Menem’s withdrawal and the Future of Argentina

Menem’s withdrawal and the Future of Argentina

Subject: On 14 May Carlos Menem said he would not run for office in the second round of the Argentinean presidential elections. This act of political irresponsibility left the presidency open to Néstor Kirchner but, at the same time, questioned the legitimacy of the new president and undermined the country’s democratic institutions.

Summary: The second round of the elections for a new president of Argentina was due to be held on 18 May. The results of the first round, held on 27 April, left two Peronist candidates for the run-off: the former president Carlos Menem and the governor of the province of Santa Cruz, Néstor Kirchner. However, after a huddle with his supporters, Menem threw in the towel, leaving the way to the presidency clear for his political rival. The motives for Menem’s retirement are varied; they respond to personal concerns and the interests of the clique that surrounds him. More importantly, his refusal to take part carries negative consequences for democracy in Argentina. This irresponsible decision by Menem robs the new president of legitimacy, by granting him office with the support of only 22% of the population (the figure he obtained in the first round), instead of the landslide of around 70% forecast by opinion polls. Even with such a positive mandate, the new administration would have faced a difficult task, requiring a rapid search for consensus. That search is now essential. The way in which Kirchner forms his government, resolves the internal problems besetting the Justice Party (JP) and defines his relationship with outgoing president Eduardo Duhalde will determine whether Argentina can be governed or not.

Analysis: On 22 August 1951, on the broad Ninth of July Avenue in Buenos Aires, the Justice Party held its famous ‘Open Conclave’ to proclaim the dual candidacy of Juan and Eva Perón for the 1952 presidential elections. The choice was the result of trade union and popular pressure, which saw ‘Evita’ as the key to obtaining many of their political, social and economic wishes. But the idea of his wife running for office was not particularly warming for Perón, fearful of a negative response from the military, the Church and other important centres of power, not to mention the threat of competition from Evita herself. There, to the loud dismay of an assembly nearly a million strong, Evita could be seen to waver under the intense pressure being brought to bear. She agreed to desist, with the oft-quoted words: “Comrades, I do not give up the struggle, only the honours”.

That day, known as the “Day of the Renunciation”, together with the mass demonstration of 17 October 1945 called the “Day of Loyalty”, form part of the essence of Peronism. It thus came as no surprise that in his televised speech from his native La Rioja province, the by then ex-candidate Carlos Menem should paraphrase Evita’s words (“I renounce the titles, not the struggle”) to underline his adopted role as the true guardian of the Peronist faith. He went further, hauling out of the history books the confrontation in the period running from 1973 to 1976 between Perón’s followers and the left wing of the movement led by the montonero guerrillas when he referred to Kirchner’s activities as a member of the Peronist Youth, when he formed part of the so-called ‘revolutionary tendency’, considered close to, possibly part of, that guerrilla organisation. Said Menem on television: “There were two options for voters: one put forward by a member of the montoneros; the other, mine, from someone who fought the montoneros.” With this pointless gesture, Menem meant to stand tall as the champion of true Peronism, for two reasons: firstly, to imply that he was acting in obedience to the Peronist tradition and, secondly, in another move condemned to dismal failure, to gather round him the Peronist host by virtue of the links uniting Menenism and Peronism.

Much has been said about why Menem should take such a step. According to Menem’s own interpretation, “the conditions [were] not right for a second round. It was a sham election.” However, as more than one commentator has been at pains to remind him, claims of election rigging should be made in the courts, not in the media, a sure sign of Menem’s lack of evidence of any fraudulent behaviour by the Duhalde administration. His desperate words show that the decision not to run (in many people’s view, an act of sheer cowardice) had other motives. One doubt in people’s minds relates to the origin of the move. Was it Menem’s own idea or was he forced into it by members of his own entourage, clearly concerned about their own political future? To what extent was it influenced by the threat of new or revived allegations of corruption? In one of the many tense meetings with his closest colleagues in the hours preceding the decision to pull out, one of the three provincial governors (those of La Pampa, La Rioja and Salta) who had openly rooted for Menem said to him: “You will lose in my province, and we won’t let you drag us down with you.” The sentence exemplifies the reasoning of those like his brother Eduardo who feared being overwhelmed by Menem’s defeat and doubted not an instant in sacrificing their leader rather than face political doom at his side.

In spite of everything, Menem was fully aware of what he was doing. A few minutes before recording his last message as candidate before the television cameras he said, “I shall look like a coward.” He knew that his attitude clearly contradicted one of the main emotional planks of his election campaign in the first round: his virility. This is not an anecdotal matter in a society with such a machista political culture as Argentina. The ex-candidate himself had gone to great lengths to stress the fact that he was about to be a father. Up until the fateful moment, Menem was still a man capable of making a woman with child, albeit by artificial insemination. Today, that image is in tatters. His decision to back out of the elections was firmly rejected by the public, as it was by political commentators and cartoonists. While the former stressed Menem’s timidity more or less politely, the latter pointed ribald fun at the decision, calling him a yellow-belly and a wet, with much graphic use made of helicopters (in which one of his successors, Fernando de la Rúa, fled at the collapse of his government), of the ex-president’s lack of personal dignity, along with plenty of other, much grosser, comparisons.

Such was the tragicomic manner in which what the editor of the Buenos Aires newspaper La Nación dubbed “a 36-hour farce” drew to a close, amid expletives from all and sundry, institutional uncertainty, denunciations and counter denunciations, and some pretty foul rumours. Among the latter should be included that which tried to involve Ricardo López Murphy in the operation, something that was roundly denied by López himself and his party, when they attacked both Menem and the outgoing president Duhalde in a press conference: “In the present circumstances in which Argentina finds itself, we are fully convinced,” they said, “that a political solution requires complete and total respect for the Constitution and the rule of law. This means that the election should take place or, if this cannot be because one of the candidates renounces his claim, then events should proceed as laid down in the code governing state elections. The institutions must emerge strengthened from these unthinking acts”.

Menem’s conduct revealed his total disdain for democratic institutions and, in the process, his nature as a true son of Peronist authoritarianism, mounting guard over the same sacred ark he had previously laid claim to with his references to Evita and the allegations of Kirchner’s links with the montoneros. His contempt for institutional democracy and his return to the retrograde populism of Peronism was similarly reflected in the following sentences: “Let Kirchner keep his 22 per cent. I have the people. (…) I won the first round; I will not abandon the struggle.” His running mate, Juan Carlos Romero, governor of Salta, made the point even clearer when he spat out, “we’ve wrecked their chance of voting against Menem.” In an article published on Saturday, 17 May, in the newspaper Clarín, Romero went on to justify Menem’s decision in terms that reveal the underlying attitude of Menem’s provincial adherents.

On repeated occasions in the months leading up to the vote, I said that there was a strong likelihood that, given the widespread dislike felt for Menem, in the event of a second round Argentina would experience something very similar to the ‘Le Pen effect’ seen in the French presidential elections. Menem’s decision not to run meant that my prediction could not be verified, though the opinion polls were practically unanimous in forecasting a clear 70/30 victory by Néstor Kirchner. The comparison with the French results leads to another conclusion on Menem’s decision, which is that, unlike Le Pen’s case, behind Menem there is no ongoing political project with staying power, nothing but the abject use of power by his clique. Thus, there is every chance that this latest move signifies not only his downfall, but also that of the few who remain by his side. Today, many of his erstwhile supporters (including some members of parliament) are disembarking from what is clearly a sinking ship.

The circumstances of Kirchner’s accession to the presidency are very unfavourable. He comes in on a wave of scandal, instead of the overwhelming popular support that would have given him much-needed legitimacy when it came to tackling the difficult tasks that lie ahead. Menem’s refusal to stand lays bare the deep political roots of the present Argentinean crisis and the weakness of the country’s democratic institutions, something the incoming president will have to set about remedying immediately if he wants to pull Argentina out of its existing mess. Politically, the new man should try to regenerate the system of political parties (beginning with his own, but including the Radical Party). From an institutional standpoint, he must pay close attention to the coming parliamentary elections (in August and September), the activities of the Supreme Court and the relationship between central government and provincial authorities.

The web of innuendo woven by Menem when he backed out of the run-off goes a long way to explaining the embattled tone of the speech Kirchner made when he knew what was about to happen. It smacked of electioneering, not the measured tones of a president-elect, poised to exercise office above the level of party politics. He declared: “Yesterday we experienced one of the vilest and most shameful days of living memory; an entire country and its democratic institutions, check-mated. This is not the first time events of this nature occur in our country.” He went on with references to the power groups that had benefited from the Menem administration when he said, “it [Menem’s renunciation] is totally in line with the interests of groups and sectors of economic power that profited from inadmissible privileges in the decade just ended, an epoch of financial speculation and political subservience”, adding that the same interests “co-opted the state and bought political allegiance … corrupting leaders and ruining the lives of citizens.”

On some interpretations, Kirchner was referring to a privatised company that gave a lot of money to funding Menem’s campaign. Here, it would be as well to recall the warm welcome afforded Menem when in the course of the campaign he visited the Spanish Chamber of Commerce in Argentina, a greeting that expressed the widespread nostalgia for the good deals done in times gone by. There were some businessmen working for Spanish companies who, against entrepreneurial logic, betted on politics and lost. On this score it would be as well for the future to pause and reflect on similar situations (such as the support given for Fujimori in Peru) that did immense damage to Spain’s image and the defence of its economic interests in the region. In his long years as governor of the province of Santa Cruz, Kirchner has shown that he knows what he wants. His style of government is not to deny the value of a market economy. He respects the rules of the game and all due legal process. What he does do is drive a hard bargain with companies looking to invest in his province to ensure healthy tax revenues, not an unreasonable demand for an administrator in a capitalist economy.

In that same speech Kirchner also said, “I have not come this far to make a pact with the past. Nor for everything to end in a shabby deal with management leaders. I refuse to become a prey to corporate interests.” This reference to the past was clearly aimed at distancing himself from the Menem days, but he was probably also thinking of his alleged mentor, outgoing president Eduardo Duhalde. The reference was understood by the Spanish financial press, and even by the ABC in its edition of 17 May, as a possible allusion to Spanish companies with interests in Argentina. However, I think that there is little reason to be on the defensive. Given the context of the speech, a nearer interpretation would be as a broad hint to the Peronist trade unions that gave the former Radical presidents Raúl Alfonsín and Fernando de la Rúa such a hard time. He may even have had in mind a recently incorporated ‘national’ bank, set up by provincial banks and interests having close links with supporters of both Menem and Alfonsín.

Without doubt, how relations between Duhalde and Kirchner develop will be a good litmus test of the advances achieved by the incoming administration. They will not be easy. In the first place, we have Duhalde’s desire to keep a tight rein on his successor and the Justice Party, instead of making a dignified withdrawal from the front rank of Argentinean politics. The problem with the protagonists of the transition in Argentina (Alfonsín, Menem, Duhalde, to name but a few) is that they either did not want or did not know how to step aside to make way for a much-needed younger generation of leaders. In the second place, one should also reckon on Kirchner’s strong character. He is a no-nonsense politician, a tough negotiator and a man little accustomed to sharing power. The present situation of ‘pre-confrontation’ is given added spice by, as the French would say, the female element. We have the outgoing first lady, Chiche Duhalde, and her replacement, the senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, both women with strong personalities and no little ambition. Kirchner and Duhalde emerged as those who gained most from the first round of the election, and Menem’s renunciation clears the path for them both. What remains to be seen is how they reunite their forces and patch up the unity of the Justice Party. Kirchner will be president now; Duhalde wants to be the next one in 2007. This wish is irremediably dependent on Kirchner’s success. Any failure by him will be a failure for Duhalde while his success would be his alone. Or wouldn’t it? To what extent will Duhalde become the power broker behind the throne in Argentina? Will Kirchner be able to govern using his own political resources, as yet limited in the main to the intrinsic powers of his post, though these are not to be despised?

Conclusions: So, as we see, the outlook for Argentina is to a large extent tied to the immediate future of Peronism. The present situation could hardly be worse, with a party that is split into feuds, given the increasing powers of provincial governors. To add insult to injury, there are various Peronist barons trying to take the party over, the difficulty being that their success can only be measured by the destruction of their opponents, including that of the president of the republic himself. This is what Menem was attempting when he pulled out at the eleventh hour, and it is what the populist leader Adolfo Rodríguez Sáa, now head-down behind the barricade, was aiming at when he came out in defence of Menem. What remains to be seen in the case of Rodríguez Sáa is whether he will try to move back inside the Peronist movement or fire off salvos from outside, as he did in these elections. He set up a coalition of radically populist forces, perhaps the most truly Peronist of all the rival factions, but one which, while expressing veneration for Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, included its ranks such non-parliamentary figures as his running-mate, the former carapintada military adventurer Aldo Rico, of strong right-wing leanings.

But these are not the only candidates for obtaining control of the Justice Party. Duhalde and Kirchner are also in the running, being those best positioned to assume control in the immediate future, though this does not necessarily mean that they will continue to see eye to eye in the months to come. The two men have different political pasts. Duhalde controls the province of Buenos Aires, the most important in the country; Kirchner runs the second poorest. Duhalde has always operated in the centre ground of Peronist orthodoxy; Kirchner comes from the party’s left wing and much of his support in the election came from non-Peronists attracted by this pro-development and pro-nationalist campaign. In the next few days we will learn the make-up of the new government, which should be a clear signal as to how relations between the two strong men in Argentina at present will work. The names of the future ministers will give us a good idea of the degree of consensus reached to govern the country with sufficient manoeuvring space to allow for the daily surprises and strong emotions to which Argentina has of late accustomed us. It will also signal what Kirchner’s model for running the country will be. The chairman of Fiat Argentina told him to model his presidential style on that of Lula rather than Chávez. It is to be hoped that the new president listened to the advice of such a reputable man. Argentina is about to embark on a new period of its very uneven institutional history. Given the strong links with Spain, it is important that the taking of office ceremony should be attended not only by Spain’s most senior figure in representation the Crown, but of the government also.

Carlos Malamud
Senior Analyst, Latin American
Real Instituto Elcano

Carlos Malamud is Senior Analyst for Latin America at the Elcano Royal Institute, and Professor of Latin American History at the UNED.

Written by Carlos Malamud

Carlos Malamud is Senior Analyst for Latin America at the Elcano Royal Institute, and Professor of Latin American History at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), Madrid, Spain. He is a Corresponding Member of the National Academy of History of Argentina. In 2015 he was selected by Esglobal as one of the ‘50 most influential […]