The Street: Battleground of Choice for Authoritarian Populists


EspañolThe images of Buenos Aires’s Plaza de los Dos Congresos in the afternoon of March 1 were dominated by scraps of paper, bottles, and even Argentinean flags that were discarded after the mass mobilization of 40,000 followers of President Cristina Kirchner. Hours earlier, Kirchner had delivered her speech at the opening of legislative sessions, the last of her term in office, which will come to an end later this year.

Some months before, almost on the other side of the world to Argentina, Hong Kong offered a completely different spectacle. In September 2014, thousands of residents of the former British enclave took to the principal streets of the peninsula to call for democracy, dubbed the Umbrella Revolution. The photographs that circulated afterwards showing demonstrators cleaning the streets after their protest surprised the world.

Subscribe to our daily newsletter

Media outlets worldwide reported it as some kind of curiosity. The New York Times highlighted that the demonstration had “no leader” but was highly organized. British daily the Independent emphasized how protesters, fresh from confronting pepper spray and tear gas attacks by the police, proceeded to separate out the plastic from their rubbish for recycling. The demonstrators, moreover, wrote signs to “apologize for the inconvenience” provoked by barricades they’d thrown up to confront Beijing’s bid to limit their choice in elections, reported the BBC.

However, Max Fisher of Vox wasn’t so surprised. For him, their conduct mirrored that of Egyptian crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011, marchers in Istanbul’s Gezi park in 2013, or Ferguson, Missouri’s outraged demonstrators in 2014. In each of these protests, attendees demonstrated civic behavior, collecting trash to demonstrate “community pride.” According to Fisher, the conduct of protesters in Hong Kong, Turkey, Egypt, and the United States was born out of an instinct for self-preservation:

These acts are meant to signal civic responsibility and to preemptively counter the notion, already put forward by official Chinese state media, that the protests are driven by criminals or are actively seeking to disrupt order.… Protesters understand that one way to guard against this is by clearly establishing the narrative that they are responsible, conscientious stewards of public order — not criminals.

In the face of the dignified order of these protests, the conduct of the Kirchneristas speaks volumes about the nature of the March 1 mobilization. Their attendance was often paid for, and didn’t represent a protest, nor even a demonstration of support, but a show of strength. The Argentinean government wanted to respond to the 400,000 people who 10 days previously inundated the streets of the capital, and many others in cities nationwide, to call for justice over the death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman.

“Here you can see Avenida 9 de Julio with the buses bringing Kirchnerista activists to the demonstration.”

The symbolic importance of generating a popular spectacle to accompany the president’s speech continues a constant trend set down in 2003 during the government of the late President NĂ©stor Kirchner. “To conquer the streets,” as vice governor of Buenos Aires Province Gabriel Mariotto put it, is a key concept in the political strategy of Peronismo (after the Kirchner’s ideological inspiration, the mid-century populist leader Juan Domingo PerĂłn).

“The truth is that they stole a march on us, and they won the streets for a little bit. It’s already dissipating, just like other protests dissipate,” said Mariano Reclade, manager of the state-run airline company AerolĂ­neas Argentinas, in reference to the Nisman demonstration. The domination of public space, in his imagination, shows the support of the people, a sine qua non for advancing any political project.

For Kirchnerismo, and indeed any populist project, marches demonstrating majoritarian support are fundamental: they allow governments to mask authoritarian projects under the mantle of democratic legitimacy. The masses — although invariably organized by a strict hierarchical order — are key to accessing hegemonic politics, explained the late Ernesto Laclau, sociologist of choice to various populist movements.

Among populist governments, accustomed to imposing their will over that of individuals, real argumentative discussion — in a word, reason — doesn’t prevail. To the contrary, force is the only means through which they can reach their objectives. Their disregard for free markets — free and voluntary trade — oblige their leaders to resort to violence to achieve their goals. But the violence is camouflaged under the supposed “popular will,” transforming it into an illusion of consensus within the democratic process, and it ends up being accepted.

But at times, even in the context of a staged demonstration — with a majority of hired attendees — the populists can’t drum up enough support. On March 1, Twitter users published images purporting to show the government’s capacity for mass mobilization. They omitted one detail: the photos of a massive column of people came from an opposition march, not that of the government.

Kirchner’s brave new way of doing politics is a continuation of the same story by other means. Those who attended the March 1 demonstration didn’t do so to show their support for the government, they did so to legitimize its authoritarian practices. They didn’t need to worry about their image, like the marchers of Hong Kong or Cairo: they were there to preserve the power of the state.

What incentive did they have to leave the city clean and orderly after their show of force? None at all. They were at the service of the government, and for payment, on top of social plans, they received free transport, food, drink — and someone to pick up their trash after they went home.

Translated by Laurie Blair.

Subscribe to our daily newsletter
Sign up here to get the latest news, updates and special reports delivered directly to your inbox.
You can unsubscribe at any time