Argentina today is a fairly robust democracy, they are a federal constitutional republic with a representative democracy. Argentina has been a democracy since 1983, when they finally held elections amid more and more calls for them during the period of harsh military dictatorship from 1976-1983. Argentina was a troubled democracy under a constitution from 1853, still in effect today (with changes), for decades prior to the military dictatorship. Following a cycle of presidents and coups during the late 60s to 1976, when that last one occurred, the new military government began an immediate crackdown and violent repression campaign against opposition forces and anyone they viewed as insurgents. This period of time is known as the Dirty War. This resulted in the murder, torture, and disappearance of as many as 30,000 people in the years the military junta was in power. Since the election in 1983 however, power has peacefully transitioned between opposition parties, mostly Peronist party members holding office in that time.
In the 21st century, their democracy has continued to hold up despite their biggest challenges being that of economic downturn (i.e. inflation) and widespread corruption problems. Freedom House’s measure of their democracy rates them an 85/100 as of 2020, up one point from last year. Overall, the state of their democracy today can be described as fairly strong, obviously not without the challenges mentioned above among others.
Timeline and International Context
Since the start of the 21st century, there have been several instances of backsliding, but for the purpose of this analysis, I will be looking at those instances between 2010 and 2019. In those years, democratic backsliding occurred in 2010, from 2013-2014, from 2016-2017, and 2018-2019, according to the liberal democracy index chart on the V-Dem database. Over the course of the 21st century, Argentina’s overall measure of liberal democracy from V-Dem has been fairly even, with small ups and downs resulting in a level measure. The decreases that do occur in the span of this last decade seem to be concentrated in specific years, where it will then increase slightly once again. From my initial research, these instances of democratic erosion were in the context of domestic politics and governance due to corruption and government response to economic downturn. This is not to say that international affairs did not influence any of this, only to say that the causes and precursors to the decreases in their level of liberal democracy seem to be more tied to domestic politics, economy, and corruption.
Precursors of Erosion
These number changes do not happen for no reason, the decreases in Argentina’s liberal democracy rating in those select years coincide with specific actions taken by the government and economic shocks to the country. I am looking specifically at 2010-2019, and there are several, more time-limited precursors that can explain these sudden and short-lived decreases. Although there surely are a few long-term problems that have been plaguing Argentina, we can discuss them first, as I feel the more time-limited events have had a greater impact on the actual measures of Argentina’s democracy, especially in this last decade we are observing.
First there is the historic political instability of Argentine politics that I think comes into play at least to a smaller degree when discussing their current measures of democracy. The root of Argentina’s political division starts when Juan Peron became president of Argentina in 1946. He championed labor unions and nationalizing many industries in Argentina. Peron rapidly gained a large base in the lower income levels and among unions. He was removed from office during a coup in 1955 and exiled, Peron would not return until 1971, when he was allowed back by the military. He was quickly elected president once again, only to die a year later of natural causes, at which point his then-wife took over for 2 years until the coup in 1976 removed her[i].
The movement established under Peron would be something to define Argentine politics for generations to come, all the way to today. Politics consists of Peronists versus non-Peronists. The opposition seems to be defined by them simply not being Peronist. Within the Peronist party however, there are many different ideologies and divides. From more economically liberal policies closer to Peron’s early years, to more conservative policies such as that of President Menem, who was president throughout the 90s.
The reason I bring all of this up is to paint the picture of Argentine politics as a struggle, with it usually always coming down to Peronists versus non-Peronists. Democratic erosion occurs when the winners, in this case Peronists, are in power so much that it allows some to take advantage of corrupt connections and deals to accomplish their goals. Justicialismo (Peron’s party) candidates win in almost all the elections they run in, with great divides within the party itself. Although I would not describe political polarization as on the level of the United States, it certainly exists just in the very nature of their politics ever since Juan Peron came into the picture in the 40s. Today, the division can be seen not just between opposition parties, but the more conservative Peronist wings, such as those like Menem before he split off, and the evolution of Peronism in the ideology of Kirchnerism seen from later president Néstor Kirchner and his wife who became president after him, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
The second and final big long-term precursor I feel deserves mention is the overall instability of Argentina’s economy. Argentina’s economy has been in a wildly varying fluctuation since their GDP was first consistently reported back in 1961[ii]. They shift from high growth years above 10% to the direct opposite around -10%. Their annual GDP growth rate has zig zagged constantly for all of those decades. This naturally leads to economic instability, uncertainty, and rapid changes in the value of the Argentine Peso. They are described as an upper middle-income economy by the World Bank. The reason this is relevant is that the unstable nature of the economy has, in the past, led to great ideological swings in who the people elect. At its worst, it led to the coup in 1955 that removed Peron, and many of the subsequent coups in later years, combined with the banning of the Peronist party.
The decline in their democracy in 2018 coincided with their biggest economic problem in years when the Argentine Peso tanked in value. Inflation was high and then-president Mauricio Macri turned to the International Monetary Fund for help by requesting a loan. This economic crisis caused quite the anti-government stir among the people as Macri’s approval ratings fell. This hit the people of Argentina especially hard, as according to Freedom House, more than a third of Argentine’s work in the informal sector of the economy[iii], meaning there are not benefits or safety nets for people when rough economic times hit the nation.
Onto the more immediately impactful precursors, corruption at the highest levels. The decrease in Argentina’s liberal democracy score in 2010 was due to acts of corruption displayed by then-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, in which she fired the head of the Central Bank and forced Argentina’s National Institute for statistics to report lower levels of inflation than were real[iv]. This was a clear display of strong executive power, in the form of coercing agencies and other arms of the government in order to fabricate fake statistics to help her politically.
2016 was another year of decline in liberal democracy for Argentina, this time due to a big scandal that is still ongoing today. Cristina Kirchner was indicted for corruption, a federal judge in Argentina claimed that her and her husband’s administration had awarded $2.97 Billion in contracts to loyalists at a 15% surcharge during their presidencies[v]. This is corruption of a sort of clientelist approach. At the time of the charges against her though, she was a Senator and thus immune to actually being held or for the proceeding to carry through. She is currently serving as Vice President to the now current president who she picked, Alberto Fernández; this makes her immune from those sorts of proceedings still. When, and maybe if she will stand trial is still somewhat unknown at the moment.
The corruption can be seen to extend from the executive, as the presidency in Argentina is very powerful. The president is allowed to issue decrees, which are essentially executive orders, in many instances, allowing them to bypass the legislature to accomplish things they really want done, to an extent. Recently, after the election of Alberto Fernández, the congress had approved emergency powers to the president for one year, allowing him vast decree power over more economic matters in order to try and relieve Argentina’s economy[vi].
Strong executive action can usually be curved by an equally strong and independent judiciary. In the case of Argentina however, Freedom House gives them a 2/4 in the area of independent judiciary as of 2020. This is due to the fact that the courts in Argentina are seen to be highly politicized, with corruption seen at many levels. They have close ties with politicians, especially in the executive, accused of corrupt actions such as bribery during the Kirchner years. Several officials were imprisoned following the 2016 corruption scandal focused on the Fernández de Kirchner administration, but some of them were released by the time the election cycle at the end of Macri’s presidency came due to the Kirchnerist candidate and current president Alberto Fernández polling ahead of Macri and publicly stating that he thought the charges against the former president Fernández de Kirchner were politically motivated[vii]. Still, the judiciary has pushed back on executive action before, still retaining a certain level of independence.
Symptoms of Erosion
The biggest and most obvious symptom of democratic erosion is what you see when you look at the thoughts and actions of the citizens living within a country. According to research from Daniel Hellinger, democracy in Argentina is somewhat supported, but satisfaction with their democracy is low. In 2013, 73% of Argentine’s supported democracy, but only 51% expressed satisfaction with it[viii]. This is apparent when looking at the reactions people have had to to way their government is run. The protests mentioned before in 2018 exemplify this. The worst economic crisis in years hits Argentina and the people take to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with not only the Macri government, but the overall functioning of their democracy. As of 2018, 32% of the population lived at or below the poverty line[ix]. The unstable economy and corrupt government practices have disheartened many Argentine’s to the whole political process. For many, the way their democracy works at the moment just does not work for them, and the levels of overall satisfaction show that. Protests are the most obvious symptom of democratic erosion. When people see corruption among other precursors like the ones mentioned above, they feel like the government does not work for them, and that the system of government known as democracy had promised so much but ends up giving so little much too slowly.
In 2019, Argentine’s also protested in the streets of Buenos Aires because of their frustration over the economic crisis compounding into a widespread food shortage. The protests came on top of many of the other grievances the people have had over Macri’s presidency over the course of his time in office. This growing economic crisis surely contributed to his loss in the 2019 elections, making him a one term president. This protest was not a sign of democratic erosion, but rather a sign of continued unrest and dissatisfaction with the long-standing precursors that have plagued Argentina for decades.
Protest over one of Macri’s policies turned violent in 2017 when congress passed pension reforms that upset many citizens and the labor unions. Macri claimed to be helping retirees and workers, but the labor unions and demonstrators thought otherwise. Demonstrations turned to rock throwing and violence quickly in 2017, causing police to respond with tear gas, riot gear, and rubber bullets[x]. This was a clear manifestation of democratic erosion given that this strangely violent response to these protests is uncharacteristic of Argentina’s democratic era.
The media often shows the symptoms of democratic erosion caused by those precursors as well. Today, the media in Argentina is lively and independent. However, because of some of the precursors, the media has been targeted over the years for harassment, some repression seen in the Fernández de Kirchner years, and charges of corruption. During Fernández de Kirchner’s presidency, she had ordered investigations into several media organizations in an attempt to repress them. She also got legislation passed that limited media licenses and how many could be granted[xi]. This was a decision that was backed and deemed constitutional by Argentina’s Supreme Court following lawsuits brought by the media companies that were harmed by Fernández de Kirchner’s policies[xii].
On the same note of corruption under Fernández de Kirchner’s administration, she was indicted in 2016 for her alleged involvement in the ‘Nuns and Guns Scandal’ from 2015. Putting the creative name aside, Kirchner was indicted for her alleged involvement in the scandal, which was when an official working directly for her public works minister was caught with a gun as he attempted to throwing bags with millions of dollars over a wall into a convent in an attempt to stash it away. The problem was that the money was public funds tied directly to use for public works[xiii]. This level of corruption yet again points to the great degree of power given to executives in Argentina, as well as the lack of any one branch to reign the executive in in these situations.
A strong, independent, and flourishing media helps to diversify and give life to the domestic political landscape in a country. People can have their views reflected and expressed, journalists can investigate without fear of repression, and governments can be held accountable for their wrong doings, possibly even leading to reform when stories get enough attention at home and abroad.
Some symptoms of democratic erosion are not immediately apparent, or are hard to identify, making some countries hard to read. The media represents and independent arm of civil society to display opposing views, so to me, it is one of the clearest signs of democratic erosion when the media is attacked, repressed, or controlled.
Protests represent a healthy response to widespread dissatisfaction with government policy or the economy. For the purposes of this research, the protests of significance are those that occur in response to undemocratic and anti-liberal actions taken by government officials that may erode the strength of Argentina’s liberal democracy. People take to the streets to express grievances and injustices they see within their governments. Sometimes they remain as peaceful demonstrations, and sometimes they can turn violent. The other clear symptom of backsliding to watch out for is how the government responds to said protests, do they crack down on peaceful protests with violent force, or are the people allowed the right to criticize their government and its policies. Argentina in this case has remained a high scoring democracy because although they have deep economic problems, and accountability and corruption issues, their democratic institutions remain strong enough to resist rapid backsliding. This is evident from their relatively even liberal democracy levels over the past 20 years.
Resistance to Erosion
Aside from occasional harassment and other attacks, usually from non-government officials, Argentina’s media remains independent and vibrant, acting as one of the citizens’ checks on their government, sometimes forcing change. As long as the media remains free and protected, backsliding can be prevented in some areas. If the previous descriptions of symptoms of erosion worried some, then some changes were made after Fernández de Kirchner’s presidency to strengthen the media and provide for more government transparency. In 2017, Macri passed Argentina’s first access to information law to allow for government transparency and accountability[xiv]. There is still a ways to go on that front, but it’s the start needed to continue in that direction.
Because of Argentina’s strong executive, they seem to have much power across many aspects of government, leading to the corruption problem mentioned earlier. Likewise, because of the judiciary’s wide-spread corruption, it’s hard to say for sure that some more authoritarian actions taken by any would-be autocrats in the future would be stopped by the judicial system, even though they still have a significant degree of autonomy. The hope here lies in other organizations to put pressure and checks on the power of the president in the future, namely congress. In line with checks can also be civic action, Argentine’s have time and time again proven that they will take to the streets to protest injustices and wrong doings in their government, often with results coming from said protests. When thousands of people flood the streets of Buenos Aires, it shows dissatisfaction with policies, and makes it hard for any political officials to ignore such large movements. Argentina has generally respected the people’s rights to protest, assemble, and express their thoughts, so the people of Argentina and their willingness to push back on their government also gives hope to resist any democratic erosion.
I believe Argentina’s democracy is strong enough to resist any major attempts at backsliding, either by executive officials or otherwise. Given their relatively stable levels of democracy for the past 20 years, I would predict it to continue in that pattern going forward, at least for the near future. Not necessarily in a downward or upward trend, but an overall plateau like trajectory for now. This is despite Freedom House’s observance of yet another year or worldwide decline in democracy and freedom, amidst this, Argentina has improved.
Looking beyond my target years, the 21st century as a whole has a seen Argentina’s economy in wild swing, but its democracy has remained stable these past 20 years. They have several problems plaguing their democratic process and institutions, but I believe these are problems that can be overcome and improved in the future. I am giving them a 2 overall. They experience weak democratic erosion of some of their institutions, such as in the judiciary and executive, but their democracy persists. They are stable and not in any sloping trend, so the threat of major backsliding in the foreseeable future is low in my assessment.
Al Jazeera. “’The Situation Is Dire’: Argentines Protest over Food Crisis.” Argentina News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 13 Sept. 2019, www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/09/situation-dire-argentinians-protest-food-crisis-190913062627019.html.
“Argentina.” Freedom House, Freedom House, 2020, freedomhouse.org/country/argentina/freedom-world/2020.
“Argentina .” Data, The World Bank, data.worldbank.org/country/argentina.
Bronstein, Hugh. “Ex-Argentine Leader Fernandez Indicted, Tied to Nuns and Guns Scandal.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 28 Dec. 2016, www.reuters.com/article/us-argentina-fernandez/ex-argentine-leader-fernandez-indicted-tied-to-nuns-and-guns-scandal-idUSKBN14G1QG.
Cohen, Luc. “Argentina Congress Passes Pension Reform after Protests, Clashes.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 19 Dec. 2017, www.reuters.com/article/us-argentina-pensions/argentina-congress-passes-pension-reform-after-protests-clashes-idUSKBN1ED18S.
Democratic Erosion. “About.” Democratic Erosion, 2020 Democratic Erosion, 2020, www.democratic-erosion.com/event-dataset/.
Hellinger, Daniel. Comparative Politics of Latin America: Democracy at Last? Routledge, 2015.
“IAPA Respects Decision of Argentine Supreme Court, While Disagreeing with Its Harmful Impact on Press Freedom.” Sipconnect, SIP, 30 Oct. 2013, www.sipiapa.org/notas/1152635-iapa-respects-decision-of-argentine-supreme-court-while-disagreeing-with-its-harmful-impact-on-press-freedom.
Malamud, Andres. “Argentina Is Polarized. Or Is It?” Americas Quarterly, Americas Quarterly, 26 June 2019, www.americasquarterly.org/content/argentina-polarized-or-is-it.
Watts, Jonathan. “Argentina Protests: up
to Half a Million Rally against Fernández De Kirchner.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 9 Nov. 2012, www.theguardian.com/world/2012/nov/09/argentiana-protests-rally-fernandez-kirchner.
[i] For more information on the Dirty War and Peron years, see Hellinger’s book, pages 200-207.
[ii] See Argentina’s page on the World Bank statistics page for the graph.
[iii] The 2019 entry on Freedom House’s website includes this statistic under the freedom from economic exploitation section.
[iv] The Democratic Erosion database reported this as a precursor.
[v] The Democratic Erosion database had this listed as well for precursors, indicating vertical corruption.
[vi] The 2020 Freedom House Argentina entry had listed this among some of the other most recent developments from the past year.
[vii] Freedom House reported that in 2019, Alberto Fernandez’ comments on the Cristina Kirchner investigations being politicallt motivated resulted in the immediate release of several Kirchnerista officials.
[viii] This from a graph provided in page 243 in Hellinger’s ‘Comparative Politics of Latin America: Democracy at Last?’.
[ix] Data from the World Bank’s Argentina statistics page.
[x] Freedom House reports violent and heavy-handed government response to these 2017 protests during the Macri administration, showing a clear sign of democratic erosion.
[xi] Listed in the Democratic Erosion database as a symptom, showing clear backsliding using media repression to weaken several large and critical media companies.
[xii] The Inter-American Press Association voiced strong disagreement with the Argentine Supreme Court’s decision, stating that it weakens press freedom and hurts democracy.
[xiii] The article reports the then-recent indictment of Cristina Kirchner in this scandal, since then, as stated later in this paper, she has remained immune from being tried due to her positions as Senator and now Vice President.
[xiv] Freedom House mentioned that the weakening of private media companies by Cristina Kirchner in her years as president has mostly been healed when President Macri passed these laws to re-strengthen the media.