Argentina Has Shown Latin America How to Beat Populism

Despite having President Kirchner's support, Peronist candidate Daniel Scioli failed to convince Argentina. (@Daniel Scioli)
Despite Kirchner’s support, Peronist candidate Daniel Scioli failed to convince Argentinean voters. (@Daniel Scioli)

By Federico N. Fernández

The outcome of Argentina’s election will very likely trigger a major political shift both inside the country and abroad. On the one hand, the Peronist party has lost much of its power structure. On the other, Argentina has provided Latin America with a success story on how populism can be contained.

In Argentina, victory for the Let’s Change opposition coalition may be the beginning of the end of Peronism, a wildly influential political and social movement in the country since 1946.

This election not only gave the country a new president, Mauricio Macri, but it also renewed municipal and regional authorities.

Argentina is extremely uneven in the geographical distribution of its population. In the densely populated center, the Peronists have suffered a historical defeat. The province of Buenos Aires, a longtime Peronist stronghold with 40 percent of voters nationwide, is now in the hands of Let’s Change.

Peronism is starting to look like a loose confederation of northern and southern caudillos from backward and deserted provinces. Rough estimates indicate that just 32 percent of voters will be ruled by a Peronist governor, a gloomy picture sharply contrasting the excessive power they enjoyed some years ago.

An effective Macri administration is probably the Peronists’ worst nightmare. Their success has largely relied on what the movement’s founder Juan Domingo Perón himself explained: “It is not that we are good administrators, but that the others are even worse.”

But Peronism seems exhausted. These nationwide elections were a public declaration that the populist emperor, in fact, wears no clothes. While Macri spoke of an Argentina reclaiming its place in the world, making good use of its competitive advantages, and welcoming globalization, ruling-party candidate Daniel Scioli sounded like a fear monger stuck in the past.

Scioli dwelled on issues such as the provision of gas and electricity, which is hardly convincing for the 21st-century constituency that his party has routinely disappointed for over seven decades.

The relevance of Mauricio Macri’s win is perhaps even greater for Latin America as a whole. The single most important message is that populist regimes can be democratically defeated. Argentineans defeated some of Hugo Chávez’s best pupils at the polls at a time when Venezuela is facing a crucial parliamentary election in December.

Furthermore, Macri has already promised that he will make diplomatic efforts to isolate the Venezuelan government from the international community over its human-rights abuses. Lilian Tintori, the wife of Venezuelan political prisoner Leopoldo López, celebrated Macri’s victory with fellow supporters in Buenos Aires on election day.

Moreover, progressive governments, such as the current Chilean administration, may think twice before accelerating their populist agenda. In Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff’s class-warfare rhetoric has backfired, and she is very likely to face impeachment in the coming months.

From the very beginning, Macri’s party, and later his coalition, looked like a very moderate and rational alternative to Peronism. Its leadership seems committed to a combination of rule of law, republican values, and a political economy that gives individual initiative a role, and somewhat reins in state intervention.

One of the Let’s Change coalition’s main objectives was to stop the populist oligarchy that has ruled Argentina for 12 years, and in that they have succeeded. Now Macri’s coalition has to face the harsh realities of a country with rampant inflation, social unrest, and a failed monetary policy.

If they are up to the challenge, Argentina may change forever.

Federico N. Fernández is a senior fellow at the Austrian Economics Center in Vienna, Austria. He is also the vice president of Fundación Bases in Rosario, Argentina. Follow @fn_fernandez.

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