By Pablo Velasco
Argentina goes to the polls on 27 April, but the choice on offer for workers is very limited. These are the first elections after the eighteen months of protests and widespread disgust with politicians, summed up by the slogan "que se vayan todos" (get them all out).
Since the rebellion in December 2001 that threw out the Radical Party President Fernando de la Rua, Eduardo Duhalde of the Peronist Party has run Argentina. These two bourgeois parties have dominated Argentinian politics for almost a century and both are in disarray.
The Radical candidate Leopoldo Moreau has barely registered in the polls. Two other ex-Radicals, Elisa Carrio and Ricardo Lopez Murphy, are standing as independents.
More significantly, the Peronists are split three ways. Nestor Kirshner, governor of Santa Cruz and the favoured candidate of Duhalde, is ahead in the polls. Also standing are Adolfo Rodriguez Saa, who was briefly president during the rebellion, and Carlos Menem, president from 1989 to 1999. Menem presided over the introduction of neo-liberalism in Argentina, what he called "economic surgery without anaesthetic" - a devastating programme of austerity and privatisation that led to massive unemployment and the current economic crisis.
Since the 1940s the working class has generally voted Peronist, and most unions have been connected to the party and led by Peronists. The party still had over three million members in the early 1990s, but Peronism is not social democracy or reformism in Argentinian conditions.
Peronism was created from above and has always been tied to the state - its founder Juan Perón was a military officer and member of a junta in 1943 before the party was born. Its populist programme expressed the desire of national capital to industrialise. The party always depended on its control of the state to bind unions to it, whether in power or in opposition. Unions have never had formal organisational control of the party. It has always fiercely opposed independent working class politics.
Many of the sinews that bound the working class to Peronism have frayed over the last 20 years. The import-substitution model promoted by Perón (and carried on by the military) was in disarray by the 1970s, and the result was the decimation of industrial working class in Argentina. Employment in manufacturing fell by a quarter between 1975 and 1980, and by more than a third from 1970 to 1990. Traditionally powerful unions in auto (SMATA), textiles (AOT) and metalworkers (UOM) lost half of their members over that period.
As the working class and unions were weakened, so the Peronist party became more like a normal bourgeois political machine. However some ties between the Peronists and the unions remained under Menem, only making it easier for him to introduce his neo-liberal policies.
It is entirely possible that if a Peronist wins, the party will pull itself together. And high unemployment, reaching 25% in some places, has limited the combativity of workers during the current crisis. However the break up of the traditional bourgeois parties presents socialists in Argentina with huge opportunities.
Unfortunately much of the left is also in disarray. Both the PTS and the MAS are calling for an "active boycott" of these elections. The PTS says that the elections are only for president and vice-president, so the MPs, local councils, provincial governors will remain the same. The PTS says the call for elections is a trap, and is far from the overwhelming desire to "get them all out".
These arguments are not decisive in my view. Not to stand candidates in the name of a negative slogan ("get them all out") gives no kind of lead. The left can field candidates freely, and make propaganda for a workers' government. The elections have not been called to forestall a general strike, and Argentina is not presently gripped by dual power or the existence of soviets, which might make the "trap" argument plausible.
Sadly even those left forces that are standing are little better. The Partido Obrero (PO) is fielding its long time leader Jorge Altamira. The Izquierda Unida (United Left), which includes the Communist Party and the MST, is fielding Patricia Walsh, after failed to secure an alliance with the PO. Both make nationalist propaganda under the guise of "anti-imperialism" and lack a clear conception of working-class representation, never mind independent working class politics. It is likely that many workers will simply spoil their ballot papers, as they did in the last elections in October 2001.