The Argentine Presidential Election: Is Political Renewal Possible?

Americas Policy Special Report
The Argentine Presidential Election: Is Political Renewal Possible?
by Martha Farmelo and Alan Cibils | June 5, 2003

Americas Program,
Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC)

Néstor Kirchner took office on May 25 with the weakest voter mandate of any Argentine president ever elected. His election was the result of voters choosing the lesser evil after the popular movement and the political opposition failed to articulate clear, viable alternatives.
The new president now faces major challenges, including ensuring governability and national sovereignty, reactivating the economy, and deepening political and economic democracy in Argentina. During his first few days in office, his progressive discourse and actions have sparked an unexpected hope that he might actually make progress in meeting those challenges.
Kirchner’s mandate is best analyzed against the backdrop of historic protests that broke out in December 2001, contributing to the dramatic downfalls of presidents Fernando de la Rúa and Adolfo Rodríguez Saá in the span of just 10 days. The unifying chant that rose up from the crowds of pot-banging demonstrators was: “¡ Que se vayan todos !” (“Out with all of them!”)—meaning all politicians and traditional political parties. This phrase became the cry of multitudes of neighborhood assemblies, unemployed workers known as piqueteros, and other popular movement groups, and appeared on banners at every demonstration from International Women’s Day to marches against the Iraq war.
This anti-establishment sentiment helped explain why two progressive congresspersons known for their honesty and integrity—center-left Elisa Carrió and former Trotskyite Luis Zamora—were out in front in all presidential polls during most of 2002.
Nonetheless, after first-round voting on April 27, 2003, Argentines found themselves facing a runoff election between two apparent icons of business-as-usual. One was former President Carlos Menem, the notoriously corrupt, unwavering free-marketeer many blame for devastating the economy during his administration in the 1990s. The other was fellow Peronist Kirchner, the little-known governor of Santa Cruz Province who joined forces with another chief of what Argentines call “the Peronist mafia,” immediate past-President Eduardo Duhalde. The combination of Kirchner’s alliance with Duhalde and vagueness about what he would do once in office led few to believe that his election would bring about real change.
In the end, four days before the scheduled May 18 runoff, Menem was down in the polls by 30 to 50 points and bowed out of the race. This left Kirchner with the 22% of the vote he won in the first-round of balloting—the slimmest mandate of an elected president in all of Argentina’s history.
What happened to Que se vayan todos ? Why did Argentines settle for what they called “ el menos malo ” (“the lesser evil”)?
Call for Abstention Flops
Many neighborhood assemblies and other grassroots groups called for massive abstention and blank votes, terming the elections a “trap.” Argentines had clamored since December 2001 to vote immediately for all elected offices and Duhalde had promised such sweeping elections. In mid-August, 2002, the daily Clarín published a poll showing 85% support for the literal implementation of “Out with all of them” and the renewal of all elected posts. Around that time, other polls indicated that ample ranks of Argentines would annul their ballot or abstain from voting. One poll showed 27% support for “nobody” versus 15% for the leading candidate.
In the end, the only national positions put up for turnover were president and vice-president. Luis Zamora eventually joined the call for abstention, declining to run for president and reducing the field of options.
Yet participation in the recent first-round balloting was high, comparable to the historic elections that brought Perón to power in 1946 or those that heralded the return to civilian government in 1983. Turnout reached 78%, and less than 3% of votes cast were blank or otherwise annulled.
Activists’ failure to articulate an alternative was largely to blame for the rotund failure of “Out with all of them.” That strategy seemed to raise more questions than it answered. Did it mean voting to renew all elected offices, or the end of representative democracy? Who would govern if current politicians were all thrown out? Were people demanding direct democracy? If so, how could it be implemented in Argentina? Is ¡ Que se vayan todos ! a serious political alternative, or just a knee-jerk reaction to the prolonged economic catastrophe and the crisis of legitimacy in Argentine politics?
The neighborhood assemblies were the first and loudest to argue that a complete political revision was both necessary and desirable. In the first weeks of 2002, hundreds of neighbors met on street corners, at the bases of monuments or in other public places to organize and transform the noise of banging pots into demands and strategies. Reflecting the widespread revulsion toward political authority and representation, not a single leadership position was created. As people took turns speaking, they all seemed to address the same, profound question: “What kind of a country do we want?”
Over time, initial momentum toward a movement of neighborhood assemblies sputtered out, and today they are a long way from crafting an alternative political project or program. One of the biggest causes was meddling by left-wing parties set on co-opting these groups for their own political ends. Leftist party hacks worked doggedly to push a single ideological agenda: to exacerbate the system’s contradictions so the masses gain class-consciousness and initiate the path to revolution. They often failed to respect grassroots democratic organizing.
Around 200 assemblies are active today, and generally they focus on local projects such as soup kitchens, vaccination campaigns, community centers, and support for flailing public hospitals. Some hold political events, including debates on participatory budgeting, which is being implemented in the city of Buenos Aires, or on creating a constituent assembly to rewrite Argentina’s constitution. Some groups of assemblies are working to form a coordinating body independent of leftist parties, which may eventually afford them a stronger presence on the political scene.
Choosing the Lesser Evil
In addition to the failure to generate political alternatives, the call for abstention was weakened by the fact that Argentines are required to vote by law. Although the fine for not voting is a pittance and rarely imposed, most Argentines vote in presidential elections.
“It was amazing how Argentines interpreted their civic duty in this [most recent] election,” said Zulma Rodríguez, an accountant in the city of Buenos Aires. “Even though they didn’t like any of the five candidates, they voted anyway, and they did so having thought very carefully about whom to vote for.”
Many voted for Kirchner in order to prevent a runoff between Menem and conservative candidate, Ricardo López Murphy. Lopez Murphy was De la Rúa’s Economy minister for two weeks in March 2001 and ran for a newly created party called Recrear , or Recreate.
While some voters bought Lopez Murphy’s attempts at a liberal discourse, those who took the time to look into his website found frightening promises to eliminate popular movement groups and other opposition forces. “Either the state of law or a revolutionary state,” the website says. “Both systems cannot coexist as they do currently, where leaders of these groups vindicate the right to revolution in prestigious television programs … and are received in government offices to ‘negotiate’.”
Furthermore, Lopez Murphy promoted a strong neoliberal economic program that would have introduced market mechanisms wherever possible, including school vouchers. Such proposals converted much of the voto bronca , or vote of anger against all establishment candidates, into a voto útil , useful vote—an anti-right wing imperative for the lesser evil.
After bitter infighting in the Peronist party precluded a primary to agree on a single candidate, three Peronists entered the race: Menem, Kirchner, and December 2001’s seven-day president, Rodríguez Saá, who took the dramatic but largely inevitable step of declaring default on Argentina’s foreign debt. Many Argentines complained that the Peronists had converted the presidential elections into a Peronist primary.
Carrió was the only contender to offer a progressive alternative to business as usual. Known for her honesty, sharp analysis, and tough anti-corruption investigations, Carrió formed a new party in 2001, called Argentinos por una República de Iguales (Argentines for a Republic of Equals), or ARI. As the ARI presidential candidate, Carrió broke new ground for women in Argentine politics. Other women had built political careers on political parentage; Carrió had no name recognition, prestige, or party base inherited from a father, husband, brother, or political boss. Moreover, she does not correspond to most Argentines’ idea of attractive. She is not photogenic, wears no makeup, and is overweight.
Carrió has paid a political and personal price as a result. Argentines have accused her of being overly masculine and unwomanly. Male politicians have argued that since she doesn’t “have control over herself” (referring to her weight), she can’t govern. During one television interview early in her campaign, the host mentioned accusations of neglecting her children and being a lesbian.
Also to Carrió’s detriment, the ARI had little time to strengthen its organizational base, and her groundbreaking decision to reject corporate financing made it virtually impossible to compete with the Peronist party machinery. In addition, Carrió has been hurt by what some consider to be an authoritarian style and difficulties forming lasting alliances with other progressive political forces. To complicate matters, in the days prior to the election, conservative newspapers launched what looked like a media operation suggesting that the runoff would be between the two neoliberal candidates, Menem and Lopez Murphy. Polls then showed that many of her supporters intended to cast a “useful vote” for Kirchner, against Lopez Murphy. Under these conditions, party members considered her fourth-place finish a triumph.
The final vote was closely divided between the top five candidates. Menem and Kirchner won with 24.36% and 22% of the votes, respectively. Lopez Murphy followed with 16.34%. Elisa Carrió came in fourth with 14.14%, and Rodríguez Saá ended fifth with 14.12%. With little more than 2% of the votes, De la Rúa’s 112-year-old Radical Party barely emerged from that embarrassing polling category called “others.”
How did the candidate that 70% of Argentines consistently said they “would never vote for” come out on top?
Menem outspent all other candidates on his campaign, by a long shot. According to the conservative daily La Nación , Menem spent nearly seven million pesos on the first-round campaign, compared to Kirchner’s 794,333. Also, Menem still controls a significant part of the country’s Peronist political apparatus. His promise to put the army in the streets to fight crime and ensure safety appealed to those hungry for order and authoritarian leadership. Free-market conservatives agreed with Menem’s proposals to “dollarize” the Argentine economy. Some appeared nostalgic for the years when one peso equaled one dollar. They forgot or refused to see that his economic policies bloated Argentina’s foreign debt, swelled the ranks of the poor and unemployed, and left lasting damage to the Argentine economy and society.
But what looked like a Menem victory to many people outside of Argentina was widely perceived as a major defeat within the country. With 24% of the vote, his performance fell far short of the 40% required to fulfill his grandiose claims of winning in the first round. Menem received less than half of 52% of the votes he received in his second presidential bid in 1995.
Fallout of the Menem Resignation
According to Argentina´s electoral law, if no candidate obtains more than 45% of the votes (or 40% with a greater than 10-point lead), the top two candidates must compete in a runoff election. Months before the first-round election, polls had predicted a sound defeat for Menem in an eventual runoff. It therefore came as no surprise when, after the first-round election, polls showed Menem trailing Kirchner by more than 30 points.
The main factor in the change between first-round and runoff preferences was Menem himself. Most Argentines blame Menem for the current economic crisis, for giving away the country´s wealth, and for widespread corruption. As official first-round election results were broadcasted the night of April 27th, Menem made the mistake of appearing surrounded by a host of his most corrupt aides, collaborators, and friends—what many in the media referred to as “the return of the living dead.”
Many voters came to see the runoff election as a referendum on Menem´s 10 years in office, and that this was precisely what Menem’s campaign had hoped to avoid. On May 15, in an unprecedented move in the history of world elections, the winning formula of a first-round presidential election resigned. Menem thus avoided what would have surely been a humiliating defeat.
Popular reaction to Menem´s withdrawal was generally negative. People complained that his decision deprived them of their constitutional right to vote and weakened Argentina’s democratic institutions. It appears that the 70% of Argentines who said they never would vote for Menem were anxious to bring closure to one of the darkest chapters of their country’s history since the most recent dictatorship, which ended in 1983.
Furthermore, countless Argentines were furious with how Menem resigned. For two days, news leaks regarding his resignation provoked round-the-clock television coverage of his supposedly imminent decision. While Menem took his time, many complained that the former president was manipulating and mocking both the electorate and democratic institutions—including the runoff, which Menem himself had promoted in his 1994 constitutional reform.
It is hard to know what Menem´s political future holds, especially since many public figures have been resurrected from political death in Argentina. However, few believe that Menem will be able to make a comeback after what was generally perceived as a cowardly retreat. Carrió stated in a recent interview that Menem committed political suicide, and suicide has two characteristics: the desire to die before death occurs naturally, and the desire to hurt others in so doing.
Kirchner and His Proposals:
Will Words be Matched by Deeds?
Menem´s political suicide was widely perceived as having two objectives: first, to avoid having the electorate decree his political death, and second, to hurt his nemesis, outgoing President Duhalde, and Duhalde’s protégé, president-elect Kirchner. Kirchner would have been on much firmer ground with 70% of the popular vote in a runoff than he was with 22% of the first-round vote. Furthermore, a weak president could be more susceptible to manipulation and eventually pave the way for a comeback of Menem and his supporters.
Apparently well aware of this, Kirchner made it clear from the moment his opponent announced his resignation that he would not allow manipulation or extortion from the Menem camp. As Menem was formalizing his withdrawal, Kirchner gave a strong speech that caught many by surprise, especially in the local business and financial establishment. He accused Menem of staging an institutional coup by exiting from the race, saying that “first [Menem] robbed Argentines of their right to work, next of their right to eat, their right to study, and their right to be hopeful. Now he is going for the last remaining right, the right to vote.”
Kirchner stated that Menem’s withdrawal served business groups that enjoyed “inadmissible privileges” during the Menem years. These groups were protected by an economic model that favored “financial speculation and political subordination” of elected leaders to business interests. Kirchner promised he would not be the prisoner of corporate interests and would struggle to renew and deepen Argentina’s democratic institutions.
The business establishment and its media responded with threatening predictions that Kirchner won’t last more than a year in office. Meanwhile, many Argentines considered the president-elect’s speech a breath of fresh air. For the first time in more than 30 years, a presidential figure dared speak out against neoliberalism and the devastation it has visited upon Argentina.
In his May 25th inauguration speech, Kirchner went even further, announcing bold guidelines for his government policies and addressing issues, problems, and policies that had been conspicuously absent from official political discourse for decades. Kirchner talked about the need to have an efficient and active state that would promote economic development and “introduce equality where the market excludes and abandons.” He emphasized the need to revamp the nation’s badly deteriorated health systems and establish a national education policy that guarantees every child in the country access to the same level of education.
Furthermore, Kirchner rejected the structural adjustment implemented by previous administrations under the guidance of the IMF. Instead, he announced that “expanding domestic consumption” would be at the center of his government’s economic reactivation strategy. In the short-run, Kirchner plans to use public works programs to increase employment and reactivate the domestic market.
Finally, Kirchner departed from previous administrations’ positions on Argentina’s public debt, saying, “When our economy grows, so will our ability to pay,” thus linking debt payments to economic growth. He stated that while he did not intend to extend the default, “It is not possible to pay the debt at the expense of the hunger and exclusion of Argentines, generating more poverty and increasing social conflict.”
Many Argentines are now asking these questions: Will Kirchner’s actions speak as loudly as his words? Will he be characterized as a political and economic progressive or a conservative authoritarian? How much independence from Duhalde is he willing and able to exert? Will his economic program prolong the status quo, or will he really give top priority to economic development, income redistribution, employment generation, and reorganizing the public education and health systems?
Aspects of Kirchner’s track record lend themselves to contradictory interpretations. On the one hand, in recent days he has spoken respectfully of the 30,000 Argentines disappeared during the last dictatorship, condemned the “laws of impunity” that let off the military for those abhorrent crimes, and replaced most of the leadership of the armed forces. He has spoken out in favor of a state role in economic development and progressive tax reform. He left his province of Santa Cruz with the lowest unemployment and least skewed distribution of wealth in the country, as well as a considerable budget surplus.
On the other hand, Kirchner has lobbied for the privatization of the national oil company and opposed taxes on oil export revenues. His administration was criticized for repressing neighborhood assemblies and restricting critical media. He stacked the provincial Supreme Court in his favor and allegedly used the province’s health emergency airplane for campaign stops.
Furthermore, in order to win the presidency, Kirchner agreed to be supported by Duhalde, who controls the Peronist party machinery in the largest electoral district, the province of Buenos Aires. Peronism in this province is known for its clientelism and alleged ties to organized crime.

Meanwhile, the IMF has given no signs of letting up its pressure for conservative reforms, as spokesperson Thomas Dawson made clear during a May 8 briefing. He said, “There are still important measures … remaining in the development of a medium-term program. I certainly would cite areas of structural reform that have been discussed extensively over the past.” In other words, Argentina must deepen the reforms the IMF stipulated in its January 2003 agreement, the same policy prescriptions that caused Argentina´s current economic disaster.
The appointment of Roberto Lavagna—Duhalde’s finance minister since April 2002—as Finance Minister under the new administration does not bode well for marking independence from the IMF. Although Lavagna resisted some IMF demands, he signed an agreement with the IMF that is generally perceived as a capitulation to historic IMF demands such as the privatization of public banks, more budget cuts, and restrictive monetary policy.
His submission to IMF terms could be attributed to the transitory nature of the Duhalde government—a structurally weak administration facing an explosive social and economic situation. Now that the Kirchner administration enjoys a democratic mandate and broad popular support, it appears to be acting more independently from the IMF and the local business establishment and focusing first on Argentina’s grave social situation and last on the foreign debt.
In an open challenge to the IMF’s demands, Lavagna announced that the president will not veto a law postponing mortgage foreclosures for 90 days and that Argentina will not privatize its public banks. Kirchner has also taken a far tougher stance on utility rate increases, which the IMF has been pushing for since 2002.
It is difficult to tell if Kirchner´s strong words will be matched with deeds. Still, many Argentines are guardedly optimistic, hoping that the new president will choose to govern for the national and popular interests and not those of the business establishment. If this happens, Kirchner will have departed from almost thirty years of neoliberal policies that devastated the Argentine economy and political system.
Supporting Social Change
Argentines are well aware that Washington has a long and sometimes unfortunate history of involvement in Argentine political life. In the wake of the Iraq war, anti-U.S. sentiment is on the rise in Argentina, as in the rest of Latin America. But the U.S. has an opportunity to support economic and political democracy and sovereignty for Argentina. Specifically, the U.S. government and the IMF should respect and support President Kirchner’s proposals for economic growth and redistribution of wealth. Moreover, they should engage in positive discussions toward the renegotiation of Argentina’s crushing foreign debt.
Neither entity is likely to take these steps on its own. U.S. activists should therefore focus their organizing on pressuring for change in the Treasury Department, the State Department, and the U.S. representation at the IMF and World Bank. There are several organizations already involved in this type of work. The 50 Years is Enough Campaign by the U.S. Network for Global Economic Justice calls for “the immediate suspension of the policies and practices of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank Group.” Concerned citizens can also join the Jubilee USA Network, which continues the Jubilee 2000 Campaign for debt cancellation. These efforts strengthen the voices of the millions of Argentines who clamor for political renewal and economic justice.
(Alan Cibils < > is an Argentine economist and researcher for the Washington, DC-based Center for Economic and Policy Research. Martha Farmelo < > is a writer and activist and currently a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs.)
For more information:
Official election results
Argentinos para una República de Iguales
Elisa Carrió


Carlos Menem
Néstor Kirchner
Adolfo Rodríguez Saá
50 Years is Enough Campaign /
U.S. Network for Global Economic Justice
Jubilee 2000 Campaign /
Jubilee USA Network

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Published by the Americas Program of the Interhemispheric Resource
Center (IRC). ©2003. All rights reserved.
Recommended citation:
Martha Farmelo and Alan Cibils, “The Argentine Presidential Election: Is Political Renewal Possible?,” Americas Program Special Report (Silver City, NM: Interhemispheric Resource Center, June 5, 2003).
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Production information:
Writers: Martha Farmelo and Alan Cibils
Editor: Laura Carlsen, IRC
Web: Tonya Cannariato, IRC