Argentina Elections: Government Defeat as Recession turns to Slump

October's elections have highlighted an enormous discontent in Argentinean society, with a ruling class divided amongst itself, and most importantly, the fact that millions of workers and youth are looking for a left alternative to the crisis facing the nation.

October's elections have highlighted an enormous discontent in Argentinean society, with a ruling class divided amongst itself, and most importantly, the fact that millions of workers and youth are looking for a left alternative to the crisis facing the nation. Unemployment is 18% and rising; another 15% are "underemployed", and the central government is struggling to make repayments on its record debt of $132 billion.

Two years ago Fernando De la Rua won a clear victory as the candidate of an alliance between his own Radical Party (UCR - Unión Civica Radical) and Frepaso (a rather heterogeneous coalition of socialists, left-Peronist and Christian Democrats). At the time, we predicted that this support would rapidly evaporate. Two years - and five general strikes - later, the radicals have barely a quarter of seats in parliament and Frepaso have left the government. The opposition Peronists are also divided. Their Partido Justicialista (PJ) has been unable to offer a coherent alternative, in reality supporting much of the government's program.

The main losers on October 14 were the president and his finance minister Domingo Cavallo. Cavallo first served under the PJ's Carlos Menem and later under De la Rua. Two years ago, his "Acción por la República" party won 10% of the vote; it has now been wiped off the electoral map.

The main winner has been the PJ who have increased their parliamentary representation and now hold a majority in both houses. However, this should not hide the fact that the PJ also lost votes. Compared with two years ago, the Peronists have lost more than 800,000 votes. The memory of ten years of PJ government is still fresh in the voters' minds. The bulk of the vote against the government either went to the parties of the left, or was reflected in the big increase in spoilt ballot papers and in the vote of abstention.

Whilst the current PJ leaders may want to distance themselves from ex-President Menem (currently under house arrest on arms smuggling charges), their opposition to the De la Rua Government has been mostly non-existent. Much of the government's program could not have been implemented were it not for the cooperation of PJ MPs, senators and regional governors. Even before the October Election, the PJ controlled the senate and a number of important regions.

For the PJ, their electoral success is something of a mixed blessing. The party is already deeply divided and a sharpening class struggle will see different sections of the party pushed in different directions. Holding a majority in both houses of parliament, they will be further implicated in government policies. There are already four party leaders competing to be the PJ's presidential candidate in 2003. One of these, Duhalde, is supported by the CGT (rebel) for his classically popularist discourse, while the CGT (official) is supporting the governor of Cordoba, De la Sota.

One of the most important aspects of the electoral results is the growth of all the parties of the left. The third party is now the ARI (Alternativa por un República de Iguales). The ARI was formed just a few months ago by a section of the UCR who had opposed the labour reform and had denounced corruption in parliament. The whole campaign of the ARI was centred on attacking neo-liberalism, corruption and parasitism of finance capital. As an alternative it called for more protectionism and more state intervention in order to build a "fairer", "more honourable", "national", etc, form of capitalism. There are others of a similar character like the "Polo Social" lead by a left-wing priest and whose lists include trade unionists and left-Peronists.

These groups come out of the petit-bourgeoisie and have criticised what they see as excess militancy on the part of the labour movement. At the some time, all the parties of the rather fragmented far-left have seen their vote increase, obtaining their best electoral results ever. Two of them, the IU and the MAS, now have members of parliament. The growth in the left vote is clearest in the large urban centres, especially in Buenos Aires where it reached more the 25%.

The other "alternative" was to abstain or spoil the ballet paper. This represented 45% of the possible total, even though voting is compulsory in Argentina. Studies have shown that the abstentions are from our class, knocked from pillar to post by the economic crisis, whereas the spoilt ballots are more likely to come from the more middle-class layers of the population.

All of this shows the potential for a mass party of the left, but at the same time the abstention shows that much of the natural constituency of such a party is not yet attracted to the existing left organisations. If the trade union leaders offered some kind of half-decent leadership to Argentinean workers, we could go on the offensive - even taking power - in the coming period. By means of building popular, democratic committees in every neighbourhood, factory, office and school; coordinating the class struggle at both the local and national level; it would be possible to organise an alternative representative power to that of the decadent bourgeois state.

Instead of the above, the trade union leaders have - after each of five successive general strikes - chosen to put the brakes on the workers' struggles, giving the government a breathing space and trying to cut a deal with them. The union leaders accept capitalism and refuse to convert the trade union struggle into a general political struggle against the government. This is the key factor which permits the capitalists to maintain control of the situation. The problem for the union bureaucrats is that the Argentinean capitalist class is no longer in any position to make concessions; on the contrary, it is making preparations to break the back of organised labour in Argentina. Beyond this there is no agreement on what to do. Under ever-increasing pressure from international finance capital, the Argentine ruling class is divided on the way forward. Broadly there are three options. The first would be to maintain peso-dollar parity and to move towards a free-trade area of the Americas. This could boost exports and growth - the argument goes. Others point out that it is the peso-dollar parity that is decimating the economy. They argue for devaluation, default and protectionism. Whilst default is considered an option, no significant section of the capitalist class calls for the foreign debt to be cancelled. The $132 billion debt will be even harder to repay if the peso is devalued. Then again, there are those who call for Argentina to dollarise the economy. This would mean losing all remaining control over economic policy and would mean even more dramatic job losses.

Since the elections Cavallo has presented a plan to reduce wages and pensions by up to 20% and make even more cuts in public health and education. The Newspaper "Pagina 12" also reports on a meeting between De la Rua, Cavallo and PJ leaders Ruckant and Duhable to reach cross-party agreement on these and other measures.

But, for the bourgeoisie this is a very high-risk strategy - one that could produce a real social explosion. Already we have seen some massive mobilisations and in some areas of the country like Tartagal and General Mosconi there have been popular uprisings of a semi-insurrectional character where the authorities were expelled and popular committees assumed the tasks of administration.

If the workers' fight-back means that new attacks are postponed, or for that matter, in the case of a reformist government coming to power, it could, at best, put off the confrontation. The Argentine bourgeoisie has resorted to Bonapartism in the past and can do go again. In the dictatorship of 1976-83 we lost 20,000 of our best class fighters.

Before resorting again to dictatorship it would try all other possible combinations (government of national unity, social pacts, etc), but sooner or later the capitalists will use the methods of open repression against the workers' movement. The death of Anibal Verón and other militants, the violent crack-down in Salta, the imprisonment of various picket-line leaders, all these should be taken as a warning of the shape of things to come.

The Argentinean working class has demonstrated increasing levels of militancy, consciousness, and organisation, and is in the process of forging a new class vanguard. The key question is whether the most advanced militants can succeed in building a revolutionary Marxist leadership that can win the support of not only the vanguard but of the broadest masses of our class.

Any program for a working class solution to the crisis must include the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy under workers' control, an economic plan - under democratic, popular control - to meet the social needs and end unemployment, and the cancellation of the foreign debt.

One of the lessons of history is that a revolutionary leadership can neither be improvised nor "proclaimed" by small group. In Argentina, the working class finds itself divided between various diverse organisations, from the parties of the far-left to parties which come from the traditions of populism like the PJ and FREPASO - from the flying pickets and workers' assemblies to the traditional Peronist trade union organisations.

These divisions are rooted in the lack of class independence in the trade unions. Instead of aiming to organise workers in their own organisations with their objectives, trade union leaders have followed - and still follow - a policy of giving their support to a variety of bourgeois and petit-bourgeois politicians.

The perspective for Argentina is one of sharpening class struggle, and this situation will create the conditions for a major regrouping of the working class through a process of a splits and fusions of its mass organisations.

The developments we have outlined here are just the beginning. If the most advanced layers of the Argentinean working class arm themselves with the methods and program of revolutionary Marxism, building a current within the labour movement with the tactical flexibility necessary to reach all the different sections of the class who for the moment still look towards the reformists and popularists, the coming period can see them rise to the leadership of the workers' movement and move towards the revolutionary transformation of Argentinean society.

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