There are three Peronisms.
The ‘Kirchnerist’ Peronism, which led the party using more stick than carrot during its time in government and took responsibility for developing its tactical campaigns, was obviously weakened by last year’s elections. Its resources of power are limited but not insignificant: though it’s hard to provide an exact count, it has control over one province (governor of Santa Cruz), around 20 municipalities in Buenos Aires province, and a strong representation in Congress through a dozen senators and some 30 lower-house legislators. This is sufficient to carry weight among party groups, but not enough for a veto power, meaning it cannot block the government’s initiatives or approve its own bills without support from other members of Frente para la Victoria or the ‘dissident’ Peronist legislators. This requires performing some negotiating gymnastics that the Kirchnerist block is not accustomed to.
In short, Kirchnerism has few institutional representatives to express its ideological slant, a situation exacerbated by a failure to build its own union movement, its limited reach in the universities, and the fact that key governors like Jorge Capitanich (Chaco) or Sergio Uribarri (Entre Ríos) were succeeded by less loyal figures.
For this reason, Kirchnerism’s key strategic asset lies not in the accumulation of institutional spaces but in three factors that are difficult to quantity but hold a lot of value: the territorial strength of its activist movements, predominately the middle-class urban youth; the influence it still has over significant sectors of society who rightly value the advances made during 12 years in power; and the leadership of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who maintains an approval rating and political weight that inevitably puts her on the front line – a type of permanent presidential candidate light years ahead of other Kirchnerist leaders.
Freed from the responsibilities of daily management, and without needing to negotiate to receive funding from the national government, the Kirchnerist group can lead the head-on opposition to President Mauricio Macri’s austerity drive. The risk is that, by transforming into a sort of “Kirchnerist cultural centre”, the group will turn in on itself with a self-congratulatory discourse that is disconnected from the social mood. It is a tic that has been lethal to Kirchnerism in the past and, judging by the failed ‘Resistance March’, runs the risk of being repeated now.
The second Peronism, that of Sergio Massa, revives an old Argentine ritual. At least since the reinstatement of democracy, Peronism has offered options for dissent from official party candidates, which are sometimes attractive (such as Antonio Cafiero against Herminio Iglesias in 1985 or Francisco de Narváez against Néstor Kirchner in 2009) and sometimes not (such as Eduardo Duhalde against Cristina Fernández in 2011). With his victory in the 2013 elections, Massa took Peronism’s “natural majority” and built a coalition, the Frente Renovador, which now has 17 congresspeople, a dozen mayors in Buenos Aires province and a marriage of convenience with [Córdoba strongman] José Manuel de la Sota, together with a talented team of economists led by Roberto Lavagna.
Although it is presented as a ‘third way’ between Kirchnerism and Macrism, as an alternative to the populism of the past and the neoliberalism of the present, Massa’s movement in fact acts as a soft opposition. It is capable of joining the government in initiatives like the agreement with vulture funds or money laundering and also of confronting it with the anti-layoffs law. Ideologically undefined, the Frente Renovador moves in accordance with Massa’s intuitions, his undeniable tactical talent, and his frequent activity in the media. Soft industrialism coexists with the rhetoric of modernisation and is permanently tied to a hard line on punishment.
Massa’s coalition is rushed and impulsive, guided by the anxiety of youth and the glint in his eyes.
But, as the rhetoric of the Frente Renovador appears opportunist and even Ruckaufian [after Carlos Ruckauf], the coalition does not want to say that it lacks popular support: Massism managed to establish itself in last year’s elections, when, against all predictions, it managed to escape the deep political polarisation, in large part thanks to its ability to win the loyalty of the social “moyanismo,” that segment of the new middle class that Kirchnerism helped so much to expand but then inexplicably let go. Massa, like few politicians except Macri and Cristina Fernández, represents something.
His power, nonetheless, is a facade. As Martín Rodríguez argues, Massa did not produce leaders like himself, as Macri did, except for those that he bought. The Frente Renovador is formed by a combination of top-level politicians (Alberto Fernández, Felipe Solá, Facundo Moyano, Graciela Camaño) who are not made of the same ‘soft’ material as a Gabriela Michetti or a María Eugenia Vida, leaders who already came with experience and ideology and though which Massa is designing his presidential ambitions: the promise of a future. In contrast with the rise of the Macri’s PRO, which started with a defeat in the City of Buenos Aires and from there expanded in votes and territory, Massa’s coalition is rushed and impulsive, guided by the anxiety of youth and the glint in his eyes. Like Néstor Kirchner.
The third Peronism, which is also the main one, is positioned between the hard opposition of Kirchnerism and the negotiators of Massa’s front. Almost all of the institutional representatives of the PJ are active there, including governors, mayors and legislators, as well as a large part of the unions and social movements. Although it is usually grouped under the label of popular conservatism, it is rather an ensemble of leaders, structures, and fragments of very different systems. They are led by the pressing requirement of the moment and above all by the needs of the provincial leaders, who, as a result of the process of fiscal centralization in the last decade, depend more and more on federal resources for their survival. The provinces execute around 60% of total budget spending but collect barely 30% in taxes, creating a gap in which the hegemony of the central, federal power could slip in.
This problem is aggravated further by two factors. On one hand, some of the resources sent to the provinces, particularly for public works, are distributed in a more or less discretionary way by the national government. Yet even the funds which are assigned automatically through co-partnership are scarce. The chronically deficient finances of the majority of provincial administrations makes them permanently need advances from the federal government in order to pay local salaries. Because of this, although in political terms the governors are like mini presidents bestowed with almost complete power, in fiscal terms they are fragile goldfinches obligated to maintain an open and flexible dialogue with the Casa Rosada, one in which senators and legislators constitute their principal negotiating asset.
If the canonical book by Richard Sidicaro (The Three Peronisms) identified the historical Peronisms – the foundational of 1945-55, the “impossible” from 1973-78 and the “Peronism against the state” of the Carlos Menem era) then three other Peronisms coexist today without problem. Everyone talks with everyone, they speculate and make calculations while they wait for the leadership to be defined.
How will this dispute be resolved? Radicalism, the “great other” of Peronism, admits to being led these days by the defeated: Raúl Alfonsín did not win an election after his departure from the presidency in 1989, and lost the only two that he contested despite being the indisputable leader of the party until his death in 2009. Today the leader is Elisa Carrió, who has not won any elections either.
Peronism, however, demands victory, and the more unexpected it is, the better. Accused thousands of times of being authoritarian, it has become accustomed to choosing its leaders by a mostly democratic method of consulting society through an internal vote or through a general election in which there is more than one alternative to choose: Antonio Cafiero against Herminio Iglesias in 1985, Menem against Cafiero in 1988, Néstor Kirchner against Menem in 2003, and Kirchner (with Cristina Fernández as the leading candidate) against Eduardo Duhalde (with his wide ‘Chiche’ leading the ticket) in 2005.
But in order to convert itself into an option of power that transcends the present, Peronism needs something more: it needs to import from outside its ideological borders its contemporary discourse, that extra plus that gives it a meaning, such as the worldwide neoliberalism of the ‘90s or the “national and popular” shift left in the 21st century.
Because of this, the three Peronisms are not political parties in the classical sense or even internal currents of a single organic force. The boundary which separates them is blurry and in permanent motion. It will be the elections in the next year, especially in the Province of Buenos Aires where Kirchnerism and Massism will face each other again, that will provide the first definition. The ideological orientation the party takes on will depend on this result. As will the destiny of the third Peronism, which nowadays is the only possible alternative for the majority of Peronists, but in the medium term is condemned to extinction because it clings to the immediate needs of the present and because its unsupportable ambiguity creates an impossible political space, almost a non-place.
Translated by Nick Phillips and Zach Marzouk.