Doing Democracy


In the weeks leading up to the World Cup kick-off, the pampered pooches of Buenos Aires were decked out in their pale blue and white doggy jerseys, bar-tenders in all-night discos wore blue and white birettas, and football dominated talk shows, billboards and most aspects of public life.

The streets were deserted before the elimination match against Germany. Seats in bars and restaurants were reserved days in advance. When Argentina lost, misery-struck men were stung into silence. Or they cried.

‘Will Argentina win the World Cup?’ I asked a taxi-driver, the day before the first match. He thought about it. ‘We are very hopeful, but we’re quiet this year. We used to be over confident and were always disappointed. Now we think we can do it, but we don’t need to tell the world.’

That sums up the national attitude to more than just football: hope without confidence. After the dictatorships and depressions that the country has endured over the last decades, a shaky optimism is more than understandable.

But Argentinians have a new-found trust in their President, Néstor Kirchner. Since taking power in 2003, he’s managed the economy through over 40 consecutive months of growth, and stared down the IMF and international lenders to do it. At a massive rally to commemorate Argentina’s national holiday in May, hundreds of thousands turned out to support him, and although he didn’t declare his candidacy for next year’s presidential elections, the crowd carried banners and balloons with the simple slogan, ‘Kirchner 2007’.

The rallying crowd was patently not from central Buenos Aires. Winter is cold in Argentina, and the weather brings wealth, or lack of it, to the surface. City-dwellers from the ritzy suburbs wear plush leather and furs. These throngs wore grimy adidas tracksuits, jeans, or canvas overalls with their union’s insignia stamped on the back. They were from the provinces, or the ‘Villas’, the poor areas that surround the city.

I went to a villa in the days before the kick-off. Football is a religion in these areas. Flags flew from window frames and although the dogs here weren’t decorated (they’re more hounds than pooches in these rough suburbs), pale blue and white streamers and posters adorned the plastic and corrugated iron dwellings that house the 28,000 inhabitants of Villa 20, a slum just five minutes drive from the established suburbs of the city.

Martín, my guide, explained to me that each Villa specialises in a particular type of export. Many traded drugs or home-brew alcohol, but Villa 20 exports politics. In exchange for generous financial support of local projects and development, the people in this jostling shanty-town know that, when asked, they must board the government buses and go to pro-Kirchner rallies. Otherwise, the cash for their social plans might dwindle or dry up.

Julio came along as one of our guards on the visit. He’s lived in the Villa all his life. His mother was abducted from there and killed by the dictatorship in the early 1980s. His brother was gunned down in a gang fight a couple of years ago, and now one of his sons has been sent to rehab to try to kick a paco habit the organ-destroying byproduct of cocaine production.

But he’s proud of the Villa and supports the President. And with the free light, water and electricity that the government pumps into the Villa, it’s not hard to understand why.

‘This President is different to all the others. He’s giving us a mountain of help. Before there was only corruption. Now we have a president we can trust.’

It’s hard to say whether these subsidies and the fact that they result in a reliable rent-a-crowd amount to corruption; or whether they are simply a decent social measure in a poverty-stricken country. Either way, until recently, measures like these have ensured Kirchner’s unrivalled popularity.

But in the last few weeks, a new contender has emerged. Roberto Lavagna was Finance Minister under Kirchner’s predecessor, Eduardo Duhalde, but Kirchner kept him on after taking office in 2003 and Lavagna is widely seen as the brains behind the economic recovery. Late last year, Kirchner removed him from Cabinet, replacing him with a young acolyte who described herself as a Kirchner militant.

Lavagna has been putting together a coalition with a clear view to contesting the next presidential elections. He is probably the only person who could pose a challenge to the President, if Kirchner decides to run. On an international level, the change would have little significance, as Lavagna belongs to the same centre-Left party as Kirchner. But in terms of economic policy, he would be much more likely to distance himself from the Villas.

It’s still unlikely that Lavagna would beat Kirchner at an election, but the emergence of a serious rival should bolster confidence in the political system. The decades-old debate about whether South America can ‘do’ democracy has been won: democracy takes time to develop, but in Argentina, just two decades since the fall of the dictatorship, the political institutions have survived a devastating financial crisis and now, instead of falling into a one-man show, it looks like Argentina will have a real political play-off between two smart, talented and, by most accounts, honest political leaders.

For a nation accustomed to shocks and disappointments, the World Cup elimination is a painful but fleeting wound. At a deeper level, Argentina’s hopes for a stable future might now be joined by a stirring confidence that their political leadership is finally capable of delivering it.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.