“The day will be decisive. This thought, which dominates all spirits, predicts that the percentage of votes cast will be higher than under the Sáenz Peña law, put into practice by the great leading figure, convinced that the people, to return to the elections, only needed freedom.” – Excerpt from an editorial published by La Nación, 24th February 1946.
For those present in Buenos Aires on 24th February 1946, the previous four months of campaigning had culminated in the opportunity to vote either for or against political newcomer and leader of the Labour party, Juan Domingo Perón, in Argentina’s first free elections in 18 years.
The election became the largest in Argentine history up to then, with nearly 3m of 3.5m registered voters heading to the polls. The votes, when counted, indicated a landslide victory for Perón, garnering a 52.8% majority government.
In a country with a very short history of free elections – the Sáenz Peña law being passed on 10th February 1912, bringing with it universal suffrage for all argentine-born men of 18 years or older – the voting record was quickly tarnished. While five elections had taken place under the new voting law before February 1946 – beginning in 1916 with the election of Hipólito Yrigoyen – only three have since been recognised as fair elections, the Infamous Decade [1930-1943] being riddled with electoral fraud.
Thus, according to La Nación, the February 1946 elections became the ultimate test in determining whether or not Argentina would need to “continue fighting to save democracy.”
Perón’s Rise to Power
Virtually unknown before 1943, Perón’s popularity grew quickly under the military junta that took power that year, by enacting a series of social and labour reforms as well as welfare benefits for unionised workers in his role as Labour Secretary. In his own words, these reforms made “the argentine people proud to live where they live, once again.” By 1944, he had became Vice-President and Minister of War, as well as keeping his post as Labour Secretary.
With three titles under his belt, an ever growing support from the working classes and unions, and associations with celebrities such as Eva Duarte – who would later become his wife – through fundraising efforts like that following the devastating San Juan earthquake in 1944, Perón’s influence began threatening his colleagues.
In scathing articles and editorials, newspapers like La Nación spoke of Peron’s Labour Secretariat as a body which “grew too large, wrapping its tentacles in a huge budget throughout the national territory.” Others wrote that his role as Secretary over the past few years had begun “the demolition work of the economic and social structure by instilling in employees the idea that they have been exploited in favour of the capitalists.”
In October 1945, Perón’s influence grew too strong, and the military government forced him to resign from office on 9th October 1945. His arrest four days later fuelled mass demonstrations, which eventually led President Edelmiro Farrell to release Perón on 17th October 1945 and call for elections to be held the following February.
In response to Perón’s popularity, the four-month campaign from October to February quickly turned into a matter of support for or against Perón himself. He held a platform largely based on social issues such as protecting the underprivileged against the abuses of capitalism and the oligarchy, as well as standing firm on the idea of Argentine sovereignty, rejecting foreign – notably US – influence in domestic policy.
After US Ambassador to Argentina Spruille Braden published a paper, known as the “Blue Book,” accusing Perón of having ties with European Nazis – some of whom sought refuge in Argentina after the war – relations with the US became increasingly strained. “Braden or Perón” became the campaign slogan, establishing a dichotomy between Perón and US imperalism.
Opposing Perón in the campaign was the roughly formed Unión Democrática (UD), created between the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR) and the Communist and Socialist parties, with little in common aside from a dislike of Perón. Led by José Tamborini, the platform spoke to capitalists and land-owners, threatened by Perón’s ideologies, who sought to restore Argentina’s democratic guarantees that had disappeared under the military rule.
Tamborini, however, lacked Perón’s qualities as an orator – “his nimble wit, his ready smile, his ingratiating ways, his demagogic manner, and his unscrupulousness,” according the New York Times – and Perón’s cult of personality took over the impassioned campaign.
Amid the uproar caused by Perón’s arrest, and the vehemence of the campaign, the Sunday of the election was expected to be violent. Trucks full of soldiers cruised around the capital, cavalry were stationed at important corners, and pacing outside of polling stations with rifles and fixed bayonets, military personnel were positioned to ensure fair and safe voting in Buenos Aires and around the country, as promised by President Farrell and his government.
“Everyone, beginning with the democratic press, acknowledges that the military government under President Farrell fulfilled its promise to make it possible for all Argentine citizens to cast their votes with perfect freedom,” printed the New York Times following the election.
As the polls closed across the country at 6pm on 24th February, both candidates believed themselves to have achieved landslide victories, each predicting four-to-one, six-to-one, or ten-to-one victories, depending on the media source.
Although much of the press favoured Perón’s opposition, La Epoca, one of the few pro-Perón papers, published a letter from him addressing his supporters. “With the election over,” it read, “I wish to thank all the Peronists of the country for their effort in maintaining order. For a people like my dear descamisados [un-shirted], it is an honour and pleasure to serve; so whatever may be the result of the elections, I am intensely happy to be your chief and I pray God He will give you happiness and luck.”
As the votes were counted over the following months, the military remained in power out of fear that the losing side might take drastic action. However, as the counting continued quietly, and neither side challenged its fairness, the results finally ruled in Perón’s favour.
Perón was inaugurated as the 29th President of Argentina on 4th June 1946, three years to the day after the military junta seized control of the state. His reception was overwhelmingly supportive, as police details were at times unable to keep crowds from surrounding the presidential party.
In his speech to Congress, interrupted at many points by cheering from the crowds, he said of his international policy that it would consist of “unshakeable maintenance – firm and intransigent – of our sovereignty.” And with regard to domestic policy, Peron vowed “respect for the country’s tradition and institutions and the economic betterment of all its people.”
Perón would continue to serve two terms as president until 1955, and again for a third term in 1973. He and his wife, Evita, would become two of the most popular figures in Argentine history.