Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., wasn’t the only female politician to announce her desire to become president in June. At the other end of the political spectrum and in another part of the American continent, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner made it official on June 21 that she wants to be re-elected president of Argentina. With just over four months to go before the election on October 23, Kirchner ended weeks of speculation. Having few credible rivals, opinion polls at this stage show her as a clear frontrunner, thanks in no small part to the fact that her first term as president, which began in 2007, is the result of the paradox of the Argentine economy.
Outpaced and overshadowed by many other emerging markets — most notably, neighboring Brazil — the country, nonetheless, boasts GDP growth well ahead of others in the region, reaching more than 8% in 2010. According to consultancy Roubini Global Economics, Argentina’s GDP growth is likely to slow markedly this year, largely because of deteriorating terms of trade, but it should still increase over 5%. High prices for agricultural commodities and export demand from countries such as China are the main drivers of this growth. With Fernández’s candidacy official, it’s hard to imagine that her Peronist government will embark on policies that would jeopardize that growth.
Still, there is no avoiding the fact that Argentina is a volatile and crisis-prone country — its sovereign debt default of 2002 being just one chapter. For that reason, the MSCI Barra international equity index demoted Argentina two years ago from “emerging economy” status to a “frontier economy,” lumping it with the economies of Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Nigeria — that is, countries operating below their potential. “Argentina certainly is a frontier economy in that sense,” says Wharton international management professor Mauro Guillen. But when it comes to its frontier status, “something else is at work,” he notes.
For many observers, the “something else” is closely linked to the way Argentina’s immense supply of pampas, or grassland, was distributed in the early 20th century and how that helped entrench attitudes toward investment and profit-seeking that still shape Argentina today. “Very large holdings were doled out to rather few large landowners [in Argentina],” according to Jeremy Adelman, a history professor at Princeton University. “This is in contrast to the North American model, where land was given to individual families. The North American model had its own faults…. But in Argentina, the effect was that an agrarian elite became attached to a … model of accumulation [that allowed] them to charge good rents without taking the risk of investing in new technology.” What’s more, that attitude toward investment has been replicated in other sectors, he says.
“This is a country where there is a war between two parts of society,” adds Guillen. “The division cuts right across social, economic and political categories. You have one faction that is more liberal, export-oriented and competitive, and another faction that is more inward-looking, populist and not at all competitive. Since 1940, each of those factions has had the upper hand. The country has not been able to get out of that dynamic.”
The fact remains that Argentina does not have a political culture allowing it to move on from some of the attitudes to business formed when the country was a frontier economy in the literal sense of the word. “Argentina has not developed the kind of institutions that would allow a debate over the form of capitalism the country needs to [adopt],” says Adelman. “The parties represent coalitions. Each side is strong enough to nullify the other, but not strong enough to triumph. The Peronists, who are in power today, represent a coalition of the historical losers in Argentina, but they have been unable to articulate a sustainable alternative.”
Will October’s presidential elections offer anything resembling a new era in politics for Argentina? Guillen thinks not. “Argentina’s politics is essentially a pendulum,” he notes. “It simply oscillates every five to seven years.” This is one reason why change in Argentina is often less about transformation through reform, and more about undoing whatever the other side did before. “You tend to get the kind of change that just undoes the previous decade’s change,” according to Guillen. “That’s why they say, ‘In Argentina, you can never predict the past.’”