40 years of Argentine democracy

Image: Lucía Montenegro
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By LEONARDO AVRITZER*

Political success and economic failure

Argentina has a unique trajectory when we talk about South American democracies. Having undergone a transition through collapse seen, at that time, reluctantly by political scientists, Argentina had several successful governments with regard to a logic of democratic construction. His first government differentiated itself from other recently democratized countries in the region by placing at its center the accusation of serious human rights violations (Jelin and Abós, 1987).

However, the end of the first government has already put on the agenda an issue that can be considered the synthesis of Argentine history, the lack of control of the economy and the inflationary crisis. This seems to be a good summary of Argentine democracy over these 40 years: political success and economic failure. The 2023 elections could mean the end of this trajectory.

The first Argentine governments after its democratic transition were marked by two phenomena, once again from a comparative point of view: the absence of a new constitution, a format adopted by several South American countries, such as Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, among others, and a perverse cycle between Peronist and non-Peronist governments that prevented the latter from completing their presidential terms.

The first successful Peronist government, that of Carlos Menem, created conditions for a solution to the constitutional issue, by incorporating during the 1994 constitutional reform, the main international treaties to which the country was a signatory (Abramovich, 2009). In this way, a path to expanding rights was opened that consolidated civil rights and allowed different Peronist and non-Peronist governments to expand their rights, such as the adoption of children by gay couples and the abortion law.

But the second element, the continued tension between Peronists and non-Peronists, a conflict now democratized, renewed what Guillermo O'Donnell called the “impossible game”. In fact, in the first decades of Argentine democratization, non-Peronist governments did not come to an end – in both cases due to a strong economic crisis. Only in this century did the presidential succession stabilize, in 2019, putting an end to the idea that non-Peronist governments did not finish their mandate (Paruzzotti, 2023). In this way, one of the main deficits in Argentine democratization was stabilized.

When we think about the country's economic situation during the democratic period, especially in the last 23 years, we see where the risks to democracy lie. After "playpen”, came a period of economic recovery with the governments of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner, but in recent years the economy began to decline progressively. The last four years of the government of the current president, Alberto Fernández, have been one of recession. As a consequence of this disastrous economic performance, levels of trust in institutions and optimism about the future fell drastically (Iazzeta, 2023).

Primary, Open, Simultaneous and Mandatory (PASO) elections have a different structure from American primaries and, in fact, take into account the population's preferences. In this case, the favorite was Javier Milei, a politician who attracted attention at the end of last year, but seemed to have no chance of reaching first place due to his poor performance in the provincial elections at the end of the first half of the year. Javier Milei caused an earthquake in Argentine politics by breaking with formally established standards (Annunziata, 2023).

Following Argentine political scientist Martín D'Alessandro, this made the Peronists, the backbone of Argentine democracy, had their worst electoral result in 80 years (D'Alessandro, 2023). But the earthquake didn't stop there: the vote for Javier Milei, who has no governors, mayors or any other type of representation, is, for that very reason, a profoundly anti-state and anti-institutional vote.

Thus, Argentina runs the risk in this election of becoming entangled in a spiral that has already involved other countries in the region, such as Brazil, partially recovered from the Bolsonaro adventure, Peru, with regular impeachments and Chile, paralyzed between the constitution it does not want and which is not capable of consensus. This is a path that we know how it begins: with the rejection of all democratic institutions. We just don't know how it ends.

*Leonardo Avritzer He is a professor at the Department of Political Science at UFMG. Author, among other books, of Impasses of democracy in Brazil (Brazilian Civilization). [https://amzn.to/3rHx9Yl]

Originally published on GGN newspaper.


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