by Andrés Schipani
In November 2012, Cristina Kirchner faced her most important political challenges since the conflict with agrarian elites in 2008. Indeed, two different segments of the Argentinean population staged massive mobilizations against the Kirchner administration, demanding a sharp turn in its policies. On November 8th, the middle class staged a massive mobilization to the Casa Rosada (the equivalent of the U.S. White House) to express its broad disagreement with Kirchner’s economic and institutional policies. On November 20th, it was the turn of a dissident faction of the labor movement to take the streets to protest against some of Kirchner’s labor policies. What are the causes behind these mobilizations? Which are their similarities and differences? What is their likely impact on Argentinean political dynamics more generally?
The November 8th rally expressed a long-held dissatisfaction of important segments of the middle class towards the Kirchner government. As a matter of fact, the middle class has always been an elusive segment to most Peronist governments. In the particular case of the Kirchners, the executive’s hegemonic style vis-à-vis other institutional powers (such as the judicial system and Congress), as well as the many corruption scandals in which government officials have been involved, are anathema for a middle class very sensitive to rule of law concerns. Notwithstanding this important factor, the middle class has not hesitated to support Peronist governments despite rule of law concerns when they were able to deliver tangible economic benefits.
In this regard, the Kirchner governments’ relationship to the middle class shows many parallels to that of Menem’s during the 1990s: when economic times were good, the middle class didn’t hesitate to side with the incumbent Peronist. When hard economic times came, however, the middle class turned its backs on Peronist presidents and supported alternative candidates more attentive to rule of law concerns. In the case of the Kirchner administration, one crucial economic decision had a decisive impact on the middle class’ political leanings: the adoption of strict controls over foreign exchange reserves. Given the traumatic history of recurrent inflation in Argentina, the middle class has always used the dollar to preserve the value of its savings. Hence, once Cristina forbade the middle class from purchasing dollars in official exchange markets, its members turned to the streets and fused their long-term demands for more rule of law with their more immediate economic concerns.
The nature of the November 20th rallies was considerably different. First, these mobilizations were staged by a minoritarian faction of the labor movement: mainly public workers affiliated with the non-Peronist CTA (Confederation of Argentine Workers) as well as a dissident fraction of the Peronist CGT (Workers General Confederation) led by the teamsters — Argentina’s most powerful union. Hence, the majority of the labor movement did not mobilize and remains allied with the Kirchner administration. Second, unlike middle-class protests, these mobilizations do not constitute a general rejection of the Kirchneristamodel on the part of the labor movement. To the contrary, they were staged to advance three specific modifications in the current legislation: the augmentation of the income tax’s lower bound — now paid by a considerable segment of formal workers — the increase in governmental transfers to union-managed health insurances, and the extension of family allowances to better-off workers. In sum, the labor movement is demanding a marginal correction of current policies, not a radical change in public policy.
The two mobilizations staged against the Kirchner government in November show considerable contrasts, and their political impacts will likely be different. On the one hand, the protest staged by the middle class constitutes a widespread rejection of the Kirchnerista political project, particularly of the executives’ institutional way of doing politics. Although there is an important economic dimension underlying these protests, it is unlikely that Cristina Kirchner’s approach to other institutional powers or the tight control she imposed over foreign exchange reserves are going to change in the near future. Hence, the challenge posed by the middle classes on November 8th seems to constitute a long lasting and important one to the current administration.
On the other hand, the working-class protests of November 20th were less radical in their demands and have less societal support, a fact that makes them easier to deal with for the government. Because these mobilizations advanced demands to change specific aspects of Cristina’s labor policies, the government can more easily diffuse working-class discontent by enacting incremental reforms that are more attentive to better-off workers’ financial situation. Moreover, since the government already has a strong backing among labor unions, these incremental reforms will likely reduce working-class support for dissident factions of the labor movement and increase its support for the majoritarian segments of the labor movement allied with the government.
In sum, Cristina Kirchner has experienced considerable challenges to her political project from important segments of the Argentinean population. This discontent has been expressed through street demonstrations, a significant challenge for a leftwing government that has been extremely attentive to popular demands expressed in the streets since the very beginning of the Kirchnerista administrations in 2003. Although the challenge posed by the middle class seems to be more structural in nature and difficult to deal with in the short term, the government has an important opportunity to regain its widespread support among the working class by adopting incremental legislative reforms. In the success of this initiative lies its long-term capability to diffuse a cross-class coalition against its progressive agenda.