Read about the UCR’s revolutionary origins and early struggles with the military and peronism in ‘History of the UCR: Part I‘.
After the ousting of President Arturo Illia and return of military rule in 1966, the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR) was left in a weakened state, fragmented and wounded by the failure to return as the dominant political force after Juan Domingo Perón’s exile. The recovery from this point would take almost two decades, though key UCR figures would continue to play a crucial role in local politics in the meantime.
After de facto President General Juan Carlos Onganía banned all political parties, the activity of the UCR naturally diminished. Most of the political activitism that remained was concentrated in university groups. These student organisations were behind the most important protests against the dictatorship, including those known as “Cordobazo” and “Rosariazo” which, in 1969, brought Onganía’s government to an end.
After 1970, the UCRP—led by Ricardo Balbín—and many other parties (including the peronists, but with the exception of the UCRI that had supported the new military government) united in their claim for free and fair elections. In 1971, and with a new military in charge of the government, Balbín started negotiating the so-called “electoral exit”.
At this point, the military government allowed the UCRP to change its name back to Unión Cívica Radical while forcing the UCRI to change its name. It was also at this time that Raúl Alfonsín, a lawyer from Chascomús in Buenos Aires Province, started to form his own faction, differentiating himself from Balbín and emerging as the left-wing representative of the Radical party.
Finally, elections were held in March 1973. For the first time since 1951, the peronists were able to participate in presidential elections (although Perón was still in exile) and their candidate Héctor Cámpora comfortably beat Balbín by 49.5% to 21.3%. After allowing Perón to return to the country, Cámpora resigned and new elections were called in September of that year, giving Perón a landslide victory with 62% of the vote.
After Perón’s return, the differences between the ‘balbinist’ and the ‘alfonsinist’ factions of the Radicals deepened. While Balbín, after decades of confrontation, was now in favour of an agreement with Perón to achieve the much sought after “national unity”, Alfonsín maintained a strong anti-peronist stance. Balbín’s softened approach to dealing with Perón was evident when, during the latter’s funeral in 1974, he declared: “This old rival bids a friend farewell.”
The UCR became increasingly polarised during the 1976-83 military government, which captured and ‘disappeared’ around 30,000 people. Balbin’s position has been widely criticised as too forgiving towards the dictatorship, a stance he called necessary to save the lives of his fellow party members.
Alfonsín, on the contrary, had a very active role during these years. He was a founding member of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights and, as a lawyer, risked his own life by petitioning for writs of habeas corpus for political detainees. He was also one of the few politicians to publicly oppose the Falklands/Malvinas War in 1982.
After the military regime lost the war against the British, its credibility crumbled and a democratic transition process was established. Elections were called for October 1983, and surprised many when Alfonsín won with 51.7% of the vote; it was the first time the peronists had lost a presidential election in their history.
Two facts are usually invoked to explain this result: Alfonsin’s denunciation of an alleged pact between the peronist unions and armed forces to avoid the trials for crimes against humanity, and the gesture by peronist politician Italo Lúder who, during the final rally before the election, burned a coffin marked “UCR”. This gesture was considered poor taste given the country’s recent history, and was rejected by a large section of society who wanted to leave political violence behind.
Alfonsín: The Father of Democracy (1983-89)
Alfonsín took office on the 10th December 1983 – the date coincided with the anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights. A massive crowd took to the Plaza de Mayo to hear the new president speak from the balconies of the old Town Hall.
Alfonsín had repeated during his campaign a phrase that would become the motto of his government: “With democracy we eat, we heal, we educate.” Amid the euphoria of an end to military rule, there was an expectation that democracy would solve the country’s ills.
Early measures fuelled this optimism. Only five days after taking office, Alfonsín decreed that there would be trials for the ERP and Montoneros guerrillas and for the three military juntas that had ruled the country between 1976 and 1983. The 1985 trials were unprecedented in the world and all the participants in the military juntas received jail terms of between four years and life.
In reality, restoring the State’s authority after half a century of military coups and counter-coups was a monumental challenge, and many of the new government’s promises were never fulfilled. The military was unrepentant, and hardline factions were already plotting another return to power. In 1986 and 1987 a series of military uprisings sent a warning to the president. With the fledgling democracy under pressure, Alfonsín was forced to negotiate with the insurgents, ending with the passing of two bills which put an end to the trials against the military men from all ranks involved in crimes against humanity. This decision cost Alfonsín dearly, his popularity diminished and the UCR lost the legislative elections that year.
At the same time Alfonsín was struggling to regain control of the economy. The last military dictatorship, unlike any of the previous ones, had made deep, structural changes in Argentine society and economy which would have lasting consequences. The political persecution of the 1976-83 period was a means to an end: to change the economic model of incipient industrialisation to one geared towards financial activities and services.
Perhaps unaware of the full extent of the changes instigated during the previous years, the government’s diagnoses were misguided and the old tried and tested solutions to overcome the crisis did not work in this situation.
The picture was bleak. The military government had multiplied the foreign debt by 5.5 times in seven years, poverty had increased, and inflation became a massive problem very early on in Alfonsín’s government. Efforts to bring prices under control—including the Plan Austral, which introduced a new currency in 1985—had only limited success.
The increasingly desperate Radical government found its efforts to introduce structural reforms blocked by the Peronists in Congress (they would later approve the same measures during Carlos Menem’s government). By 1989, the crisis had reached a critical point, with the country suffering from hyperinflation (the inflation rate reached 3000% at one stage) and a sharp rise in poverty and social unrest.
In May 1989, early elections were called and the UCR candidate, Eduardo Angeloz, lost against the peronist candidate Carlos Menem. Amid a deepening crisis, Alfonsín, who had united the UCR and arrived with such high expectations for the country, was forced to handover the government to Menem in July, five months before his term was up.
The situation that drove Alfonsín to resign has been called a “market coup”, meaning that the economic actors forced an institutional change by resorting to economic destabilisation in the form of lock-outs, rising interest rates, shortage of supplies, rising inflation.
That said, there were other, more positive policies implemented during Alfonsín’s government, which harked back to the core principles of the UCR since Yrigoyen. These included the creation of the Mercosur alliance with other South American countries, the signing of a peace treaty with Chile, the roll out of a massive literacy plan, the normalisation of the national universities under the principles of the University Reform, and the approval of the Divorce Law.
Despite the economic turmoil and the disappointment that his decision to put an end to the trials against the military government caused -for many it was seen as a capitulation and a betrayal- it would be fair to say that Alfonsín’s presidency fulfilled a crucial role of putting Argentina back on the democratic track. However, his highly ethical and idealistic stance, his faith in democracy and institutional restoration -in true Yrigoyenist fashion- were not enough to tackle the new economic and political balance of power that the dictatorship had left on its wake.
Menem and The Alianza Years (1989-2001)
It would be another ten years before the Radicals governed again. During the first half of the 1990’s, the UCR had to again deal with its legendary in-fighting following Alfonsín’s downfall and poor results in the legislative elections.
In 1994, a Constitutional reform was proposed by then-president Menem, with the main objective of allowing him to run for re-election (until then, a president was allowed only one six-year term). A secret agreement known as the Olivos Pact was negotiated between Menem and Alfonsín—who had remained as UCR leader—as a condition for the Radicals to support the reform. The Radicals gave Menem the changes in presidential terms (shortening of the term from six to four years, allowing one re-election, eliminating the electoral college and a second-round or ballotage system) in exchange for other reforms they considered necessary, such as the introduction of the role of cabinet chief, the autonomy of the City of Buenos Aires, changes in the election of Senators (which directly favoured the radicals), and the inclusion of third and fourth-generation human rights.
However, The Olivos Pact had a negative impact on the people’s opinion of the party and in the 1995 elections, the UCR performed poorly, finishing third for the first time in its history, behind the centre-left Frente País Solidario (FREPASO).
At the same time, and despite its overall poor results in elections, the UCR was doing quite well among the middle-class voters in the City of Buenos Aires. In 1992, Fernando de la Rúa, a conservative ‘balbinist’ who had developed his political career during the 1970’s and had been Balbín’s running mate in the 1973 election, was elected senator for the city and in 1996 became its first elected mayor (before the 1994 constitutional reform, the mayor of the city of Buenos Aires was appointed by the president).
In 1997, as the economic climate deteriorated and Menem’s government became increasingly tainted by corruption scandals, the UCR and FREPASO formed an electoral alliance called Alianza por el Trabajo, la Justicia y la Educación, or simply “Alianza”. The Alianza won the legislative elections that same year and the presidential elections in 1999, taking Fernando De la Rúa to government, along with his vice-president, Carlos “Chacho” Alvarez (from FREPASO).
De la Rúa based his presidential campaign on portraying the image of an austere and honest man, in stark contrast with Menem’s corrupt and frivolous ways. People voted for this change and welcomed it joyfully, but it was merely cosmetic. In terms of economic policy and underlying ideology, De la Rúa was hardly different from Menem and his government continued – and in some cases deepened – the disastrous policies of his predecessor.
The love affair between Argentina and The Alianza did not last long, and it did not take long for the new government to come under strain. In October 2000—less than a year after taking office—vice-president Alvarez resigned after publicly denouncing corruption in the senate. The centre-left factions within the Alianza were slowly displaced by De la Rúa’s conservative group, but they were unable to revive the economy, which was mired in debt and had been in recession since 1998.
In 2001, after the resignation of two economy ministers (one of them, Ricardo López Murphy, only lasted two weeks on the job), De la Rúa called on one of the strongest symbols of Menem’s first presidency to rescue the economy: former minister Domingo Cavallo. The attempts to curb the crisis using the orthodox policies prescribed by the IMF continued. More budget cuts, salary cuts (for public employees and pensioners), and debt renegotiations were implemented, while the economy was kept alive via the acquisition of more loans from the IMF and the World Bank.
As the situation worsened and social tension increased, legislative elections were held in October 2001. The Alianza was defeated by the Peronists and lost control of the Congress, weakening the executive even more.
In December 2001, the grave economic and political situation caused distrust amongst investors, which in turn increased bank runs and capital flight. To avoid the collapse of the banking system, the government placed a restriction on the withdrawal of deposits, which came to be known as the “corralito” (“little [pig] pen”). This affected the economic and trade system as well as the middle classes who saw their life savings trapped in the banks and only worsened the social situation.
Protests increased and by 19th December rioting and looting – mainly of supermarkets – started to take place. It is suspected that many of these riots were not spontaneous and were being fuelled by opposition groups for political gain.
That same evening President de la Rúa declared a State of Emergency, suspending constitutional guarantees. Thousands took to the streets of Buenos Aires and other major cities to protest against the government, in open defiance of the security measure. The protests continued throughout the night and the following day, during which time an aggressive police response caused the deaths of thirty-nine people in two days.
In the early hours of 20th December, Cavallo resigned. A few hours later, in the evening and after one final failed attempt to call on peronist governors to form a coalition government, Fernando de la Rúa gave his resignation speech on TV. For the 5th consecutive time, a Radical president was unable to complete a full term, though this time, the image of De la Rúa leaving the Casa Rosada in a helicopter while the masses rioted below would be especially devastating for the UCR.
Beyond 2001: Picking up the Pieces
The disaster of De la Rúa’s government and resignation left the UCR at its weakest in a 110-year history, unleashing an internal crisis from which it is still recovering. In the 2003 presidential elections, with the devastating effects of the crisis still evident and the image of De la Rúa’s helicopter still fresh in the minds of voters, the party had its worst result ever, obtaining only 2.3% support.
The UCR fell to pieces. Some of its members, like Ricardo López Murphy, left the UCR and created their own parties. Others, like Tucumán’s governor José Alperovich, even joined the Peronist party. During Néstor Kirchner’s government (2003-07), many Radical governors and mayors forged alliances with the national government and became known as “Radicales K”.
Amongst them was the governor of Mendoza, Julio Cobos, who was chosen to be Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s vice-president in 2007. Cobos was expelled from the UCR for taking the job, but barely a few months after the new government took office, in 2008, his role during the campo crisis catapulted him to the position of virtual leader of the opposition and reconciled him with the party.
In March 2009, the old Radical leader Raúl Alfonsín died at the age of 82. His funerals were attended by thousands of people drawing comparisons to those of Perón and Yrigoyen. That same year, the UCR formed an alliance with the Socialist Party and the Coalición Cívica and improved its results in the legislative elections, where it came second with 30% of the vote.
In 2010, the competition for the 2011 candidacies began. Cobos’ popularity had already begun to fade and a new contender appeared: Raúl Alfonsín’s son Ricardo. The party was going to hold internal elections between Alfonsín and his two rivals Cobos and Ernesto Sanz, but the last two decided not to take part in the internal election. This way, Alfonsín was proclaimed presidential candidate for the UCR for 2011.
Despite relying heavily on his father’s image for his own political recognition, Ricardo Alfonsín went against Raúl’s centre-left, social-democratic ideals and abandoned his previous arrangements with the Socialist Party to privilege an alliance with centre-right wing politician Francisco De Narváez, much to the distress of many of his fellow party-members. This proved to be a bad move at the primary elections, where the UCR came second – in a virtual tie with dissident Peronist Eduardo Duhalde – but almost 40 percentage points behind President Fernández.
This poor showing has once again opened up cracks in the UCR. The alliance between Alfonsín and De Narváez is under strain, and some Radical deputies and provincial governors have even started campaigning against Alfonsín, trying to save their own votes by suggesting that their supporters should split their ballots and vote for a president from another party.
The latest polls show that the UCR could slip out even further from power in October, losing its second place to the social-democrat Frente Amplio Progresista (FAP), Hermes Binner’s alliance, which is picking up the more progressive voters that the UCR’s latest arrangements left behind.
As the UCR faces yet another identity crisis, it might be time for the party to reflect on its long history and rediscover the causes and convictions of the men who made it the great party that it once was.