In Argentine politics, all roads lead back to 'Evita'

The midterm election Sunday is being seen as a referendum on the populist policies of President Cristina Kirchner, whom the media often compare to Eva Perón.

When Argentines head for the polls this Sunday, they might be surprised to find the names of singers, actresses, sports heroes, even popular politicians already in office, filling the ruling party's list for seats in the national legislature.

Many of these "testimonial candidates" have openly admitted that they have no intention of taking office. They are running only to lend their star power to the campaign, and, if elected, would step aside for the lesser-known party functionaries that run with them as deputies.

Foremost among the testimonial candidates is the famous actress Nacha Guevara, whose enthusiastic campaign has lent more than just her own star power to the government of President Cristina Kirchner.

Evoking 'Evita'

Ms. Guevara is widely known for her recent role in a popular musical portraying Argentina's biggest star of all: Eva Perón, the iconic first lady of populist 1940s President Juan Perón.

In Argentine politics, all roads seem to lead back to the Peróns.

"Evita" was the diva of Argentine politics, so influential as a champion of the poor that, in 1952, the country's Congress gave her the title of "spiritual leader of the nation."

Indeed, it is perhaps telling that the biggest challenge to Ms. Kirchner in this election is not from the formal opposition, but from a right-leaning splinter group within her own Perónist party. So powerful is the continuing legacy of the Peróns that few politicians here are successful without invoking it.

Cristina and Evita: populists to the core

The media have often compared Cristina and "Evita," and she has at times embraced the comparison. But what truly evokes the Perónist heritage of Cristina and her husband, previous president Nestor Kirchner (they are commonly referred to here as the "ruling couple") are their populist policies: generous public spending, nationalizing state resources, and a nationalistic "Argentina-first" attitude toward foreign relations.

Indeed, though only a midterm election, Sunday´s vote is being seen as a referendum on Kirchner's presidency and also no doubt on the future of Kirchnerism in Argentina.

"As with the Peróns, it is largely the working-class poor that have been the base of support for the Kirchners, in the aftermath of Argentina's economic collapse in 2001," points out Argentine political analyst Daniela Cordi.

And the poor have not been forgotten.

Argentina's 'New Deal'

In the runup to the elections, the administration has launched huge public spending campaigns, collectively dubbed Argentina's "New Deal" by some observers. These include a new "coparticipation fund" by which 30 percent of soy tax revenues – one of the country's biggest sources of cash, at around $5 billion annually – are returned to the provinces, earmarked for voter-friendly infrastructure projects like schools and hospitals.

Blaming Argentina's infamous 2001 economic meltdown on the country's free-market polices of the 1990s, the Kirchners have made government intervention the centerpiece of their economic model. For a while, it seemed to work.

"Kirchnerism was popular while times were good, but the good times in Argentina depend on world prices and demand for the commodities it exports, like soy and beef and wheat," says Ms. Cordi.

Kirchners in survival mode

With the world now in economic crisis, the Kirchners have suddenly found themselves in survival mode. Desperate for cash, the administration has increasingly angered the country's powerful agricultural interests by trying to raise export taxes.

In March it went even further, threatening to nationalize all agricultural exports. The move would make the government the sole buyer of all of Argentina's beef and grain, and the sole recipient of profits from selling them abroad.

Also, like the Peróns, the Kirchners have been accused of being authoritarian, with a cynical approach to power politics.

But Kirchner has defended her policies: "I wasn't immersed in politics for 35 years just to arrive at this position – the highest ever for a woman dedicated to politics – and then turn my back on the ideals I have advocated all my life," she recently told local reporters.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.