Argentina’s stunning win for democracy

October 29, 2015

It’s a delight to report that Argentina, a country of rollercoaster emotions and politics, has just delivered a message that democracy is alive and well, in a part of the world where you can fear for the future of free and open debate, let alone universal suffrage. The Kirchners, the family that has ruled Argentina for 12 years – first the late Néstor, then his wife Cristina, used just about every trick in the book to deliver a first-round victory for her anointed successor, Daniel Scioli, in the vote on Sunday.

But the country said “No, not so fast”, and now Argentina heads into a runoff come November – and a fierce debate about how best to rescue itself from a dire economic crisis that means skyrocketing inflation, huge government debt and zero growth, translating into insecurity and poverty for millions.

The big winner this past weekend has been democracy. I’m not crying for Argentina now. We should be celebrating what looks like a clarion call for the right to vote, and to be heard. It’s clear that the people will decide next month, and their wish will be respected, whichever way the vote goes. To Europeans, and North Americans, it sounds routine, obvious, normal – but in Latin America it’s not always so. Indeed, President Cristina Fernández made a good point as she voted at her home in Patagonia: “We are voting today in a normal country,” she said.

Lest we Brits forget, it is just 33 years since the Falklands war, 32 years since the generals fell, and democracy returned. So this election is pivotal in ensuring the country’s democratic future. Full disclosure: my wife is Argentinian, and we have family there and a home, but there are so many moments when you wonder if you can keep on keeping on in a country where decline has been a way of life for decades.

The saving grace has always been Argentina’s human capital, allied to its vast natural resources. And that human capital spoke on Sunday, in an election that looked to be a foregone conclusion, a vote for more of the same. Under Argentina’s electoral law, crafted by the Peronist party which has ruled for so long, the winner needed only 40% of the vote in the first round, and to be 10 points ahead of the nearest rival, to enter la Casa Rosada, the pink palace that is home to the president.

Scioli, the Peronist candidate and governor of Buenos Aires province, didn’t even come close. With 36% he beat his closest rival – the Buenos Aires mayor, Mauricio Macri – by just two points. Now the two men face off in November, and the opposition surely has a chance if it can unite the more than 60% who voted against the government.

And the battle to come is, in democratic terms, mouthwatering. This should be a no-holds-barred campaign, a duel of ideas between two very different agendas, and philosophies. The Peronists, under Scioli, preach “continuity with change” [sic], and are advocates of welfare and subsidies that make the monthly electricity bill less than the price of a pizza.

In contrast comes Macri, pro-business, pro-markets. A man who insists he will take Argentina back to the real world, and open the country up for growth and investment. Whatever the final outcome, what matters to those of us who care about an extraordinary country and culture, is that it remains democratic, a bellwether in Latin America of open government, press freedom and judicial independence – not a haven of corruption and nepotism.

So let the debate, and the battle for power, begin in earnest right now. No matter who wins, let us recognise Argentina’s progress as well as its disasters, its strengths as well as its weaknesses. It is indeed time to celebrate Argentina, not cry.


Argentina’s stunning win for democracy