Opportunities and challenges for the left in Argentina

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Last month Heike Schaumberg looked at Argentina's 2001 neoliberal crisis and the uprising that followed it. With a general election approaching and a Trotskyist on the presidential ballot, she asks whether the far left can make electoral gains and how that relates to the wider social movements.

Argentina will hold a general election to elect a new president on 25 October and it is possible that the far left may see noteworthy results. The Trotskyist left got 3.31 percent of the vote in the presidential primaries this August, which elects the parties’ and alliances’ main candidates for the presidency and provincial governors.

This was enough to secure a place for Nicolás del Caño of the Frente de Izquierda y de los Trabajadores (Workers’ Left Front, FIT) in the presidential race.

But this celebrated result is less impressive than in the legislative elections of 2013, when the Trotskyist left made electoral history. Gabriela Cerrano from the Partido Obrero (Workers’ Party) won the election for senator in the northern town of Salta with 27.14 percent of the vote, displacing all established political parties.

This was a staggering result, especially in a provincial town that is subjugated to one of Argentina’s most powerful provincial elites.

Salta Province has seen militant and persistent social struggles since the mid-1990s, providing a favourable context for the left. They were led by unionised teachers and the local piquetero movement (movement of the unemployed), joined by municipal workers, construction workers and local indigenous communities.

The piquetero movement rose up from the defeats of the oil workers’ struggle against privatisation of YPF, the national oil company, in the early 1990s. These struggles helped to generate the 2001 popular uprising.

FIT won up to 14 percent of the vote in some other provinces in 2013. For the first time in history there was a Trotskyist bloc in the national congress and legislative representation in various provinces and the City of Buenos Aires.

Favourable

In the first provincial elections earlier this year the left held its ground under the less favourable conditions of an approaching general election. The primaries this August were an indication of the challenge of making significant gains. But the 2013 elections showed that there are real historical opportunities for the left, which have not yet been fully exploited.

In the October 2001 legislative elections 40 percent of the electorate abstained or spoiled their ballot in a country in which voting is mandatory. Parties of the left barely registered in the results, with the exception of Luis Zamora, formerly a member of the Trotskyist Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS). Known as an honest and unassuming congressman from the early 1990s, he won 10.7 percent of the vote.

In 2003 he came third with 12.29 percent in the election for governor of Buenos Aires, despite having hesitated over standing. After the uprising many people had decided to give their vote to those “who’ve never had a chance before”, leading to a proliferation of candidates from many different political backgrounds.

The Peronist candidate Néstor Kirchner won the presidency in April 2003 with a historically low 22 percent of the votes. It took the Kirchner-led government several years to rebuild the political elite’s legitimacy to govern. But during this process the parties of the revolutionary left were lucky to reach 1 percent of the vote.

This changed in April 2011. An electoral reform designed to make it harder for small groups from the opposition to stand candidates prompted three parties of the Trotskyist left to pool their resources in order to stand on a united platform. FIT was thus the accidental result of this reform and offered a great opportunity for the left to build a real united front to enhance the conditions for organised working class struggle.

Many intellectuals rallied in support of FIT and there was great potential to build on the ground among activists who had been part of the 2001 uprising. But FIT failed to create assemblies open to non-party members in other sectors such as trade unions, neighbourhoods, existing social movements, and so on, and without those the backing of intellectuals fizzled out.

Thus, despite its name, FIT represents less a united front of struggle and more an electoral alliance between the Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas (PTS), the Partido Obrero (PO) and the Izquierda Socialista (IS).

United

It is odd that orthodox Trotskyists should confuse an electoral alliance with a united front. In his 1922 writings Trotsky insisted that the united front was not at all a question of the reciprocal relations between parties or factions at parliamentary level. Instead, a united front was necessary in the struggle against capitalism: “For those who do not understand this task, the party is only a propaganda society and not an organisation for mass action.”

Such a united front is possible in Argentina. Most left parties and the social movements intervened cohesively in a politically delicate situation that evolved in 2004.

Axel Blumberg, son of a well to do businessman, was abducted and killed by gangs seeking extortion. In response his father, Juan Carlos Blumberg, mobilised 200,000 people with the help of right wing politicians and the mainstream media. They lobbied the government for amendments to criminal justice which would infringe on the right to protest and to organise.

The left and the social movements intuitively intervened together. They sensitively differentiated between Blumberg the father who had tragically lost a son and Blumberg the businessman turned politician who was pushing a specifically right wing political agenda.

Carefully drafted online petitions to Blumberg himself complemented local public debates on violence and alternatives for addressing issues of safety and policing. As a result Blumberg’s marches shrank rapidly.

But there seems to be an unwillingness on the part of some leaders to give FIT life today by opening its gates to the many activists on the wider left who might not be ready to join Trotskyist parties but are looking for political coordination between the struggles in which they are engaged.

FIT offered a timely opportunity for the left to cut through the chains of marginalisation, but the past weighs heavily on many socialists.

After 2001 the parties of the left competed — sometimes violently — among themselves and suffered some high-profile defeats, such as in the Brukman textile workers’ factory occupation. But the Trotskyist left also helped to generate successes such as the ceramics workers’ cooperative Zanon or the Buenos Aires tube workers’ struggle for the six-hour working day, among others.

In contrast social movements, despite their many limitations, forged alliances of resistance and solidarity and proposed to replace private capitalist ownership and exploitation with collectivisation and socialisation.

The massive and vibrant autoconvocado (self-mobilised) street protest “Ni una menos!” (Not one less!) on 3 June this year was another opportunity to build the forces of the left. It was a protest called via Twitter to end violence against women. Hundreds of thousands turned out across Argentina, as well as in neighbouring Uruguay and Chile. It was the largest street protest that I have witnessed in Buenos Aires since 2001.

Mobilisation

The mobilisation denounced inadequate and inappropriate police action and lack of state resources for women’s refuges. There is a vibrant rank and file women’s movement today in Argentina which the Trotskyist left has consistently helped to build since the 1990s. A stronger intervention by the left could have ensured a collective plan of action. Instead, this incredible energy dispersed into thin air.

FIT must become a real force on the ground in order to build such movements and pull activists into both electoral campaigns and further activity.

With the end of Kirchnerismo as we know it in sight, the centre-right is likely to gain electorally. But that only tells us about the crisis of the centre-left and not whether ideas in general are shifting to the right. The left still has potentially much to gain, provided FIT becomes a real united front before these radicalised sectors left of centre disappear.

Heike Schaumberg is an activist and anthropologist specialising in Latin America, especially Argentina’s neoliberal crisis