Argentina at the Polls
In October 2007, Argentines headed to the polls in a general election for president, congress, and multiple provincial governorships. Elections took place in the context of important economic and political challenges in the country, including rising inflation and infrastructure bottlenecks, a fragmented and weakened political system, and somewhat predictable electoral results. The Latin American Program held two events to consider these elections in light of Argentina's political and economic conditions after the 2001 crisis and subsequent recovery, as well as in the context of Latin American elections that have brought about important changes in the political landscape of the region.
Together with the Inter-American Dialogue and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Latin American Program issued invitations to all three leading presidential candidates to address a Washington audience. Only the second-place candidate, Elisa Carrió of the Coalición Cívica, accepted. In a September 19, 2007, forum, she explained how a historical process of political fragmentation in Argentina has produced a reconfiguration of politics in which political parties have a reduced role. Instead, Argentina is witnessing the emergence of a new type of political configuration, based on a pragmatic coalition of dissenters from traditional parties and non-traditional actors. Carrió said that the Coalición Cívica has emphasized the important role of civic alliances, women, and young people, in an effort to build what she termed "a moral contract" in government, especially to fight against corruption and clientelism. She identified inflation and the inconsistency of economic policy as the two biggest problems for the economy, and outlined proposals to generate a business-friendly climate that would support entrepreneurship and investment while emphasizing the importance of social responsibility and distributional goals. Turning to foreign affairs, Carrió spoke of policies to strengthen MERCOSUR, forge a strategic alliance with Brazil, open markets, and distance Argentina from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. She expressed a desire to assist Bolivian President Evo Morales in reconciling deep ethnopolitical divisions plaguing Bolivia by becoming more like South Africa's Nelson Mandela than like Venezuela's Hugo Chávez.
The Latin American Program held an additional symposium on October 18, 2007, with three distinguished Argentine analysts of political and economic affairs: María Victoria Murillo, Columbia University; Rosalía Cortés, FLACSO-Argentina and CONYCET, and Graciela Römer, of Graciela Römer y Asociados, a leading polling firm. Murillo noted that, despite similarities ith the 1995 election in which an incumbent returned to power, the 2001 crisis and ensuing citizen protests against the government ("¡que se vayan todos!"; "get rid of all of them!") left an indelible mark on Argentine politics. Since the crisis, none of the figures from the old establishment has been able to return to leadership roles, while party boundaries and ideological identification remain weak. While leaving the Argentine political system in crisis, Peronists' ability to control social conflict, and their capacity to bring political stability by building alliances through extra-institutional channels, mark an important difference between Argentina and other Latin American countries where party system breakdown has led to caudillismo. Murillo characterized support for Senator (now President) Cristina Kirchner as coming from two broad sectors of the population: traditional Peronist voters (mainly from poorer classes and the greater Buenos Aires area) and an independent middle class that has supported Kirchner on economic and human rights issues, especially given the fragmentation of the non- Peronist opposition.
Rosalía Cortés examined the evolution of social policy in Argentina after the economic collapse of 2001. The Plan de Jefes y Jefas de Hogar (Head of Household Program), implemented in 2002, managed to reach 24 percent of poor households and 35 percent of indigents. The program played an important role in the 2003 elections that brought Néstor Kirchner to power. The year 2004 saw an important a shift in Argentine social policy, from targeted, compensatory policies directed towards the poor, to labor-based policies geared towards organized labor. Redistributive mechanisms such as wage hikes, increases in social security, and tax rebates are aimed at middle-income wage earners for the purpose of garnering their political support. Left out are the large number of workers in the informal sector. The cementing of relationships with trade unions means that social policy is not working to structurally integrate the poor into the mainstream.
Graciela Römer highlighted the lack of popular enthusiasm, empty political campaigns, the absence of uncertainty about outcomes—an essential feature of a functioning democracy—and the lack of viable political alternatives to the Kirchner ticket as the distinguishing features of the 2007 electoral contest. Römer argued the presidential elections consisted primarily of a contest for second place in the final vote tally, thereby enabling the runner-up party to assume the role of principal opposition to the Kirchner government. Although the outcome was predictable, she said, the winner in the elections would have to face a set of complicated issues, including public insecurity, energy bottlenecks, and galloping inflation. Voters paradoxically supported a continuation of the Kirchner government while most opinion polls indicated widespread support for political change. Römer argued that exhaustion of popular support for President Néstor Kirchner's policies has been most evident in public expectations regarding the credibility of public officials, and in a rejection of the confrontational style with which his government has approached traditional sources of power and influence in Argentine politics.