viernes, 1 de agosto de 2003

Argentina’s politics shift
in a surprising presidential
Without a conclusive electoral mandate, Néstor Kirchner seeks federal-
provincial co-operation and supporters in the new Parliament.
Néstor Kirchner assumed the presidency of
Argentina on May 25, it ended a period of profound political
crisis that began a year and a half ago and continued right
through to the presidential election itself. Kirchner’s victory
arose from a series of dramatic firsts in Argentine politics, in
which he “won” the presidency despite placing second on the
only ballot with just 22 per cent of the popular vote. The
leading candidate, former president Carlos Menem, withdrew
from the subsequent run-off election, thereby denying Kirchner
the opportunity to gather a majority of votes and the strong
electoral mandate that he surely would have achieved (see
Table 1). His new administration now faces fundamental
challenges that suggest the political instability may not be over
Kirchner must deal with his nation’s enormous economic
problems, including the need to strengthen the incipient
economic recovery, combat very high unemployment and
reorganize the foreign debt with private creditors. His
inaugural speech indicates that he will also work to establish a
standard for
the provinces’
systems and
adopt a new
sharing law.
The success of
his ambitious
agenda and his
new administration now depend on federal-provincial
negotiations and the results of further elections over the
remainder of this year.
A crisis begins
The Argentine Republic’s 17-month political-economic crisis
was sparked on December 20, 2001, by Fernando De la Rua’s
sudden resignation as president. His startling departure began
a whirlwind series of events over the course of a week: the
early resignation of a president-elect, which was followed by a
series of four replacements, the suspension of payments on the
public debt and the devaluation of the currency. The political
developments prompted public protests, triggering
governmental repression that caused more than thirty deaths.
There were also millions of pesos in individual losses as a
result of massive looting in large city centres.
This violent explosion eventually
gave way to an interim
administration headed by Eduardo
Duhalde, a senator who belonged to
the party that had lost the 1999
presidential elections against De la
Rua. Duhalde’s months in office
were marked by social upheaval led
by the holders of financial fixed-term
notes, originally in American dollars,
that were returned to investors in Argentine pesos
after the devaluation. At the same time, masses of
unemployed people expressed their anger by picketing and
disrupting the country’s roads and highways.
The debt and the provinces
Argentina’s huge public debt presents a fundamental challenge
for any new government. During the previous Menem
administration, from 1989 to 1999, the
debt grew exponentially, a total of 123%,
reaching $146 billion US. And this only
accounts for the federal government debt
– the total debt is much worse. Most of
the 24 jurisdictions that make up the
Argentine federation also have significant
financial problems. Their combined debt
grew during the same period from $15
billion to $37 billion US. This has caused
the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to
scrutinize not only the federal
government’s balance sheet, which is the
only one connected to the Fund, but also those of the
The situation is worsened by the absence of a federal-
provincial revenue sharing law, which the 1994 federal
constitution required be approved before the end of 1996.
There has been growing tension between the federal
administration and the provinces because of the distribution of
the fiscal adjustments required by the IMF. Then in 1999, when
the federal government was taken over by a political party that
was different than that which administered the majority of the
provinces, federal-provincial relations were further soured.
During De la Rua’s term, the federal-provincial tensions
created an ongoing, intense competition. The governors,
mostly Peronists, began to provide a more effective opposition
to the Radical Party administration than their party’s own
legislators in the nation’s Parliament.
De la Rua’s replacement by Duhalde, a Peronist, resulted in an
improved federal-provincial relationship, due not only to
matching political colours but also to the improved fiscal
performance at both levels of government brought on by
currency devaluation.
F e d e r a t i o n s
Vol. 3, No. 3, August 2003
Gabriel Puricelli is an economic and political analyst who lives in
Buenos Aires.
Table 1: The vote for president in 2003
Vote ( %)
Carlos Menem
Loyalty Front (Peronist)
Néstor Kirchner
Victory Front (Peronist)
Ricardo López Murphy Recreate Federal Movement
Adolfo Rodríguez Saá
National People’s Movement (Peronist)
Elisa Carrió
Alternative for a Republic of Equals
Néstor Kirchner, the new
President of Argentina.
Kirchner and the split in Peronism
Now Néstor Kirchner, one of those Peronist governors, is
moving to Buenos Aires to head the federal government.
Kirchner gained valuable insight running the Santa Cruz
provincial government and understands well the dynamics of
federal-provincial relations. Although he inherits the improved
situation, the redesigned federal political scene raises questions
about the governors’ future behaviour in their relationship
with the presidency.
Peronism, whose candidates have been Argentina’s governing
party almost exclusively since its foundation in 1946, was split
among three candidates during the April 27 election: the
winner Kirchner, ex-president Menem and ex-Governor of San
Luis, Adolfo Rodríguez Saá. This split and the virtual
extinction of Radicalism, the other traditional party, gave way
to an unusually fragmented electoral picture. Only ten
percentage points separated the first place candidate, Menem,
from the progressive representative who placed fifth, Elisa
Carrió. It is too soon to say whether this novel political
scenario will be a permanent change in the political system or
if it is a just a fleeting state. Peronism could easily be reunified
behind the leadership of the new president, or its split could
very well be reinforced with the emergence of three different
parties having strong regional ties. Like never before in
Argentina’s democratic history, the citizens’ voting patterns
produced a
political map
strongly marked
by regional
support for
candidates (see
Table 2).
When Menem
decided to
withdraw from the
second round,
originally planned for May 18, it was the first time in the long
history of the ballot system around the world where a
candidate who won the first round pulled out before the
second. His departure was undoubtedly aimed to weaken the
legitimacy of Kirchner’s mandate. Opinion polls suggested
Kirchner would trounce Menem, with between 71% and 79%
of the votes, when his opponent pulled out. Menem’s decision
could mark the end of his long political career, at 72 years of
age, since he cannot harbour serious hopes of being a
candidate again in 2007.
Rodríguez Saá’s case may be different, as he is 10 years
younger than Menem and is not burdened with strong
rejection ratings like those that ended up convincing Menem to
pull out of the race. If Rodríguez Saá retains significant
support, then Peronism will remain divided.
Running a province vs. running a country
Experience in running a provincial government has again
proven itself to be an important career boost for candidates of
Peronist origin: both Kirchner and Rodríguez Saá were
governors when they launched their campaigns, as was
Menem when he ran for the first time in 1989. Unlike other
federal systems, Argentina’s political parties have been
structured from the national level downward. Therefore, each
party’s provincial branches operate as structures from which
one can rise to federal leadership positions. However, this
pattern appears to be weakening, especially in the case of the
UCR, the Radical Civic Union, whose presidential candidate
received only 2.34% of the votes. Yet it still controls the
government in five provinces and provides the only significant
opposition in most of the other districts. Even if this party does
not regain a relevant federal role in years to come, its
provincial presence will most likely remain strong.
Another development that came out of these elections was the
emergence of a new conservative political force, built on the
basis of a confederation of exclusively provincial conservative
parties, which served as a platform for ex-radical Ricardo
López Murphy to obtain 16% of the votes. From a right-wing
minority faction of the old Radical Party, this ex-minister of the
De la Rua administration successfully combined his own
personal appeal to certain sectors of the urban middle classes
with the organization provided by the aforementioned
provincially-based parties.
Changes ahead for the federal government
More changes to Argentina’s political layout are scheduled
after Kirchner’s election. Every two years, there are elections
for one-half of the House of Representatives for a four-year
term, and one-third of the Senators for a six-year term. This
year, elections will be held for one half of the federal House of
Representatives and one third of the federal Senate. In all
likelihood, these elections
will result in two houses of
Parliament that look more
like the sum of the electoral
geographies of each
province, rather than a
genuine federal political
geography. This is due to
the transfer to each
provincial government of
the power to call elections
for the federal legislators
for each electoral district (which in Argentina coincide with the
provinces and the self-governing city of Buenos Aires). This
decision by the 1990’s Menem government sought to transfer
the political results at the provincial level (where Menem’s
party was the strongest) to the federal level, where voting
preferences were becoming unfavourable for Peronism.
Ironically, the concrete effect of staggering electoral dates for
the federal Parliament will surely be the opposite of what large
citizen protests demanded in late 2001 and early 2002. Then
the public’s favourite slogan was “All of you go away”, a
demand for a radical shake-up of the political elite. A series of
24 district elections will make electoral victories for those who
currently control the provincial governments easier.
Regardless of when they are elected, one half of the 257
representatives and one third of the 72 federal senators will
take their seats on December 10, 2003. The outcomes will affect
Néstor Kirchner’s ability to govern his country until the end of
his mandate in December 2007. His relations with the new
Parliament will determine, among other things, how feasible it
will be to impose a single standard of educational quality in a
country with highly different regions and how simple or
winding the path will be toward a new federal-provincial
revenue sharing system. Whatever Kirchner’s strengths and
achievements over the coming four years, neither of his
promises will depend solely on him.
F e d e r a t i o n s
Vol. 3, No. 3, August 2003