The death of Alberto Nisman, the prequel of his lawsuit against the government, and the sequels of the investigation, the reform of the intelligence services, and the prosecutors’ march underscore, once again, the centrifugal and anti-cooperative dynamics of Argentine politics. The complete saga, of which we are yet to see the end, is shocking; its familiarity does not make it any less depressing.
How to explain this style? Rather than playing the blame game and handing out responsibilities —whether it is a consequence of the government’s authoritarianism or of the opposition’s attitude— let’s try a more structural approach, based on three dimensions: the political culture, the party system, and the media ecosystem. All of these may help explain the eccentric style —in its first definition, far from the centre— so characteristic of Argentine politics.
Political culture is like a ghost: no one has seen it, but it sure exists. Ours, like any other, mixes a range of diverse and even contradictory features, amongst which is worth pointing out a strong immigrant tradition and the socialist and anarchist spirit of the late 19th century. These resulted in an conscience of egalitarianism unheard of in Latin America and, later on, in a strong popular impulse towards the expansion of rights.
A vibrant civil society, strong unions, and very well-established party traditions (with weak party structures tending towards broader movements) define a particular mix, characterised by the strong role of society over the state. This is evidenced by the multiplicity of demonstrations carried out not only by the classic, working-class groups, but also by new subjects putting forward their demands (middle-class savers, pot-bangers, coast guards, farmers).
Against the backdrop of the forever-unresolved tension between the traditions of liberalism (and its subject: the middle class) and populism (and its subject: the working class), we have a country with low levels of institutionality, even in comparison with other Latin American states. The Argentine peculiarity is the combination of weak institutionality and high politicisation. This is neither a praise or a criticism; it is simply a description.
Institutions are, basically, mediations, and in Argentina there seems to be only a fine layer of jelly separating the only truly recognised authority —the presidential authority— from the factors of power, be it companies, unions, social movements, or a mobilised public opinion. The consequence of this is a tendency towards decisionism which results in brief cycles of illusion and disappointment, which in turn make it difficult to develop long-term, consensual policies. Faced with crises such as the 1989 hyper-inflation or the 2001 uprising, and even at times of high tension such as the 2008 campo crisis, actors tend to behave in non-cooperative ways, bordering on anti-system positions.
The second part of the explanation involves the political system. Two-party systems, the standard example of which is the US, tend to organise politics around a clearly defined axis, which makes the available options clearer and the differences between them more transparent. It is the axis of democratic construction in contemporary societies. As the party in opposition knows it has the possibility of entering office after the next election, it has an incentive to propose constructive policies, which encourages a coordination that strengthens more balanced institutional schemes and which, in critical times, allows them to build national alliances through the agreement of two fundamental forces (1). Two-party systems are a praise of the centre.
The 1994 Olivos Pact was both the peak and the beginning of the decay of the two-party system in place since the democratic transition. From that moment onwards, one of the members of the duet, the Radical party, began a progressive decline which [Fernando] De la Rúa’s victory in the 1999 presidential election was unable to stop.
Today, over two decades later, Argentina suffers from an unbalanced and constantly changing party system. Though in technical terms it is a multi-party system with a predominant party, it looks more like a thousand-piece Lego set manipulated by a restless child who puts it back together before every election.
Let’s remember: there were five candidates with around 20% of the vote each in 2003, Kirchnerism versus two coalitions in 2007, and Kirchnerism against a highly-fragmented opposition in 2011. In the middle of it all was a Radical party with a national reach but no presidential candidate, provincial —and even local— parties which from one day to the next can become competitive options at the national level, and an indestructible, plastic, and all-encompassing Peronism.
This singular party morphology feeds the centrifuge tendencies. The opposition forces, forced to compete amongst each other rather than against the government, often fiin into extreme radicalisation, whilst the governing party faces difficulties in finding authorised voices in the opposition (in the few cases in which it looks for them). This happened with the Criminal Code reform, put together by a multi-party commission but aborted by a new actor (Sergio Massa’s party, Frente Renovador), which destroyed it the moment it realised it was politically convenient.
Since Peronism appears as the only certain possibility to access power, everyone, or most candidates, declare themselves Peronists. This leaves unrepresented a sector of society that identifies itself with the long-lived republican tradition —Juan Carlos Torres calls them “the orphans of party politics”. In this scenario of low alternation, or of intra-Peronist alternation, the danger lies not so much with who is in power, but with who aspires to reach power: if they think they will never have their chance, if they think their chances amount to none, there is a risk their “democratic patience” will run out and they will be seduced by the siren song of authoritarian shortcuts, like in Venezuela.
These features serve to explain to some extent the dynamics of the Nisman case, an episode that could have pushed political actors towards behaving in a prudent and calm manner and even offered an opportunity to shed light on one of the dark areas of democracy, the basements of the intelligence services, but which instead turned into a mess of half-truths, fake leads, and political operations.
In social terms, the result seems to be the affirmation of the two intense minorities which make up the Kirchnerist polarisation: for the most visceral opposition, it was evidence that we are before a government willing to do anything (Elisa Carrió’s “now they are killing”); for the ‘Sunni Kirchnerism’, it was an operation, probably set up from overseas, to force their early exit from power. In this sense, Nisman’s death works sociologically to reinforce previously constituted ideas (that Kirchnerism murders or that the opposition is trying to overthrow the government), which curiously enough leads both groups to doubt the suicide hypothesis — the one that, at the time of writing, is still the most likely based on the judicial file.
The media adds drama to this confusing situation. Due to the way it works, media, especially audiovisual media, tends to generalise and simplify, turning even the most trivial issues into a show. Faced with a police story, they operate under a logic of serialisation that demands updates permanently. Demanding calm from the television broadcasters is like demanding serenity from an epileptic.
And even though the prominence of the media is not exclusive to Argentina, because it plays a central role in all the modern democracies, here it plays a particular part: the existence of a large middle class and a long tradition of literacy support a media landscape that, with eight national newspapers, three business newspapers, and five news channels that broadcast 24 hours a day, is comparatively broader than that of any other Latin American country.
It is a dense media ecosystem whose main actor, Grupo Clarín, enjoys a power relatively superior to other conglomerates in the region, including Red Globo [Brazil] and Televisa [Mexico].
In Argentina, death is not part of the political game. It could be different: in fact, it was for decades and it still is in countries like Mexico, Honduras, or Colombia, where, especially in the peripheral regions, it works as another resource in everyday politics. Here, death has become intolerable, and that’s one of the few consensus of our democracy — a hard-fought battle. This is why, from 1983 onwards, death always establishes a frontier: each death is a failure of democracy that forces institutions to react. The state can do anything about it, except to ignore it.
The death of Omar Carrasco resulted in the Menem government’s decision to end compulsory military service; those of Kosteki and Santillán forced [president Eduardo] Duhalde to bring elections forward; the death of Axel Blumberg led to a reform of the Criminal Code; those of Cromañón resulted in the impeachment of [Buenos Aires mayor] Aníbal Ibarra and the Once Station ones triggered changes in the railway policy. The appearance of Nisman’s body forced a new intelligence law.
Not all the responses were positive: the punitive turn that followed the death of Blumberg and the massive protests organised by his father, for example, were not. However, there was always a before and an after to each death, which shows that the Argentine democracy carries the antigen of political violence, that the antibody works. But we must be careful. In a country open to transformation and conflict, we have learnt how to introduce the necessary changes to get out of the mires in which we put ourselves. We still have to learn how to support those changes collectively.
1. Two-party systems, like all other systems, are far from perfect. In some cases, its centripetal tendency makes the two big parties fuse into one, which may generate a scheme that feeds corruption and makes it confusing for society to tell one from the other, with possible disruptive solutions, as it happened in pre-Chávez Venezuela and may happen in Spain.
Translated by Celina Andreassi.