2:38 p.m. September 18, 2013

The Kirchners are Losing Their Boots

A great part of third-world politics is decided by who controls the territory in which people live and work. Who has the network of contacts and logistics, the local trust or the simple brute force to be the formal or informal dominant organization in those places. It can be the church, the landlords, the drug cartels, a peasant movement, NGO’s with shady financial backers, international corporations, different kinds of mafia, a democratic political party if you're lucky or a perpetually negotiated combination of the above.

That's why when looking at Latin America you can't really say that a group has any real power if it hasn't consolidated some form of boots-on-the-ground control over the territory it's supposed to be ruling over. As proof of that, just compare the Chavistas' degree of territorial control in Venezuela with what happened to Paraguay's ousted president Fernando Lugo. What was the reason for their different fates?

Chávez had already built up an authentic, broad base of networks of support long before he won any elections — first within the military rank and file, then in Venezuela’s many slums and working-class neighborhoods. He even extended his organization into areas populated by some of the most isolated aboriginal peoples, who, before Chavez, had never trusted the Venezuelan state. That translated into the continued electoral dominance of Chávez's political heirs, who are still unbeatable today at the ballot box in the parts of Venezuelan society he organized. Not only that, but it's also the reason why these same people proved to be so loyal to Chávez, and willing to work and fight for the movement he led whenever their support was needed.

So for example in 2002, when Venezuela's elite ousted Chávez in a coup, his massive base took to the streets and made it impossible for the ruling junta to govern. Most importantly, the military rank and file could not be counted on to follow junta orders to suppress those massive street demonstrations. That meant checkmate for the coup leaders: In just 48 hours, Chávez was back in the presidential palace and the coup leaders were under arrest or in hiding. That's what real organized power looks like.

Paraguay’s would-be equivalent to Chavez, Fernando Lugo, was also an outsider. Lugo broke the Colorado Party’s 60-year one-party reign in Paraguay after winning the presidency in 2008. But, unlike Chávez, Lugo never managed to organize a nationwide movement of his own — his political star rose thanks to his core base of small groups of landless peasants, along with a good enough public image to get the votes needed to win a national election. That alone is a very weak foundation for political power, especially if you are running on a platform that plans to challenge entrenched elites. Lugo seems to have understood his shortcomings, and so in order to ensure that he had enough people (i.e., “boots on the ground”) to monitor the voting process against potential election-day fraud, and to be able to compete across the whole country and to establish links across the whole of Paraguay if he won, he cut a deal with the other dinosaur in Paraguay's rotting two-party system, the Liberals. Lugo offered the Liberal Party the vice presidency plus several cabinet seats. In exchange, the Liberals lent Lugo their party structure.

Until they decided to take it back, that is.

The Liberal Party quickly grew tired of Lugo's populist politics and started negotiating with their supposed enemies, the Colorados, to oust him. Which they finally did last year, orchestrating a sham, record-speed impeachment (it took all of one day to oust Lugo) based on very dubious charges.

A lot of Paraguayans denounced the impeachment of Fernando Lugo as a coup, but almost no one was ready to take the streets or go on strike to defend the ousted president. Unlike Chávez, Lugo had no real power base to counter the old Paraguayan elite. So he took it, went home with his head down, leaving office with what at the time sounded like an oddly acquiescent and not at all combative farewell speech. In hindsight, it’s clear now that Lugo knew his situation better than those of us watching that speech on TV — that he had no one to fight for him, and that he'd have to start from scratch.

Responding to coups is just one of the most obvious, visible examples of what I’m talking about, but there's much more to territorial politics than this. Having an organized network of people that the leadership trusts enables them to understand what’s going on at the grassroots level, like political intelligence that’s reliable. What are ordinary people unhappy about? Is the government (whether you're part of it or not) doing things that have unexpected negative consequences in their everyday lives? Does our campaign platform resonate with voters? Are there any shady deals going on between other players? Is it safe to go to this or that place to talk to what's supposed to be our base? Is there, say, a struggling mother of six who has recently become a widow and is in need of a public works program or a state pension? Where is she, and how can we contact her? Is there a hated local gang gaining ground and taking hold of a particular neighborhood? How do the locals get on with the police?

The list goes on, but you get the point – this is just a tiny sample of the incredibly broad range of highly valuable, street-level information that a ruling government might need to run any potentially conflict-laden place, especially in the poorer areas, which are way too numerous in Latin America.

This brings me to the current political situation here in Argentina, which is no exception to the importance of boots-on-the-ground politics. The populist Kirchners, one of our most successful political dynasties, should have known this better than anyone — and yet now it looks like they’re on their way out of power, heading for an abrupt exit because they underestimated the importance of grassroots territorial politics.

In the Western media, there’s a tendency to simplify and group together the many left-leaning Latin American governments into a one big bag of "progressives defying the US and fighting against their own elites" — but if you take a closer inside look at the region, you see huge differences between the politics of, say, Hugo Chávez's Venezuela, and Néstor or Cristina Kirchner's Argentina.

Chávez swept through the rotting old Venezuelan two-party system, appearing as a total outsider, and he ended up creating his own party and politics with its own roots. Chávez’s cabal of underground rebel officers in the army spent its time plotting against Venezuela's elite rather than making calculated, “savvy” pacts with prominent members of the establishment — politicians and oligarchs — to climb the power ladder, as was the norm. Instead, early on in his political career, Chavez made a strategic decision to organize and link up with the excluded masses first and foremost, especially after Chavez’s failed junior officers’ coup in 1992. This popular outreach allowed Chávez's people to build a base of power that was all their own, rather than borrowing someone else’s. It’s the reason why you see so much genuine passion in those Chavista rallies, or when politics are debated on the streets, in bars and at family dinners: they feel that politics belongs to them, that their leaders are on their side, rather than being simply a bunch of opportunists who smile for the cameras after rising to the top. It's also why even when the state fails to act effectively or on time, which happens a lot in Venezuela, the poorer masses have far more patience with the government than they did in pre-Chávez days — because they feel there are at least some people on the ground listening to their problems and looking for solutions.

Here in Argentina, the supposedly “leftist” Kirchners gained power in a completely different manner. Their game was never bottom-up politics like Chavez; they always felt more at home making and breaking deals with the people at the top. They were part of the old and corrupted Peronist party structure in the distant province of Santa Cruz, and they rose up quietly there, out of sight, far from the national spotlight in Buenos Aires. After Argentina’s 2001-2002 economic collapse, the Kirchners were some of the few politicians inside the Peronist party structure that could claim to offer something different from the discredited neoliberal policies that Peronism had implemented during the unemployment-plagued ’90s, and in the years leading to the 2001 crash, which allowed them to rise in the polls.

Few people remembered how the Kirchners supported neoliberal Peronism in its early years, and fewer still knew much about their shady deals or right-wing allies on the frozen steppe of Santa Cruz. Thanks to this bout of amnesia, the Kirchners’ social-democratic rhetoric seemed credible and managed to seduce a portion of the disenchanted population. Néstor Kirchner managed to get 22% of the unusually divided vote, which was enough to win, but he was widely expected to be a puppet of the real power figure in the Peronist Party at the time, Eduardo Duhalde — whose politics were far more conservative, and who held real control over the Peronist Party’s network of territorial strongmen, especially in the Buenos Aires province, the most important of all.

But Kirchner wanted to be more than a mere frontman for Duhalde. So even though he hadn’t built up his own popular support base to sweep out old entrenched party structures the way Chávez had done, Kirchner started using the power of the presidency to at least force the old Peronist territorial leaders to abandon Duhalde's camp for his. From the presidential seat, Kirchner pork-barreled most of these local leaders into supporting him, and ended up beating Duhalde in a direct matchup in the 2005 midterm elections thanks to their support. He thereby became the real head of the Peronist Party, able to impose his politics and style, at least for the time being.

But that kind of supposedly pragmatic, realpolitik approach to coalition building isn't as practical as it may appear in the short term. The Kirchners never really trusted their new allies with whom they built a governing coalition, and the feeling was mutual. They weren't friends; they weren’t a coherent, organized base; they didn't share many of the same political goals or ideological positions. That’s hardly a solid political platform for long-term social change. In fact, despite Chávez’s omnipresent leadership style, and even though Chavismo faced a much more hostile domestic environment, its grassroots territorial politics allowed Venezuela’s post-neoliberal regime to be more resilient than Argentina’s in times of crisis or when they needed to build a leadership succession. At best, the sort of pork-barrel coalition-deal-making that the Kirchners adopted was shown to hold up when times were good — but to fall apart pretty quickly.

If you speak with anyone who ever dealt with the Kirchner family during their past decade of rule, they'll all tell you a similar story: Néstor was the guy that knew how to keep this Peronist territorial structure in check; he’s the one who had the patience to sit down with any disgruntled local leader, drink whiskey with him until 4 a.m., and to sort things out to keep him on board. Even when his wife Cristina Kirchner was president, he knew she hated dealing with that back-slapping and tit-for-tat deal-making side of politics, so he did the dirty work for her.

Néstor's death in October 2010 left his widow Cristina no choice, however: either she had to learn to cut deals with the local territorial leaders, or start severing her ties with the troublesome ones.

After Cristina Kirchner won the presidential election in 2011 with 53% of the vote, she decided to do the latter. She ignored any demands local leaders brought to her, and instead tried to financially shackle or boot out the ones who were giving her trouble. Mayors, union chiefs, state senators, powerful councilmen — sleazy or otherwise — none of whom she trusted or liked, weren't really her game. In their place, Cristina began surrounding herself with people she felt more comfortable with — mostly young, urban, university graduates like she once was, who had no experience in organized politics and who didn’t question her leadership. Cristina envisioned using these cadres of young, urban, upper-middle class intellectual novices to replace the old, entrenched and locally savvier Peronist guard of the poorer city outskirts.

But those guys aren’t stupid — they saw that many of the young “Cristinistas” might be coming for their heads soon, or they had simply grown tired of struggling to pay for their provinces’ or cities’ bills because the national administration refused to send any of its revenues to anyone who didn't show total 100% loyalty to Cristina Kirchner’s leadership. And so it didn’t take long for many of these local leaders to start plotting behind Cristina's back. They wanted to get rid of those annoying, uppity college kids who were being parachuted into neighborhoods they knew little about while acting like they owned them. And, ultimately, they wanted to end the Kirchners’ supremacy once and for all.

The results of this rift came through in Argentina’s recent midterm primaries. What’s amazing is that Cristina genuinely didn't see it coming.

The administration was definitely aware of rumors, for example that one of the most prominent Peronist regional leaders, Tigre Mayor Sergio Massa, intended to go rogue and run against them. Just hours before the deadline to register coalitions for the primaries, top insiders from the Kirchner administration were telling their own people that they were sure that the rumor was just speculation, that there was no way he would openly defy them. But he did. Massa created his own breakaway party, the Renewal Front, along with a bunch of other local Peronist leaders, and they got a lot of the typically anti-Peronism middle-class voters to back their center-right, tough-on-crime, tax-reforming political platform. That middle-class vote was the nail in the coffin for the Kirchners, especially when combined with the unexpected loss of a large chunk of the low-income electorate that the Kirchners assumed was their monopoly, and of all the local neighborhood leaders Massa’s party managed to pull away from the Kirchner’s grip. The result was a painful defeat with only 26% of the overall vote last month. The death of the Kirchner dynasty is now the most likely outcome: they’ve been wounded so badly in the primaries that the floodgates are well and truly open, with more people openly defying them and joining forces against them, making their defeat in October’s upcoming midterm elections likely to be even worse.

Argentina's economic elite used to be much more divided about how to deal with the current administration; now, they’re way more confident of Cristina’s downfall, and they’re betting heavily on both Massa's breakaway coalition, and on the other big player in Argentina's party politics, the Union of Civic Radicals, the party of the landowners and middle class professionals, whose multiple fragments and satellites also did pretty well in the recent primaries.

The middle classes are also mostly divided between the Civic Radicals and Massa's breakaway version of Peronism. It’s only the poor who are still largely voting for the Kirchners, despite the economic problems and political clusterfucks of their own doing, but in ever decreasing numbers, and with dwindling enthusiasm. Increasingly isolated from what was supposed to be their base of support, without the leverage of running for another reelection and with no serious allies who are both popular and trustworthy, it's hard to see the Kirchners building anything to stay politically alive beyond 2015, when Cristina’s final term in office is up.

More and more Peronists and other small regional allies will probably jump ship between now and 2015, as better career opportunities appear elsewhere. Those progressives who’ve supported the government through all these years and who decide to remain on Cristina’s side will in all likelihood become increasingly marginalized, and the next government will probably be more clearly liberal-conservative, closer in line with US foreign policy, and generally not very interested in fighting powerful interests.

The sad thing is that Argentina's population is relatively egalitarian in its ideology, which explains why almost no candidate adopts openly right-wing platforms on the campaign trail. But without a serious, organized, effective alternative, hoping that events force one of the old parties leftwards is the only real political option an Argentine progressive or leftist has today. And that’s not a very promising one.