The, October 23rd presidential elections in Argentina have given a clear advantage to Cristina Kirchner, who was reelected president of Argentina with an overwhelming majority. Kirchner, of the Frente Para la Victoria - the Centre-left wing of the Justicialista (Peronist) Party -took 54 percent of the vote, while her closest rival won 17% percent.
This will be Ms. Kirchner's second term after being preceded by a full four-year term by her late husband, Nestor Kirchner. This means that at the end of the next presidential term Argentina's politics will have been dominated by 12 years of Kirchner governance. She is barred from seeking a third term. This is why she is likely to pursue constitutional reform.
Last April, in a previous article in the Americas Report entitled, "Making Sense of Argentina's Frenzied Policy " I wrote the following: "the Kirchners have behaved like dictators; intimidating the business sector every time there were price increases; attacking the media that criticized them and taking steps to destroy them while buying and co-opting media outlets they thought were supportive of the government. By the same token, the Kirchners not only treated the opposition unkindly but also used the prerogatives of executive power to make decisions while skipping public debate and scorning dissent …Without judging the merit or intentions of the Kirchner's policies, whether they are economic or human rights oriented, the Kirchner government has generated an atmosphere of bullying, anger, revenge, and intolerance. Such an atmosphere is against the spirit of democracy and worse it is not consistent with the past the Kirchner's claim to reject. Such a past is rooted mainly in the political culture of the Peronist Party, which aggressively appeals to the masses and tends to deny the legitimacy of those who do not stand by its side."
Since the early 1960's there seems to be a substantial number of academics and activists who believe that the development of democracy is directly related to economic prosperity and economic development. From a different angle, there is the idea that democracy besides needing economic development to exist also requires both social and economic equality. Of course, there are also those, like myself, who believe that democracy and economic development could develop separately.
Indeed, in Argentina economic growth and economic prosperity have strengthened authoritarian tendencies precisely because such affluence has been used as a tool to build up political power.
Political authoritarian regimes are not only outcomes of economic or social conflict. Often, they are elected democratically and in the long run they are sustained by economic success. Nowadays, this phenomenon, is more and more common as we are seeing in Latin American countries such as ALBA leaders Hugo Chavez' Venezuela, Rafael Correa's Ecuador and Evo Morales' Bolivia as well as in other leaders such as Vladimir Putin's Russia and Recep Tayip Erdogan's Turkey..
In other words, as the wave of democracy continues to expand, there is, in many countries, an anti-democratic political force with substantial support. Governments formed by these forces are known as being "illiberal" democracies, mostly characterized by the supremacy of the executive power over the legislative and the judicial branch, harassment of the media, attacks against economic and political actors, and a general atmosphere of intimidation.
These types of regimes are essentially either the result of a revolution or the result of what Montesquieu calls the inability to place self-restraint on a greedy tendency to accumulate power. Chavez, Correa, Morales belong to the former. Putin and Kirchner belong to the latter.
Economic Prosperity and Illiberal Democracy
The Kirchner phenomenon is a very interesting case where there is economic prosperity, mostly related to the high price of Argentinean commodities such as soy and massive demand of Argentinean agricultural products from China. This economic growth, not seen in many decades in Argentina, is not translated into a full consolidation of democratic practices but the opposite.
Economic prosperity (9% growth last year) and astronomic state expenditure (aided by refusal to pay debts) are used instead as an instrument of political power building. Thus, Argentina has turned into a populist democracy whose only principle is majority rule. This is at the expense of classical liberal and pluralistic democracy where electoral minorities, organized groups, and recognition of rights prevail. Majority rule is precisely the result of the same temptation Montesquieu referred to. As French Latin American expert, Alain Rouquie, pointed out, the majority is an element that provides power to the government. Government power is the key. The ballot box is everything. It stands above the principle of limited power and leads to the temptation of absolute rule. Nothing illustrated this better than Ms. Kirchner's reaction to media criticism.
"The media has never been elected to office" claimed Ms. Kirchner, implying that those who are not elected do not represent legitimate views. In addition, to understand the government's logic: if the media has never been elected to office, neither have been other individuals and groups who wish to have their voices heard. Therefore, only elected entities by majorities own the truth.
Of course, the way through which majority support is secured is precisely via redistribution. Public expenditures have increased astronomically since the Kirchners took the reins of power in 2003 and last year public spending reached 32% of the total national budget. The fruits of economic prosperity are used to consolidate a majority that in turn provides political power via plebiscite or elections. Although it remains unclear to many economists how this could be sustained in the long run, the popularity of Kirchner due to economic prosperity and redistribution policies has crippled the opposition that has lost the ability to offer a serious challenge to Ms. Kirchner. Therefore, as the opposition dwindles, weak elections have become nothing but referendums on the President. Thus, Kirchner's overwhelming victory could further reduce the power of the opposition and thus pave the way to absolute power.
If Government power increases, most likely the will to power of the ruling party will increase as well. With government expenses rising, it is likely that state power and state bureaucracy will grow as well. This leads necessarily to a monstrous state that gradually expands its control over society.
The idea of constitutional reform recently raised by Ms. Kirchner clearly embodies this conception.
The idea of constitutional reform has been introduced in Argentina by Ms. Kirchner to secure her continuity in power (she is barred from seeking a third term). The assumption behind this is that times have been so successful under Kirchner that only her and her legacy can guarantee the future of the country.
Ideas for constitutional reform have been diverse. One suggestion is to have a system that will enable the indefinite reelection of the President as in Venezuela. Curiously, it has also been suggested to change the regime from a presidential one to a parliamentary one, like in Europe. This idea is supported by Hermes Binner, the candidate with the highest number of votes after Kirchner. This type of reform could enable minority parties to gain power via negotiations for coalition building and in their capability to bring about votes of non-confidence. Given the overwhelming power of the Peronist party, this system would enable a voice to a minority and would place limits to presidential absolutism. Yet, Kirchner expects through a change like this to continue to be the country's leader in the form of Prime Minister backed by majority rule and with no limits on her reelection.
It is most likely, however, that following the election Ms. Kirchner will push for a constitutional reform that will not only secure her reelection but will also include, like in the Venezuelan and Ecuadorian constitution, an expanding role of the state in the economy and society. (See "Ecuador's Constitutional Reform: A Democratic Transition to Tyrannical Rule" second article in this link )
It is not likely that the Kirchner government will lead to an authoritarian situation in the short term. However, as Mexican political scientist and former Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda pointed out, Argentina is not Venezuela because it still is a pluralistic society with a more diverse economy and social groups than Venezuela. This diversification and plurality of groups still represent a good counterbalance to the absolutist tendencies of the Kirchner government. Likewise, Kirchner, unlike Venezuela cannot count on support from the military because Kirchner has helped to accelerate the process of disempowerment of the military. (this is a positive step in Argentina due to its history of human rights abuses by the military).
But Kirchner's ruling style is encouraging an intolerant political culture. This culture is unfortunately expanding more and more in Latin America.
Source: The Americas Report