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“Bring out your dead,” intones a raggedy man as he pushes a wheelbarrow through London’s medieval streets. “I’m not dead,” insists a corpse as he is tossed on top of other bodies in the celebrated spoof, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”. There was something of that macabre spirit in Argentina’s elections yesterday. The Perónist dead were repeatedly invoked, and it transpired they were not so dead after all. For one, Cristina Fernández won a second term with a sweeping 54 per cent of the vote – the biggest electoral lead since Juan Domingo Perón, the patron saint of Argentine politics, returned to power in 1973.
During her campaign Ms Fernández wore black, as she has every day since her husband and former president Nestor Kirchner died last year. And at her victory speech, Ms Fernández thanked Kirchner, an avowed Perónist, who was “here now, more than ever”. To her Perónist audience, such words surely recalled Perón’s great love for Evita, “the Spiritual Leader of the Nation”, who died in 1952. (Later, while in exile, Perón kept Evita’s embalmed body in his Madrid dining room.)
Part of the secret of Ms Fernández’s political success is how she has repeatedly invoked the spirit of Perónism, both at the polls and in her economic policies. Whether Perónism is “good” for Argentina is another matter. It is one of the most mysterious of political traditions: essentially populist, although ideology-free, it rests on invoking “what Perón would have done”. This, of course, is impossible to know as the great man has been dead for over 40 years – although per capita income data suggest it has not helped Argentina much. Thirty years ago, Argentines were the richest Latin Americans, by a huge margin. On a dollar basis, average incomes were $7,500 per capita – more than twice Mexico’s level, and almost six times Brazil’s. Today, Chileans, Brazilians, Mexicans and Uruguayans all have higher per capita incomes than Argentines. Colombians are not far behind.
This slow but steady slide is often woefully referred to as Argentina’s “long decline”. Will or can Ms Fernández halt it? Until now, high commodity prices have ensured that her economic policies have continued to deliver high growth and rising incomes. But inflation, running at 20 per cent, needs to be brought under control; and government spending cannot grow at a pre-election splurge rate of over 30 per cent year indefinitely. Such changes are manageable, however, even within what Ms Fernández refers to as “The Model”. Peronism is nothing if not flexible.
Coincidence or not, when Perón returned as president to tumultuous popular applause, Argentina faced much the same conditions that Ms Fernández faces today. Commodity prices were soaring, wages were rising, and inflation was high but stable. Unfortunately, his presidency ended badly. A year later, inflation was on a tear, and social cohesion had broken down after Perón was emboldened by his popularity to return to the nationalist and statist policies he had tried once before. It need not end the same way for Ms Fernández. But it could.