The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Argentina’s economy is collapsing. Here come the Peronistas, again.

Former Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, running for vice president in Sunday’s election, waves to supporters at a campaign rally in Santa Rosa. (Natacha Pisarenko/AP)

BUENOS AIRES — The peso is falling — and so, it seems, is the sky. Inflation and poverty rates are soaring. National reserves are shrinking fast. In short, Argentina — in a terrible deja vu of crises past — is hurtling once again toward the economic abyss.

But on the bar stools and wooden chairs of Santa Evita, a grill house dedicated to Eva “Evita” Perón, the political heroine who died a Broadway-worthy death in 1952, the customers are retranqui, Argentine slang for cool and calm. Because the presidential election is coming. And the Peronistas — the heirs to the complex populist political machine launched in the 1940s by Juan and Eva Perón — are poised for a massive comeback.

Argentina's increasing poverty rates is becoming a touchstone issue in the country's upcoming presidential election on Oct. 27. (Video: Reuters)

The ticket heavily favored to win this month has the corruption-tainted former president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, returning to the political stage as the vice-presidential candidate. A larger-than-life Peronista who ruled Argentina from 2007 to 2015, she towers over presidential candidate Alberto Fernández, a former palace adviser and now her lesser-known running mate.

“You could say that Cristina is the continuation of Evita,” said Gonzalo Alderete Pagés, the proprietor of Santa Evita. “Cristina is in our hearts, and we are sure of her return. Where non-Peronistas fail, she succeeds in opening her arms to the working class.”

In Argentina, this is the season of the Peronista renaissance, built on a coalition of a disillusioned middle class, the left-leaning young and an increasingly angry poor. And as Sunday’s election approaches, the battle lines being drawn here are over populism, inequality and corruption — the same toxic mix now touching off unrest across South America.

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In Ecuador this month, the government fled the capital before the advance of thousands of union members, students and indigenous protesters demonstrating against austerity measures announced by President Lenín Moreno as a corrective to his populist predecessors. In Chile, cost-of-living pressures and persistent economic inequality have sparked days of the most violent protests seen in years. And in Peru, a political class tainted by corruption is at war with itself, setting up a constitutional crisis and legislative elections in which some candidates are poised to campaign from jail.

In Argentina the Peronistas, opponents say, ran the nation into the ground during their last outing, when Kirchner is alleged to have falsified financial data, raided pension funds, doled out social handouts and solicited bribes even as she forged allegiances with allies such as Hugo Chávez, the father of Venezuela’s socialist state. Though she enjoys immunity from incarceration as a sitting senator, the 66-year-old leftist has hit the campaign trail with nearly a dozen criminal cases against her.

Argentines replaced her in 2015 with President Mauricio Macri, the scion of a real estate tycoon and a onetime darling of Wall Street who promised to drag the economy into the future. Like Moreno in Ecuador, Macri ripped cherished subsidies away from the people and sought the assistance of the International Monetary Fund. 

But the fruits of Macri’s labor are a failed economy that is now more moribund than the one he inherited. The cost may be his job. Should Macri lose Sunday, it would also prove a theory: that only the rough-and-tumble, union-backed Peronista machine can truly rule unruly Argentina.

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'We always go back'

In its early-20th-century heyday, Argentina, blessed with fertile plains that made it a global breadbasket, was richer than Japan and had more cars than France. But from the ashes of the Great Depression came not a rebirth but a long, slow decline marked by destructive military governments and the populism of Perón.

Since the 1940s, the center of gravity of the Peronista movement — officially, the Justicialist Party — has swung between the political right and left. Today, it encompasses schools of thought across the ideological spectrum, uniting politicians who share only a religious devotion to the nation and to Juan and Eva Perón. So firm is the Peronista grip on the country that even Macri’s surprise pick of a running mate — Miguel Ángel Pichetto, a 68-year-old, anti-immigrant senator — hails from the Justicialist center-right.

“When we have a [government] that excludes Peronism, we always go back to Peronism,” said Felipe Solá, a veteran Peronista widely tipped to be foreign minister in a Fernández-Kirchner administration. “Because that is [our] model of national survival.”

To understand the Peronista surge, drive 1 ½ hours beyond the belle epoque buildings and Parisian-style balconies of elegant Buenos Aires to the low-income suburb of Jose C. Paz. 

Here, Sebastian Martínez bit the hand that fed him. 

In 2009, the 38-year-old heavy-machinery operator and his wife, Yanina Sánchez, personally received the keys to their new state-built house from then-President Kirchner. They also enjoyed subsidies on electricity and cooking gas granted to them under Kirchner’s husband, former president Néstor Kirchner, who traded Argentina’s top job with his wife before dying of a heart attack in 2010.

Yet Martínez voted for Macri in 2015. For one, Kirchner wasn’t on the ballot, having reached the limit of two consecutive terms. 

“But we also believed Macri, that he would change Argentina and create a better life,” Martínez said. “That was a lie. All he did was help the rich and forget the poor.”

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Macri’s move to curb subsidies coupled with inflation, Martínez said, has more than quadrupled the price he pays for electricity. At the same time, measures taken by Macri to restore faith in the economy — such as the IMF bailout — simply have not worked, while attempts to prop up the peso and improve government balance sheets have burned through reserves and brought a prolonged recession.

In the midst of the downturn, Martínez lost his full-time job at a construction company, and is now putting food on the table for a family of five by bartering cleaning services at slaughterhouses for meat — that is, when he isn’t collecting junk and cardboard on the streets to resell for subsistence cash.

“What kind of life is this?” he asked. “This is what Macri has done to us.”

“I know Cristina robs. But at least we were better off with her,” he said.

Since the restoration of Argentine democracy in 1983, three of the major economic crises the country has suffered — a brutal bout of hyperinflation in the late 1980s, a catastrophic debt default in the early 2000s and the current economic morass — have all occurred under non-Peronista governments.

Critics say that’s because the Peronistas set economic time bombs before they leave office — spending far more than the nation earns to boost their popularity and influence, while distorting the economy by printing cash. 

But that, many here say, is a chronic problem hardly exclusive to Peronistas. 

“If I have to find a root for all the crises, it’s that permanently, for the past 100 years, there has been a fiscal deficit,” said Hernán Lacunza, Argentina’s treasury minister. “The state spent more than it collected. You can do that temporarily, but not permanently. And we did it for 10 decades.”

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Nostalgia vote

Yet for nostalgia-prone Argentines, the feel-good days of Peronism are a strong draw — so strong that the Fernández-Kirchner ticket scored a 16-percentage-point lead over Macri in the nation’s all-parties primary in August, a result widely seen as predicting the election Sunday. If no candidate wins more than 45 percent of the vote, or at least 40 percent with a 10-point lead, the top two go to a runoff next month in which analysts say Macri might have a chance. 

Kirchner, insiders here say, opted to take the vice-presidential slot for pragmatic reasons. She has a strong base estimated at between 25 percent and 35 percent. But her ceiling is low, in part because of her personal scandals. They include a daughter who is purportedly being treated in Cuba for medical problems but who critics say is actually avoiding prosecution at home in a corruption case linked to a safe-deposit box with $4.6 million in cash.

The calculation Kirchner made, analysts said, is that as vice president, she could bring her core voters to the table while allowing Fernández to win the votes of those who intensely dislike her.

Viviana de Matteis, 55, owns a gym in Buenos Aires. She’s seen a 20 percent drop in business over the past year.

“I can’t stand her, but I’m going to vote for them anyway,” she said. “She’s corrupt, but I’m voting with my pocketbook. Macri can’t get anything done.”

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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