Peronism's Remarkable Comebacks
Latin American history is replete with personalist movements that briefly dominated a country’s political landscape, only to later find themselves nothing more than a faded memory.
Then there is Peronism.
The movement that began with the rise of Juan Domingo Perón in 1945 has periodically governed Argentina ever since, including for 24 of the past 26 years. Following the election of Mauricio Macri in November 2015, Peronists today find themselves outside of power and facing tough questions about their future identity and unity. But they’ve been here before. As the following short history demonstrates, Peronism has several times found itself down, but never out. It has shown a remarkable ability to reinvent itself and recapture power.
Comeback # 1
The descendant of Sardinian immigrants, Perón steadily rose through the ranks of the Argentine army and accumulated power within the military government of the early 1940s. By October 1945, rival officers had become alarmed at his popularity among the working class. They arrested him and sent him to the island of Martín García near Buenos Aires. For the first of many times, Peronism’s future appeared dark, before it had really even begun.
But in Perón, workers and unions finally had an advocate within the corridors of power, and they would not let him be so easily pushed aside. Over the next week Perón’s supporters organized mass protests on his behalf. Ultimately, on October 17, the military released Perón and allowed him to deliver a speech from the balcony of the Casa Rosada, the Argentine presidential palace, to more than 250,000 people. Millions also listened live on radio. The response was electric, and Perón went on to win a democratic presidential election in 1946 and re-election in 1951.
Bolstered by the popularity of his glamorous young wife Eva, or “Evita,” millions of Argentines were transformed into devoted followers of Perón’s “third way” between the capitalism of the West and the communism of the East. Peronism combined private ownership of businesses and property with progressive social programs, such as universal free education, mandatory social security and subsidized housing. Devotees included a young seminarian named Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis.
Yet by 1955, Eva had died from cancer and the economy was crumbling under the weight of economic mismanagement and the burden of generous social welfare programs the country could not afford. Widespread corruption and Perón’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies also rankled the elite. Military officers carried out a coup in 1955 that sent Perón fleeing abroad. For most personalist movements, a nearly 20-year exile would have signaled its demise as a viable political force. But that would not be the case for Peronism.
Upon taking power, the military attempted to erase all traces of Peronism from public life through censorship, bans on public displays of Peronist symbols, and even the theft of Evita’s embalmed corpse, which would end up secretly buried in an Italian cemetery under a false name. In the early 1970s, the Argentine military government found itself in dire economic and political straits due to flawed economic and social policies, but also to machinations orchestrated by Perón from his safe haven in Spain. Perón brought in and retained a wide range of diverse ideological factions under an enormous Peronist tent, allowing these different factions to see in Perón the leader they wanted to see. By then, Peronism ran the gamut from radical left-wing urban guerrillas to virulently anti-communist union leaders. These different groups gradually made Argentina ungovernable, casting Perón as the country’s only potential savior. The military leadership reluctantly concluded the only solution to the crisis was his return. After a transitional election, Perón was once again elected president in September 1973.
Perón had set unrealistic expectations, however, and within a matter of weeks his unwieldy coalition began to splinter. Then, nine months after taking office, Perón died. His vice president was his third wife, María Estela “Isabel” Martínez de Perón, a former cabaret dancer 35 years Perón’s junior. Under President Isabel Perón, the economy entered into free fall, conflict escalated between Peronism’s left and right wings, and guerilla warfare struck the cities and countryside. The president’s judgment was questioned as she fell further under the influence of Argentina’s Rasputin, Jose López Rega. López Rega’s nickname, “The Sorcerer,” came from his interest in the occult, which included having Isabel lie on top of Evita’s coffin to absorb her spiritual powers.
With the economy in shambles, the military led a coup in 1976 with strong support from the Argentine public. The years that followed would mark the darkest period for the Peronist movement.
During the 1976 to 1983 dictatorship, several of Peronism’s leaders were imprisoned or forced into internal or external exile, including Antonio Cafiero and Carlos Menem. All told, as the military attempted to purge the country of Peronism once and for all, more than 10,000 Argentines were murdered by government forces.
Following the military’s humiliating defeat in the 1982 war with the United Kingdom over the disputed Malvinas/Falklands Islands, Argentina began a transition to democracy. In the run-up to the 1983 elections, Peronist leaders were confident the movement would return to power. They only had to go through the “formality” of defeating their traditional counterweight, the Radical Civic Union (UCR), which in four attempts had never won a free and fair presidential election against a Peronist.
It therefore came as a profound shock when the party’s candidate, Ítalo Luder, was soundly defeated by the UCR’s Raúl Alfonsín. The defeat left Peronism in disarray. The myth that the movement was invincible in democratic elections had been shattered. The defeat also set off a challenge by reformists to the movement’s orthodox wing, whose base was in the unions. The public perceived the movement as not being fully committed to democracy, and it lacked a charismatic leader.
After two years of recriminations between the orthodox and renewal wings of the Peronist movement, the renewal faction, led by Cafiero and Menem, gained ascendance and began to focus on the immediate goal of winning the 1987 gubernatorial and midterm congressional elections and the medium-term goal of retaking the presidency in 1989. As a sign of the renewalists’ commitment to democracy, they chose Peronism’s presidential candidate in a primary, where Menem defeated Cafiero and was transformed into the movement’s new leader.
In the 1989 presidential election, Menem easily bested the UCR’s Eduardo Angeloz. Peronism’s 15 years in the wilderness were over. When Menem assumed office in July of 1989 he ushered in a 26-year period during which Peronist presidents would govern Argentina for all but two years (the abbreviated presidency of the UCR’s Fernando de la Rúa between December 1999 and December 2001).
In the wilderness again
Between 2005 and 2015, Peronism’s unrivaled leaders were the late Néstor Kirchner and his spouse and successor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Fernández de Kirchner’s term-limited departure from power, combined with the failure of either the pro-Kirchner or anti-Kirchner Peronist presidential candidates (Daniel Scioli and Sergio Massa, respectively) to defeat Macri, created a power vacuum within Peronism, whose natural tendency is to have one single leader at the top of a pyramid.
However, a new generation of Peronist leaders in their 40s, such as Massa and Juan Manuel Urtubey, along with more seasoned veterans, are beginning to retrace the steps followed by Cafiero and Menem 30 years ago. Peronists are nothing if not ideologically flexible and pragmatic, driven by the primordial goal of obtaining power. When a center-left platform provides them with the best chance of retaking power, they are progressives; when the opposite is true, they are free-market conservatives; and when neither is the optimal path, they are populists with an amorphous platform. These traits, combined with the ineffectiveness to date of any other force in Argentina to provide sustained and successful governance, suggest that at some point in the future we may be discussing Peronism’s Comeback #4.
Jones is the Joseph D. Jamail Chair in Latin American Studies and the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s fellow in political science at Rice University.