Argentina has crossed a political threshold into a new era. The presidential elections on 25 October 2015 represents a rejection of President Cristina Kirchner’s brand of Peronism that has dominated the country since 2003, and possibly ends her political relevance. But does this signal the end of Argentine populism? Across Latin America, and especially in Venezuela, populism as a form of authoritarian anti-liberalism is fading. A majority of Argentine voters rebuffed it and thus Daniel Scioli (the president’s chosen candidate) was unable to secure the presidency in the first round, meaning that Argentines face a run-off election on 22 November now for the first time in the country’s history. The significance of this run-off is immense. Voters wanted a change from the populist past. Some Peronists seem to have lost their so-called captive votes and they are now talking of “understanding the message sent by the ballots” and bipartisanship. Argentines now have the chance of substantially increasing the quality of their democracy.
This is no small thing in the country that, under Juan and Eva Perón, reinvented modern populism after 1945 as an authoritarian corporatist version of democracy, and later also suffered one of the continent’s most gruesome dictatorships (1976-83). The democracy that subsequently emerged was constrained by the populist style that so far has defined Argentine political culture, especially in the politics of the ruling Peronist party.
The presidential elections were a choice between two different political universes: traditional Argentine populism versus a more active participation of citizens in political decisions. Scioli did not identify with populism despite being the party’s candidate, and his main rival Mauricio Macri (the centre-right mayor of Buenos Aires) even less so. So now the new president will have a real chance to transcend its recent populist experience. This is a choice that transcends Argentina, for Europe too has witnessed a surge of populism. If Argentines embrace a new direction, the effects will reverberate in Latin America and beyond.