Who is NŽstor Kirchner ArgentinaÕs new President?

After Carlos Menem pulled out from the ballotage, Néstor Kirchner formerly a governor of a Patagonian province will take office the 25th of May as Argentina’s new president. Kirchner, who had obtained only 22% of the vote in the first round, is not necessarily bound to be a “weak president”: according to all the polls, he would have obtained between 70 and 78% of the vote in the ballotage. The result of the elections discouraged most of the activists of Argentina’s vigorous social movements, who feel that society voted for the “same old s***” (Kirchner, like Menem and the provisional president Duhalde, also belongs to the Peronist party). Some even say that society as a whole has “turned to the right” after the radical rebellion of the 19th-20th of December 2001. I personally believe this is a misinterpretation of the people’s electoral behavior: in my opinion Argentineans showed that they are not “in the mood” for continuity, but for change. The problem is that we were forced to choose “the lesser evil” under the threat of the return of the neoliberal right, and in a situation in which no serious electoral alternatives were available. Some of my discouraged compañeros in the Assemblies movement say bitterly: “all the candidates of the system are the same, and the people decided to vote for one of them anyway”. But this is and is not true. Of course, by definition, none of the candidates “of the system” would build a non-capitalist society, and in that respect they are “the same”. However, it is also true that the different measures that different candidates are likely to take may affect our lives very differently, and in that respect they are not “the same”.

Menem, for example, was openly announcing severe repressive measures in his TV adverts. López Murphy the neoliberal candidate that the media “invented” few weeks before the election would have virtually destroyed what is left of public health and education, and also repressed the social movements with no mercy. That is why, in my opinion, the population showed up massively in the first round, to make sure those two candidates would not make it to the ballotage, thus leaving us with no option but a “neoliberal authoritarian” or an “authoritarian neoliberal”.

There was no hope or enthusiasm in that decision, but fear, a high level of “pragmatic cynicism”, and a stubborn commitment to, at least, some degree of change. The people decided to veto repressive candidates and activists should be grateful for that and to vote for the only candidate that offered a feasible (if moderate) renewal of Argentinean politics. True, Néstor Kirchner is from the Peronist party, and was the “official” candidate of President Duhalde. But what other desirable option was left?

The progressive Elisa Carrió, perhaps? People rightly perceived that, lacking a proper political base in most of the country, she was not ready to carry out the political program she proposes. What about the other Peronist candidate, Adolfo Rodríguez Sáa? Well, he is an unpredictable adventurer, a clown with a weird bunch of followers, to say the least.

The traditional communist-trotskyst left? Unless anyone still believes in “socialism in one country”, it is quite obvious that they would without any doubt worsen the economic situation of most of the population. But, more important, even if it was feasible, their program is not really a desirable option for the vast majority. In this scenario, the people opted for a “cynic” vote for Kirchner.

But does that mean a “turn to the right” comparing to the past? I do not think so. Kirchner is a relatively “new face” and has no criminal records or accusations for corruption (rather exceptional for a Peronist). Even when he belongs to the Peronist party, his language and style look more like that of the “civilized” progressive politicians of the late 1990s, and his was one of the only voices against Menem’s policies during the 1990s neoliberal euphoria.

Moreover, he definitively made the extra effort to sound left wing: his electoral promises include “returning to a republic of equals”, and closing the neoliberal period of Argentinean history “inaugurated by the military coup in 1976”. After the first round of the election he visited Lula in Brazil (who received him with honors and an infrequent display of public enthusiasm) and openly said he was proud of his political past (in the 1970s he was a member of a left-wing Peronist revolutionary organization).

But what is more striking is the speech Kirchner delivered the 14th of May, after it was known that Menem had pulled out, automatically making him the new president. Kirchner denounced it was a move from the economic establishment to deprive him of political legitimacy, so as to make his administration more “open” to corporate pressure. Thus, he launched an attack on “the groups that hold economic power” and “benefited from inadmissible privileges in the last decade” by “corrupting politicians” and “ruining the lives of the citizens”, while warning them that he would not “give up his ideology” for “pragmatism” after he takes office.

This rhetoric, which strongly contrasts with Menem’s celebration of big business, but also with De la Rúa’s servility and even Duhalde’s prudence, sounds more left-wing than anything uttered by an Argentinean president in the last three decades. No surprise international investors and local businessmen particularly bankers, who had openly supported Menem or López Murphy, are frankly concerned with this political outcome.

For the moment, of course, these are only discursive bubbles. It remains to be seen if Kirchner will actually change the rules of the game in any shape or form: in the past, Argentinean politicians have had no problems in doing exactly the opposite as they say. For the time being, the confirmation of Roberto Lavagna as minister of Finance seems to indicate a moderate but firm approach to the economy. Lavagna is indeed the first Argentinean minister to actually negotiate (as opposed to agreeing a priori) with the IMF since the mid 1980s, and he has already announced that the “social situation” would be his priority number one, whilst financial corporations would have to adapt to new rules: higher taxes, lower prices, no more unduly state subsidies.

The results of the election may not have fulfilled the radical expectations that some of us nurtured after the rebellion of 2001 (or at least not in the dramatic way we expected). The slogan of the rebellion was “Get rid of them all!”, and we still have not achieved that goal. However, it is undeniable that Argentina’s political landscape is indeed changing. After one decade of uncontested rule, neoliberalism has been seriously wounded. We already got rid of De la Rúa and Carlos Menem, and the two political forces that controlled Argentina in the last century are in serious trouble: the UCR has virtually disappeared, and the Peronist party remains with its internal crisis unresolved and is very likely to divide in two or three groups.

The future is still open.

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