Categorized | Analysis

The King is Dead, Long Live the King? The Alfonsín Effect

Photo courtesy of wikipedia

Is this the beginning of a Radical Resurrection? Is Argentina poised for a return to bipartisan politics?

Argentines have always had a predisposition towards political necrophilia. Thirty-five years after his death, Juan Domingo Perón still weighs heavily on Argentine politics. A few years back, Perón’s body was moved to a mausoleum at his former summer residence in San Vicente. Several people were injured and shots were fired during rioting, as Peronists fought between themselves to get access to the body.

It is no surprise, then, that the recent death of ex-president Raúl Alfonsín has sent ripples through Argentine politics. The local press has been chattering excitedly about the so-called ‘Alfonsín Effect’.

But what is this so-called ‘Alfonsín Effect’ and what implications does it have for politics in Argentina?

The Father of Argentine Democracy

Often referred to as the ‘father’ of Argentina’s young democracy, Alfonsín took up the difficult task of managing Argentina’s transition back to democracy after seven years of the most bloody dictatorship in the country’s history. Although his management of the economy was widely criticised (hyperinflation forced him to hand over power early to Carlos Menem), he was respected for being, what The Economist referred to as, an ‘Argentine democrat’. He is credited for being a politician who was not corrupted by power (a rarity in Argentina) and who upheld the republican and democratic values that the country so sorely needed at the time.

The massive outpouring of affection for the former president, who died at the end of March, some analysts believe, have led Argentine society to reflect on the democratic values that Alfonsín was said to embody.

Photo in Public Domain
Alfonsín handing over the presidency to Menem

“This election is going to be about ethical concerns as well as a reaffirmation of democratic and republican values that were recognised belatedly in Alfonsín which form part of the widespread dissatisfaction with this government,” Graciela Römer, a local political analyst, stated.

Now that a certain degree of stability has been established after the country’s disastrous crisis in 2001, people are less willing to accept the current government’s authoritarian tendencies. The preeminence of the Kirchners is now being called into question. Increasingly, the legislative elections on 28th June are being seen as a referendum on their rule. This has opened up a lifeline for the beleaguered Radical Party. There has been speculation that the Radicals will field more candidates in more prominent positions as part of the Coalición Cívica in the upcoming elections. These speculations have been heightened by the fact that the late president’s son, Ricardo, who bears a certain resemblance to his father both politically and in his physical appearance, has decided to run.

“The Kirchners are going to lose their majority in the legislative elections on 28th June, and this will be good for Argentina because it will force them to negotiate and respect the workings of the country’s institutions,”  he remarked in an interview with the Spanish daily El País.

Is this, then, a case of King Alfonsín is dead, Long live King Alfonsín?

A load of Cobos

In fact, the key to a Radical resurrection may lie with the meteoric rise of another Radical figure: Julio Cobos, vice-president and current ‘persona non grata’ in the Casa Rosada. Cobos shot to fame for his ‘non-positive’ vote which defeated the Kirchners’ controversial export tax bill last year – a move that, for many, marked the beginning of the end of the Kirchners’ dominance of politics in the country.

According to opinion polls, the former Radical is the most popular politician in the country. Radical leaders were reportedly impressed by the positive public reception of the vice president as he made his way in the procession at Alfonsín’s funeral and are eager to speed up his return to the Radical fold.

“He is the most popular figure connected to the Radical Party and as such he is in the first position for whatever bid the UCR launch for 2011,”  explains Enrique Zuleta Puceiro, a political analyst.

Photo in public domain
1890 Revolution – the beginnings of the Radical Party in Argentina

Radical Origins

The Radical Party has always been associated with democratic traditions. The Radical Civic Union was formed by a group of democratic liberals on 26th  June 1891.

The party was instrumental in gaining universal male suffrage in 1912. It drew its support from the emerging middle classes as it fought to break the conservative oligarchy’s hold on power.

While its critics deride the Radicals as a party of weak and ineffectual leaders who lack support from the country’s poor, the UCR’s supporters point out the party’s respect for the rule of law and institutions (something their long-time rivals, the Peronists, are often criticised as lacking).

Collapse of Radical Party

Until 2001, notwithstanding the interjection of the military, Argentine politics consisted of two main parties: the Peronists and the Radicals. However, the tumultuous effects of the Argentina’s financial collapse and the incumbent Radical government’s disastrous performance drove the party to breaking point.

Radical President Fernando de la Rúa was forced to leave the Casa Rosada by helicopter as angry demonstrators gathered outside. The De La Rúa government’s indecisiveness during the crisis confirmed many Argentines belief that the UCR was a weak and ineffectual party. In the end, it was left to the ever-unpredictable Peronism to rescue the country.

All the key Radical members defected to other parties. Elisa Carrió joined the Socialist party, Ricardo López Murphy formed his own short-lived party, eventually teaming up with Buenos Aires mayor’s centre-right party PRO. Julio Cobos and several other key Radicals joined forces with Kirchner.

Radical Resurrection?

Photo by Jess Kraft

If the Radical party does managed to put itself back together it will be good news for Argentina. Since the economic crisis, the country has lacked a credible opposition. With the restoration of a two party system, voters will have more options and a solid opposition will be able to keep the incumbent party in check. With any luck, Argentine politics will start to be about real issues again instead of the result of shady backroom dealings.

However the opposition still remains divided between two blocks; the so-called ‘dissident Peronists’ (Narváez y Solá) in their alliance with Buenos Aires’ mayor Mauricio Macri’s PRO party and the alliance commonly referred to as the ‘Panradicalismo’  which includes political heavyweights such as Elisa Carrió, Ricardo Alfonsín and Cobos. Certainly, the Kirchners look worried and are resorting to increasingly desperate scare tactics. Nestór Kirchner during a speech last week, stated that if the government lost the majority in Congress the country would return to the ‘void and crisis of 2001’.

As things stand at the moment, though, it is premature to talk of a complete reunification of Radicalismo. Alfonsín’s death has certainly led to much soul searching in Argentine society. But the 60 days remaining until the mid-term elections is an eternity in the country’s politics and a lot can happen in the meantime. Indeed, as Enrique Zuleta Puceiro points out with no small degree of irony: 

“Never underestimate the Radical Party’s ability to blow a good opportunity.”

This post was written by:

- who has written 1917 posts on The Argentina Independent.

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