather than just cynical followers.

It remains at the heart of the national identity as is evident from countless Peronist statues, streets, bar-names, portraits, the huge illuminated profile of Evita on the building of the social development ministry, and a civil service banner declaring: “We are the most Peronist of all unions.”

More prosaically, Peronism occupies a lucrative and influential area of public life on the boundary of government and civil society. Under a system of state-financed patronage that has grown rapidly under the Kirchners, the social development ministry (headed by the president’s sister-in law, Alicia Kirchner) channels public funds to ostensibly non-governmental groups to help the unemployed, homeless and others in need.

These groups perform an important role in filling gaps left by the state, but critics allege this system is rife with abuse. They claim money is distributed with little oversight primarily to Peronist organisations and then used – in part – to ensure the loyalty of local political chiefs and foot soldiers at election time.

The Movimiento Evita – a Peronist group with branches across the country – gets the vast majority of its funds from the government. The organisation runs projects ranging from home construction and health programmes to police watchdog activities and the management of two discount supermarkets.

Mauricio Macri, centre, Argentina’s main opposition challenger in the presidential race, speaks at the unveiling of a statue of the late president Juan Perón in Buenos Aires on 8 October.
Mauricio Macri, centre, Argentina’s main opposition challenger in the presidential race, speaks at the unveiling of a statue of the late president Juan Perón in Buenos Aires on 8 October. Photograph: Stringer Argentina/Reuters

“Peronism is much larger than the government. It’s unions, social movements, youth organisations and business groups,” said Edgardo Depetri, a lawmaker and influential figure in the ruling bloc, Frente Transversal.

“We are not Marxists, nor are we capitalists. Peronists want the state to have an active role in creating jobs and redistributing income. We don’t believe in an unfettered free market.”

The ruling camp says poverty and unemployment have been slashed since the Kirchners came to power in 2003. But they are haunted by what has happened in neighbouring Brazil, where the Workers Party president, Dilma Rousseff, was re-elected last year on a similar boast of social progress but has subsequently been forced to adopt education and healthcare cuts by a hostile congress.

In Argentina, government critics warn such a reckoning is already under way. They say fudged government figures on inflation, poverty and economic growth mask an incipient reversal of earlier gains.

“Argentina is about to enter a new era of punishing fiscal adjustments, devaluation, rising unemployment and increasing social conflict,” predicted Claudio Lozano, an economist and former Peronist who is now an opposition lawmaker.

He expects the ruling party to once again swing with the economic wind: “This is a system that adapts to each situation, but always with the goal of returning to the status quo.”

Compared with the current president, Scioli has a reputation as a conciliatory figure inside Peronism. Like Macri and Massa, he has said he will try to negotiate with holdout US speculators – better known inside Argentina as “vulture funds” – that are blocking Argentina’s access to global financial markets.

He has kept a relatively low profile on the Falklands territorial dispute with the United Kingdom. And he has indicated that he will work more closely to improve the credibility of the country’s economic statistics – a source of tension with the International Monetary Fund.

Juan and Evita Perón are close to royalty – or sainthood – in Argentina.
Juan and Evita Perón are close to royalty – or sainthood – in Argentina. Photograph: Ullstein Bild/via Getty Images

But compromise is unlikely to sit comfortably with the Kirchnerist wing of the Peronist movement, which is carving out its own space in the public imagination with monuments, public buildings and social programmes. They emphasise that Scioli’s authority will depend on his loyalty to the values of his predecessor.

“He will have a mandate to continue what Cristina built,” said lawmaker Depetri.

The Peronist rank and file are hoping for a clearcut, first-round victory that will give Scioli a strong political mandate to continue with the policies of the past decade. If the contest goes to a second round, they fear a repeat of what has happened in Brazil, where Rousseff’s narrow victory forced her to make concessions.

“If Scioli follows Dilma’s steps, his support will break,” Fernando Navarro, a lawmaker and prominent figure in the Movimiento Evita, warns. “But if he follows the path taken by Cristina and Néstor, we’ll be able to move forward.”

That threat is not idle. Another feature of Peronism is the power to disrupt through strikes and protests. Outside the dictatorship era, no government has lasted more than a year without the support of its unions.

Much will depend on Fernández. The president has suggested that she will retire to her home in Patagonia, but her supporters say she will remain the leading figure in the wider Peronist movement. Asked if she might run for office again in four years’ time, D’Elía replied: “I don’t see her changing the nappies of her grandson.”

Regardless of who wins this Sunday, the soul of Peronism – and with it that of Argentina – look set to be contested long after the result is announced.

That will surprise nobody inside this movement, which stirs up as many passions as a religion, particularly among those who consider themselves the true disciples.

Lorenzo Olarte, curator of the Evita museum at the headquarters of the General Workers Confederation, remembers meeting Evita as a 10-year-old student activist – the start of decades of devotion that continue to this day.

For him, no subsequent Argentinian leader – including Fernández, Scioli or Pope Francis – is worthy of comparison.

“Politicians these days just use the name ‘Peronism’, but they don’t know the factories and they don’t love the people,” he said. “The real Peronists are gone.”


Jonathan Watts in Buenos Aires

The GuardianTramp

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