Argentina: Mid-term elections signal shift in political mood

By Raul Bassi

November 7, 2013 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal/Green Left Weekly -- Three key tendencies marked mid-term elections in Argentina: a continued decline in support for President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (pictured) and her Peronist-allied Front for Victory (FPV), the re-emergence of new forces to its right, and what many have dubbed a “historic” vote for the Trotskyist left.

At stake in the October 27 national elections were half of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies and one third of the Senate, along with a number of elections for state parliaments and local councils.

The elections were also viewed as a crucial springboard for potential candidates looking to compete in the 2015 presidential election, in which Kirchner will be unable to contest due to constitutional limits on consecutive terms.

The FPV demonstrated once again it is the largest political force, winning 32% of the vote. This was enough to ensure its continued, albeit reduced, control over both houses of federal parliament.

However, it suffered an important defeat in the critical state of Buenos Aires, which represents approximately 37% of the total electorate, and where a list backed by right-wing Peronist dissident Sergio Massa won 43% of the vote (12% more than the FPV candidate).

Moreover, the FPV’s overall result reflects a downward trend in support, from the almost 12 million votes (54%) in the 2011 national elections, to 7.5 million votes this time around.

While perhaps it is too early to claim that the result signifies the end of “Kirchnerism”, there are obvious signs of a shift in the political mood.

This fall in support is occurring within a context of Argentina’s resource export boom slowing down, the government’s ability to maintain concessions and subsidies is dwindling and big business is pushing for greater austerity from a government it never truly felt to be its own.

On top of this is the continued disillusionment bred by decisions to hand over new oil concessions to Chevron, all in the guise of defending “national sovereignty” and attacks on the International Monetary Fund and financial markets while simultaneously seeking their help.

For many workers, there is little to celebrate about the FPV redistribution push which after 10 years sees the top 10% of paid workers receiving more that 30% of total wages while the bottom 10% only receive 1.4%. At the same time, the government has chosen to attack workers and their unions for successive rail disasters, ignoring how privatisation has driven the railways into the ground.

Sergio Massa

Disturbingly, the biggest beneficiary of the decline in the FPV vote were candidates aligned to Sergio Massa, Kirchner’s former chief of cabinet and current mayor of Tigre, one of the largest councils within Buenos Aires. Massa’s candidates, which ran under the list name Renewal Front, had the support of several important mayors in Buenos Aires as well as the former Argentine Industrial Union president José Ignacio de Mendiguren.

Massa represents a rightist current that, while having broken with Kirchnerism, remains within the broad Argentine church that is Peronism. He is more pro-business and is supported by bosses in industries, banks, and rural producers that still believe Peronism represents the best option for defending their privileges.

Other right and centre-right figures polled well. The millionaire head of government for the City of Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri, and his far right PRO party increased its support in the capital, while candidates aligned with the centre-right Socialist Party of Herman Binner also polled well in certain regions.

On the other side of the political spectrum, leftist candidates won 1.4 million votes across the country.

Left gains

The key beneficiary of this surge of support was the Left and Workers Front (FIT, Frente de Izquierda y los Trabajadores), an alliance of Trotskyist parties, principally the Workers Party (PO), the Socialist Workers Party (PTS) and the Socialist Left (IS). The candidate lists for the FIT also included an important number of non-aligned union militants and community activists.

The FIT won 1.15 million votes, or approximately 6% of the national vote, although it registered much higher percentages in working-class areas, for example the oil region of Santa Cruz, where it won 15%. This was more than double the number of votes it received in 2011 and was enough to secure the election of at least three national parliamentarians and eight state parliamentarians.

Due to the undemocratic electoral system the FIT failed to get MPs elected in a number of states where it polled very well, such as Cordoba (7.5%, where its is alleged fraud robbed it of an MP), Neuquen (9.6%), Jujuy (7.7%) and Santa Cruz (11.1%).

A number of leftist regional lists also did particularly well, such in the southern-most state of Tierra del Fuego, where the state secretary of the Metal Workers Union (UOM) was elected national deputy with 21% of the vote.

While the left only succeeded in electing one local representative in what has historically been its strongest area of support, the City of Buenos Aires district, this was largely due to a divided left vote. Together, the votes of the four left lists would have been enough to elect two federal MPs and at least three local parliamentarians.

Taken as a whole, such a result for the far left, and in particular the Trotskyist left, is unparalleled in Argentine history. Never before has it received such a high vote nor had as many candidates elected.

It also represents the first tentative steps towards taking up the challenge being posed by the bosses’ drive for greater austerity, with many sensing the need to prepare a fight back to expected attacks in the near future.

Fight back

The vote comes hand in hand with other similar developments outside the electoral sphere.

Over recent years, rising discontent with the traditional political system has reflected itself in the fall in support for traditional parties, growing numbers of industrial battles, numerous far-left victories in student elections and now the emergence of an embryonic but growing political force.

As has traditionally been the case, the rise of the left has been concurrent with a decline in support for Peronism, with more progressive sectors disillusioned with the FPV’s move to the right this time choosing to vote for the FIT. The rightward drift by previously centre-left forces, such as the Socialist Party, has also helped open up political space on the left for the FIT.

Importantly, many saw in the FIT a solid attempt at leftist unity behind pro-worker and socialist policies.

The FIT’s election campaign was characterised by its presentation of concrete proposals to tackle the pressing needs of the people.

These included wage increases to address the rising cost of living, no further tax increases on workers and a pension rate of 82% of workers’ average wages.

The FIT also campaigned for the nationalisation of oil and gas, starting with the revocation of the deal with Chevron. The demand for nationalisation was extended to cover the railways and underground metro system, together with their placement under workers’ and commuters’ control as the only way to salvage the railway system and put an end to the string of recent train disasters.

FIT candidates also promised that if elected they would place themselves at the service of workers and communities in struggle, with the aim of building a political alternative of workers and the left capable of fighting for a peoples’ and workers’ government.

In line with this, FIT parliamentarians will only receive an average workers’ wage, with the rest of their salaries being used to help fund different struggles. Elected candidates will also only hold their seat for one year before rotating it with the other candidates who ran on the same list, ensuring that the experience is shared around and privileges not accrued.

An important challenge will be the FIT’s ability to link up with other left forces that did well in these elections, both to actively work together in supporting struggles but also with an eye to the 2015 presidential elections.

What will happen next is unclear, but in any case a new experience has been born in Argentina, a work in progress that many will be following closely with a sense of hope.

[Raul Bassi is a Socialist Alliance activist in Sydney, originally active in Argentina.]