Human Rights and
International Democratic Solidarity


January 30, 2015

Desafíos para el fortalecimiento democrático en la Argentina (Challenges to the strengthening of Argentina democracy)

By Carlos Gervasoni, Gerardo Scherlis, Aleardo Laría, María Clara Güida, Diego Hernán Armesto, Néstor Losa y Néstor Sclauzero.

Challenges to the strengthening of Argentina democracy Click here to download the Spanish version of the book in PDF format



Almost all relevant sectors of opinion in our country expect, when the current political cycle ends, that there will be the opportunity for a more or less rapid and general improvement of the functioning of democracy. This optimism is, in principle, based on a diagnosis as shared as irrefutable: the Argentine democracy will have survived in late 2015, which was undoubtedly its greatest challenge after more than thirty years of existence, and after having gone through serious economic and social crises, one under a radical populist who tried to drastically alter the very foundations of a pluralistic society and a free economy and who will have failed on a significant degree. But that optimism is also based on an illusion which generates the current decline of that project, which dispels the differences between all the other actors in civil society and politics and pushes them to be collaborative conciliators between each other, but only while the Kirchner´s threats lasts and can affect them.

The questions that arise are: How can the negative consensus, that the still ruling project has generated against it, be converted in more substantive and useful programmatic and reformist arrangements for the future of our democracy? And where to start? Who knows. What is certain is that it should be started as soon as possible by exploiting the current and and probably ephemeral overlaps. It is also certain that the chances of achieving changes and improvements rapidly should not be overestimated, not only because the poisoned legacy that kirchnerism will leave behind will complicate governance from 2016 on, but because any complex change requires effort and time to mature, and we've had enough frustrating experiences with shortcuts and opportunism.

After reviewing the work of this compilation, the reader can get a detailed and comprehensive idea why democracy in Argentina, although it has survived successive political and economic crisis since its return to democracy in 1983, it has failed to take firm steps towards good governance. It is indeed quite obvious that this is not due to a single cause, is not the result of a single factor or problem so far unresolved, or poorly resolved. Each of the following essays provide a well-founded and detailed analysis on one aspect of this mystery. And all of them together then outline the agenda that the country will face from now on if it intends not only to survive, but eventually to be able to improve.

Regarding this we can start by saying that there are two competing perspectives. There are those who point out as the main cause of the low quality of our democracy the lack of rules or, which is almost the same, the presence of inadequate rules for good governance. And there are those who point out that the core of the problem lies in the behavior of certain actors in civil society, politics and the state, which by pursuing their own aims, cause collective deficiencies and general damages. One of the interesting aspects of the following essays is that although each of the authors pays attention to one particular perspective, they try not to ignore the others. The other notable merit is apart from just analyzing the causes of these problems, they offer possibilities for reforms and solutions.

The book starts with essays by Gervasoni and Scherlis, who analyze two issues which are considered as sources of the serious and persistent problems, and why for various reasons the Argentinian democracy has failed to solve them until now: federalism and the party system. Two issues, although each with its own dynamics and characteristics, that are closely interconnected: Peronism has been replicated, nationalized and consolidated as the hegemonic force in the three long decades of democracy since 1983, with particular success in the poorer and smaller provinces, in many of which political competition has tended to disappear and single- party subsystems have been formed, and it is those districts where, thanks to their over-representation in the Senate and in the House of Representatives, they manage to get hold of an extraordinary fiscal revenue, funded by national taxes, which does not depend on the respective efforts in collecting taxes or the effectiveness of the authorities in providing quality public goods.

Gervasoni explains in his article that the federal system as it exists today violates the Constitution, both the clauses guaranteeing political equality among citizens, as the transitional rule of 1994 when the base for a new equal and solidary regime with co-participation was established. He also analyzes the consequences of this for the bad functioning of democracy at national and subnational levels: in particular how income inequality is reproduced and extended throughout the whole country, particularly marked in comparison to other countries with a similar level of development. As the author notes the generalization of rentseeking behavior in overrepresented provinces has no relation with their relative poverty (very rich districts like Santa Cruz and Tierra del Fuego are among the main beneficiaries). But it has with the misuse of public resources, poor quality of essential services such as education, health and safety, and the weak accountability of officials. The truth is that the alignment of these provinces to the national government, which finds it relatively "cheap" to buy their support, has become strong in recent years, thanks to the combination of greater fiscal centralism and the weakening of national party structures. That explains how the kirchnerism could create a grand coalition "of all governing" with the almost unanimous support of the peripheral districts, including governors of other political forces, and progressively strengthened the peripheral support over the metropolitan in the electoral base. Something that shows the eminently rentier and conservative nature of their project.

Scherlis´ piece is focused on the analysis on the other side of the same problem: the peculiar way in which parties in our country were nationalized, and why the only political force of national scope that manages to form majorities in these times is Peronism, and therefore those from other forces aspire to play their essential resources, that means, not by their votes but the state means that allow them to ensure the control of parts of the electorate, are forced in a certain way to converge with the great "party of power". Scherlis concludes by suggesting possible ways to reverse this trend, for this he highlights the need for the awareness of citizens and elites regarding the inefficiencies and distortions which this situation imposes to political competition and the quality of public policies, with new rules as in the electoral system and in the management of state resources.

Precisely the following text is dedicated to the latter issue. Laría Rajneri reveals a paradox that has surprised those who study kirchnerism: that it is a political project so inclined to promote and extend the state interventions on the economy and in general on the social life, and at the same time it has little interest in strengthening the state’s administration, and on the contrary, many of its initiatives have gone in the opposite direction. The explanation that the author gives for this phenomenon confirms the views outlined in previous essays: the kirchneristas, like in many of the past governments of Argentina, are rather interested in strengthening their own power, which they try to achieve through mainly the colonization of the public apparatus state and the extension of their patronage networks, two mechanisms that weakened the institutional capacities of state although it caused the rapid increase of public expenditure and number of employees, than in strengthening the power of the state.

The solution that Laría proposes for these congenital and aggravated defects in the last decade is the promotion of a permanent and professional public service, one of the goals of all modernizing forces of all ideological and party affiliations in our country, which has consistently been frustrated by the circumstantial temptation of those who rule to take advantage of patronage and partisanship of the state. But given the outrageousness of these vices during this political cycle now ending perhaps the time has come. The author explains that it is not necessary to make new laws but to enforce the already existing in order to achieve that goal.

A broad cultural change in the public sector is the goal also in Güida’s essay on the problems and obstacles that obstruct the access to public information. Güida emphasizes the lack of specific rules to ensure this essential right of our citizenship. She reviews the legislation attempts on this matter, the reasons for kirchnerism to take the path of decrees in 2003 and after that they blocked the possibility for a bill that at that moment had broad legislative consensus; and why over time there was even a step back regarding concessions made in the original decree. But the author also points out that in many provinces provisions for access to information have been included in the constitutional reforms, or laws on this matter have been passed, and we know that many of them lack of any utility. Which highlights her main conclusion: a law on the access to public information is very necessary, but is just one step among others towards a general change in the organizational culture in the public sector, which must pass the paradigm of occultism to the active promotion of citizen access to information on public affairs. This goal, achieving a transparent and open state to the citizen control, involves the change of much more than a government, and it also involves changing attitudes in civil actors in terms of pursuing a more committed and responsible citizenship.

Armesto offers a critical overview of the relations between the three powers in recent years, focusing on the advancement of the Executive on the Judicial and Legislative branches. Even though the author points out shortcomings of our legislation, he also rescues innovations attempted to introduce in the constitutional reform of 1994 and then focuses on the reasons why they were not realized, and the behavior of the actors who evolved in the opposite direction: the main reason for this is the stubborn will of a presidential power during the last decade, which made an effort to get everything they wanted and turn the exceptional into something daily, that is, permanently governed in state of emergency. While at the end Armesto also highlights the resistance that the republic put against this, particularly against the attempts to demolish the independence of the Judiciary. And the possibilities opened for a wider and more innovative recomposition of the promises contained in the idea of balance of power.

The balance and respect for the rules by those who have political power is also the subject of Losa´s essay, although in his case the analysis focuses primarily on what happens in the external and internal control of the governance, that means, bodies such as the National Auditing Commission, from within the Executive, or the Auditor General's Office and the Office of the Ombudsman from outside and under control of the legislature should watch if the conduct of officials of government is right, and they don’t abuse their power or be involved in corruption practices. It would be appropriate to point out a feature of the kirchnerista government of which that is one of the major defects: for the radical national populism the very notion of " control of power " is contradictory the nature of "national and popular government", which by definition should be unlimited to be able to carry out its purposes, the changes promoted, and at the same time, in a convergent way, it should be noted that the illegal exaction of part of private income by public officials in the negotiation process between the government and private people of the conditions under which that income will be replicated, is not only justified under such government in order to achieve personal goals (the enrichment of those officials) or policies (finance political campaigns) as it happens in governments of all orientation, but has an educational and moralizing purpose, enshrining the "political" nature and therefore in last instance extractive of any benefit or gain, and subordinate like this the alleged "free market competition" to the rules of political capitalism.

The thread of these arguments leads us, inevitably, to the media, which, as known, are main issue of discussion in recent years. And whose autonomy from political power as a necessary condition for good health of democracy was beyond doubt in this Kirchner cycle that comes to an end. This might seem to some the unnecessary learning of the obvious. But perhaps it has not been entirely in our case because the truth is that the Argentine democracy seems to have taken much time to realize that authoritarianism not only threatens "from the past that refused to die" in form of a remnant military coup but condemned, fortunately, to disappear, but also and above all "from onwards," in the form of more subtle, more legitimate and therefore in more dangerous ways of the abuse of political power. As during the democratic transition and even in the nineties the political and state power was weak and almost all the time in trouble, which could have been a serious threat to freedom did not seem such a big problem. Maybe it was also why during the last decade it took quite a while for society and the institutions themselves, and even from the media themselves, to get that the conditions had changed dramatically and authoritarianism of the state was not just something that the democracy had to leave behind but something that could emerge with renewed robes, under more threatening forms because of being legitimized through elections. Be that as it may, it is certain that our society has learned to fear these renewed forms of authoritarianism and fight them largely thanks to journalism and the media, as they learned to identify and subject it to criticism. Sclauzero’s text deals with that topic, by identifying the inefficacy that ultimately characterized the communication strategy of the government that sought to subdue the public and semiofficial media to such a discipline. Due to that they lost their credibility. The kirchnerism, against its will, showed in recent years that even millions spent on propaganda, reduce the official communication to its terms in a more or less fairly plural public space will sooner or later be completely ineffective. And that democratic governments, therefore, should they have independent means of communication rather than fight them, even if they can get circumstantial benefits by funding an addicted journalism.

Having reviewed and, hopefully fairly, having addressed the main issues of the following book, the question to be asked is: where to start?, how to choose among all these issues the most urgent ones or which topic for its importance on the other ones could be used to initiate a process of broad changes for the strengthening of the Argentinian democracy? Maybe that's a more pertinent question for the actors of change than for the analyst. But in any case, what this brief selection of critical analysis teaches us, is that the problems and deficits we face in these various fields are so interlinked with each other, till now having been of use ones with the others in order to replicate an economy and extractive and of low-quality political institutions, their transformation towards a democracy and a competitive and open economy will require inevitable simultaneous and convergent changes in all of them.

Investigator of the CONICET
Member of the Academic Council of CADAL