Argentina: The First Round of the Elections and the Social Movements

On Sunday 27th April, almost one and a half years after the rebellion of December 2001, the first round of the presidential elections was held in Argentina. From that year to the present, Eduardo Duhalde has been in office as a provisional president elected by the Congress.

In the elections, former Neoliberal president Carlos Menem, who led the country into its current crisis, received 24,36% of the vote. Although Menem won the first place, he received substantially less votes than expected. He will compete in the ballotage, to be held the 18th of May, with Néstor Kirchner, who was chosen by 22% of the voters. Like Menem, Kirchner also belongs to the Peronist party, but presents himself as a “progressive” leader and criticizes the Neoliberal policies of the past. According to all commentators and political analysts, Kirchner is to achieve an easy victory over his rival.

The list of the other candidates, defeated the 27th of April, includes Ricardo López Murphy (16,34%) -a Neoliberal economist from the newly created party Recrear – Elisa Carrió (14,14%) -a “center-left” champion of a “moral” crusade to regenerate Argentinean politics- and Adolfo Rodríguez Saá (14,12%) -a highly corrupt Peronist governor of the populist-nationalist kind.

The Unión Cívica Radical, traditionally one of the two main political parties together with the Peronists, almost dissapeared, with only 2,34% of the vote. The citizens’ punishment for Fernando De la Rúa disastrous presidency, which came to an end during the rebellion of the 20th of December 2001, seems to be the obvious reason for this dramatical outcome. The traditional left -the Trotskyst-communist alliance Movimiento Socialista de los Trabajadores (MST) and the Trotskyst Partido Obrero (PO) -failed once again to become a relevant political force, with 1,7 and 0,7% of the vote respectively.

At first sight, the crisis of legitimacy, of which the rebellion of 2001 was the most visible symptom, seems to have been resolved without major political shifts (at least for the moment). Although Kirchner’s rhetoric sounds clearly different from that of the Neoliberal past, and he is a relatively “new face” in the political landscape, with an impecable reputation as a governor of a Patagonic province, he can hardly be considered a real renewal. Indeed, he is the candidate of the current provisional president and leader of the utterly corrupt Peronist party, Eduardo Duhalde.

For all his progressive rhetoric, it is unlikely that Kirchner will undertake the deep transformations that Argentinean political system needs so badly -not to mention a serious change of economic model.

The outcome of the election leaves the social movements rather alienated from electoral politics, and some people start to feel that all the expectations that the rebellion generated after 2001 and all the struggle thereafter might have been in vane. In particular, the electoral “strategy” designed by most social movements seems to have been a complete failure.

Thus, after months of intense debates, almost all quarters of the social movement -except for the traditional left-wing parties mentioned above- opted for an anti-electoral strategy. Most of the unemployed piquetero goups (such as MIJD, MTD Anibal Verón, MTR, Barrios de Pie), the peasants of the MOCASE, some of the neighbours’ Assemblies and occupied factories, some small Trotskyst parties and fractions (such as the PTS), and even the left-wing deputy Luis Zamora, called to boycott the election by voting blank, spoiling the ballot, or simply refusing to show up (it must be remembered that voting is mandatory in Argentinean law).

The adoption of this radical strategy was related to two main reasons. Firstly, it seemed to correspond to the slogan of the rebellion, “Que se vayan todos” (Get rid of them all!), specially since the election was only to renew the President without choosing new members of the Congress or making any other significant change.

Secondly, boycotting the election was aimed at depriving the new government of as much legitimacy as possible, in the belief that that would give the radical movements more time and social “oxigen” to grow and resist repression. And after all, in the elections of 2001, before the rebellion, over 40% of the population had spontaneously refused to vote for any of the candidates -the so-called “voto bronca” (angry ballot). So, the anti-electoral politics seemed to be the best option.

The result of this election, however, was rather dissapointing for those who -like myself-campaigned for the boycott: the percentage of “non voting” in all its possible forms was very low.

The day of the election my own Assembly had organized a symbolic action of civil disobedience -a meeting of a people’s Assembly in front of the governmental house, in which methods of direct democracy would be explored/publicized. But only few people showed up, and we were easily dispersed by the police.

Another neighbours’ Assembly had planned a “counter-electoral carnival”, but the police dispersed them too. Somewhat larger groups gathered in other parts of the city (including the entrance of Brukman, the factory under workers control recently evicted). But the actions were far from massive. On the whole, the anti-election strategy was a complete failure.

Different reasons conspired against our proposal. To begin with, the struggle against evictions of occupied factories and social centers, and against the war on Iraq, left the movements with almost no energy and time to articulate a proper anti-election coalition. Secondly, there was a massive campaign in the media in favour of the so-called “voto útil” (“useful ballot”, as opposed to the “angry ballot”). Every single TV and radio presenter, and most of the journalists made a remarkable effort to make sure people would play the election game.

But more than anything else, arguably the main reasons of the failure of the boycott was a new phenomenon: the “angry ballot” seems to have become a “frightened ballot”.

An undetermined number of people decided to cast a positive ballot in the last couple of weeks before the election. Quite unexpectedly (some argue that the whole thing was fake) the polls had started to predict that Menem and López Murphy would be the two candidates to run for the ballotage, thus leaving the population with the option to chose an authoritarian Neoliberal… or a Neoliberal authoritarian.

Undoubtedly, many people decided to vote for Kirchner out of a rather reasonable fear. Even one of my fellow-campaigners for the boycott decided to vote for him in the last minute, and I have to confess I found it hard to overcome my own fear and stick to my first decision.

It is difficult to know how many people had a similar reaction. In any case, it is clear that the vast majority of voters -except for Menem’s followers, of course- were not particularly enthusiastic about the election. As in Le Pen’s France (and in Bush’s America, I imagine) voting the lesser evil out of fear seems to be almost the only option left for those who are unhappy with the current state of affairs: fear-driven “democracy” for powerless citizens.

With the economy seemingly under control, and the political crisis reaching a partial solution, the Argentinean social movements will surely face even more difficult times. In the last few months “low intensity” repression -violent evictions, harassment and imprisonment of activists, etc.- has been escalating to more open and aggressive police attacks.

The brutal eviction of Brukman few days before the election threatens to become the standard method in the near future. If that is the case, the survival of the alternative forms of resistance that mushroomed in Argentina in the last few years will depend on our capability to find new ways to deal with the issue of political power and re-connect with the non-politicized majority. Naif rejection of electoral politics may prove as harmful for us as the naif participation typical of the traditional left.

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