Argentina elections: Why young voters are signing up for populism

Why We Wrote This

Is history repeating itself in Argentina? Peronism, so entwined with the country’s story, looks poised to take back the presidency. But in part, that’s thanks to a new generation’s view of the movement.

Natacha Pisarenko/AP
Argentina's presidential front-runner Alberto Fernández stands with his students at the end of an exam in his classroom at the University of Buenos Aires School of Law in Argentina, Oct. 16, 2019. Argentina holds elections Oct. 27.

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Four years ago, when Mauricio Macri won Argentina’s election, he vowed to make the country “normal,” free from the economic roller coaster of populist governance.

But today, on the eve of new elections, it appears that Argentines have decided to risk the roller coaster one more time – versus the “new normal” of high inflation, higher public service prices, and a widening wealth gap that emerged as Mr. Macri tried to resolve a financial crisis. The Peronist ticket of Alberto Fernández and former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is projected to win on Sunday – thanks in part to young voters.

For this generation, Peronism is associated more with workers’ rights, human rights, and social justice of the Latin American left than with the protectionism and authoritarian leanings of a now-distant Juan Perón. At the University of Buenos Aires, students are focused on the income gap, opportunity, and poverty.

“My sister becoming a lawyer, that’s el peronismo,” says student Tomás Kontos, who describes himself as coming from a “modest” neighborhood of Buenos Aires. She was the first in their family to go to university. And now, he’s following in her footsteps.

For Tomás Kontos, a first-year student at the University of Buenos Aires’ law school, there is no mystery to his enthusiastic support for a return to leftist, Peronist populism in Sunday’s presidential election.

“It’s simple. My older sister was the first in our family to be able to go to university, and now she’s a lawyer and I’m following her steps as a student here, and it couldn’t have happened without the benefits of el peronismo – including free studies at this university,” says the young man from what he describes as a “modest” neighborhood of Buenos Aires.

“My sister becoming a lawyer, that’s el peronismo,” Mr. Kontos adds. “Contrast that with the young people we now see gathering cardboard from dumpsters to be able to eat. We never had that in Argentina before.”

Four years after the center-right free-marketeer Mauricio Macri entered the Casa Rosada, the presidential residence, with a pledge to make Argentina a “normal” country free of the economic roller coaster of populist governance, all signs point to his scathing defeat.

Argentines appear to have decided in large numbers that, compared to the “new normal” of high inflation, ever more expensive public services, and a widening wealth gap, they’d rather risk the roller coaster ride one more time.

And if the Peronist ticket of Alberto Fernández and former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (as vice president) wins Sunday, it will be due in no small part to overwhelming support from Argentina’s youth – and to the memory that slice of the electorate has of populism, which is more Kirchner than Perón.

In other words, analysts here say, young people associate populism more with the good times and emphasis on issues like workers’ rights and human rights of former President Néstor Kirchner and wife Cristina (who between them led the nation for 12 of this century’s first 19 years) than with the protectionism and authoritarian leanings of a now-distant Juan Perón.

“Young people just tend to be more to the left, and that’s the case in Argentina, but recent surveys have found that young people identify more today with issues like solidarity with workers and the poor, the environment, and feminist causes,” says Lucas Romero, director general of Synopsis, a consulting firm in Buenos Aires. 

“And on all those issues, we see young people associating them more with the peronismo of Cristina,” he adds.

Howard LaFranchi/The Christian Science Monitor
Azul Cavaleri (middle left) and Tomás Kontos (middle right) hand out election flyers for La Cámpora, a youth organization supporting the Kirchner wing of Argentina’s leftist-populist Peronist movement, with fellow law students at the Universidad de Buenos Aires in Argentina.

“Fatal realities” for Macri

In this last week of campaigning, Argentine media have dedicated more space to the upheavals shaking some of the country’s neighbors, from Chile to Ecuador and Bolivia, than to national politics.

Some Peronist politicians have darkly warned that the unrest that has destabilized a normally orderly Chile and prompted a state of emergency for the first time since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship could easily cross the Andes, since the issues of a widening wealth gap, rising prices of services, and a general sense of economic injustice affect both countries.

But such a contagion is unlikely in Argentina, Mr. Romero says, in large part because of the safety valve of Sunday’s election.

“In Argentina, the sentiment for many is that el peronismo is about to return, so we can wait,” he says. An open primary vote in August left Mr. Macri 16 points behind Mr. Fernández, a surprise victory that sent the peso tumbling. Investors worry about how the next government will deal with the country’s massive debt.

Mr. Macri was almost doomed from the beginning because of the enormity of the task of weaning the country from its deep populist roots, some analysts say.

“I don’t know of any leader who could profoundly alter the political history of a country in three or four years,” says Juan Luis Bour, chief economist at FIEL, the Foundation for Economic Research on Latin America, in Buenos Aires. “What Macri set out to do was a restructuring of the Argentine economy, and that was never going to be easy.”

For Mr. Bour, Argentina simply spends beyond its means. With no ability to borrow to get out of the deep hole the Kirchner government left for him, Mr. Macri set about cutting subsidies and raising rates for public services, like electricity and Buenos Aires transit prices. (It was a rise in Santiago subway fares that sparked Chile’s mass protests.)

Joining the young in largely supporting a return to el peronismo are many of Argentina’s retired and elderly.

“This is a protest march but it is also a celebration, because Macri is going away as of Sunday,” says Eduardo Silva, a retired worker from Argentina’s social security administration, as he reveled in a recent “party” of boisterous retired Argentines bidding Mr. Macri “farewell” on a recent sunny morning.

“Pensioners are being hit in two ways, with very [high] inflation and higher deductions from our retirements,” he says.

President Macri faced two “fatal realities” that he could do nothing about, says Mr. Romero, the consultant.

One was economic, he says, with the country experiencing both a recession and high inflation at the same time. The other was political, with Mr. Macri confronting an uncharacteristically united coalition of populist forces.

“When the various groups and tendencies within el peronismo are united, they win,” says Mr. Romero. “And the misfortune for Macri is that for this election, the Peronistas are very united.”

Agustin Marcarian/Reuters
Presidential candidate Alberto Fernández and running mate Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who was president from 2007-15, attend a campaign rally in Santa Rosa, Argentina, Oct. 17, 2019. The pair's main competition is current President Mauricio Macri.

Youth appeal – or lack of

But the president faced another roadblock that was of his own making, according to Mr. Romero: He never had an attractive message for young people.

“It was pretty much ‘Be good, don’t act up, and we’ll handle the country,’” Mr. Romero says. He points to the Macri government’s message that “Argentina was like a house where there had been a big party” – with unsustainable subsidies and social-benefit party favors the previous government doled out – but that now it was time for the adults to put order in the party house.

“There was truth to that message, but it was also very moralistic and wasn’t well taken, especially by young people,” he says.

Mr. Bour, of FIEL, says Mr. Macri was never going to be able to compete with Cristina Kirchner for the youth vote, because of her close association with social justice and human rights issues that he says many middle-class youth still connect to the “luminous past” of the Latin America left, starting with Argentina’s own Che Guevara.

But the students at the University of Buenos Aires Law School who do support Mr. Fernández (and Cristina) in Sunday’s elections aren’t wearing El Che T-shirts or talking about Fidel Castro. They are, on the other hand, repeatedly citing a widening income gap and rising poverty. Argentina’s youth have been hit especially hard by unemployment.

“It’s not that we’re anti-capitalist, we’re not,” says Azul Cavaleri, who accompanies her friend Tomás Kontos in handing out flyers for La Cámpora, a pro-Kirchner Peronist political youth group. “But we do think the wealth the country generates should be more fairly distributed, and that the costs to be born in the hard times should be more evenly shared.”

In two political economy classes, a show of hands reveals that about half plan to vote for the Peronist Fernández, with a small scattering of hands supporting Mr. Macri, and others planning to nullify their vote (in Argentina, voting is obligatory).

“I do plan to vote Peronist, but it is a more modern peronismo of social works and human rights that I support, not the protectionist and heavily state-interventionist peronismo of the past,” says Sofía Sánchez, a third-year law student from the Buenos Aires suburb of San Martín.

But overall, in this very small slice of the youth vote, there is little enthusiasm for any candidate – or conviction that anyone will be able to quickly turn the country around.

Mr. Macri always faced tough odds, Mr. Bour says, because people associate him with lower subsidies and high inflation. Of el peronismo, on the other hand, Argentines have a very different memory, which he describes as “three years of happiness before the fall” – with many voters preferring to remember the three years.

El peronismo is a bit like magic,” says Mr. Bour, who notes that Argentina’s populist governments have found ways – such as the windfall of a commodities boom during Cristina Kirchner’s years – to make their spending seem painless, at least for a while.

“And of course,” he adds, “people like magic.”

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