The dissolution of the Civic Coalition

The 2011 Argentine general election that took place on October 23rd had a significant impact on the political system of this Southern Hemisphere country. The most obvious one was the resounding victory of Cristina Kirchner, who was re-elected with 54% of the vote. Her “Front for Victory” –a political alliance that, at its beginning included members of the always ideologically unpredictable Peronist Party, some members of the Radical Civic Union and other center-left politicians, but that now mainly consists of the Peronist Party– now starts its third consecutive period in government (it came to power in 2003 under the current president’s husband, Nestor Kirchner, who died from a heart attack in 2010). Another outcome of the election was the re-taking of Congress by the government party which, with the help of many provincial allies and former opposition figures, will control both chambers of Congress after losing its control in the 2009 legislative election.  There is yet another result from this election, one that deeply saddens all those who, for once, thought that a liberal force was finally going to play a factor in Argentine politics. The past election marked the dissolution of the Civic Coalition, a centrist grouping of different political parties and civil society groups that was born at the beginning of 2007 under the leadership of Representative and anti-corruption fighter Elisa Carrió and grew to become the second most-voted political force in that year’s election.  Even though the Coalition was born as a non-ideological force based on the principles of “ethics, republic, economic development and a fair distribution of income,” it was clear that its program of government had a distinct liberal tilt.

When it was born in 2007, its main members were the “ARI” party (Spanish acronym for “Support for an Egalitarian Republic”), founded by Elisa Carrió, a former member of the Radical Civic Union; “Union for All” (UPT ), a district party founded by Patricia Bullrich, a former centrist member of the Peronist Party who left that party in the mid nineties because of the corrupt political machine that controlled (and continues to control) it; “Generation for a National Encounter” (GEN), another district party founded by former Radical Margarita Stolbizer; the Socialist Party (PS) and other former Radicals and independents. This “Civic Coalition” of centrist and center-left groups and parties came second in the 2007 presidential election, with 24% of the vote. After the election, former presidential candidate and leader of the Civic Coalition, Elisa Carrió, became the de-facto leader of the atomized opposition in Congress. The Civic Coalition became the main opposition to the government’s illiberal policies. However, not all members of the coalition wanted to follow this path of strong opposition. Soon after the election, the Socialist Party left the Coalition and formed its own bloc in Congress. The same happened with the social-democratic GEN party, which distanced itself from what their leader considered “a turn to the right” of the Civic Coalition. Many members of Carrió’s own party, ARI, left the coalition as well and some of them even joined forces with the government’s Front for Victory. Other ARI partisans, which reluctantly accepted Carrió’s decision to found the Civic Coalition, remained in the coalition but were deeply concerned by Carrió’s embrace of centrist and liberal figures such as UPT leader and Representative Patricia Bullrich, newly-elected Senator María Eugenia Estenssoro, the former head of the Central Bank Alfonso Prat-Gay and intellectual Fernando Iglesias, a founding member of Global Democracy and member of the World Federalist Movement. 

As long as the Coalition’s electoral prospects were good, ideological tensions within the Coalition’s two remaining parties –ARI and UPT– remained calmed. Also, Carrió’s strong grip over the leadership of the Coalition helped keep it together (she even defied the left-wing of her own party by making Bullrich her right-hand woman in Parliament).

Ideologically speaking, the ARI party was born as an anti-corruption party with a center-left message after the Argentine political and economic crisis of 2001. Her founding figure, Elisa Carrió, however, had no problem in describing herself as a “liberal” from the beginning –a word that, in Argentina, is associated with conservatism and even the past dictatorships, which would amaze most individuals who call themselves “liberals” worldwide. Of course Carrió didn’t mean to associate herself to that meaning of the word. She was one of the politicians who dared to challenge the understanding of the majority of Argentine public opinion on the real meaning of the liberal philosophy.  On the other hand, Union for All was founded by Patricia Bullrich as a centrist liberal political party in 2002. In 2003, Bullrich run for mayor of the City of Buenos Aires in an alliance with the liberal-conservative Recreate Party (Recrear), led by economist Ricardo López Murphy. López Murphy later decided to join forces with conservative businessman (and nowadays Mayor of Buenos Aires) Mauricio Macri and both created the PRO party. Bullrich, in contrast, preferred to found, alongside Elisa Carrió, the centrist Civic Coalition.

In other words, and under the risk of oversimplifying the sometimes loosely-defined ideology of both parties, we could say that the ARI party resembles the left-wing of the UK Liberal Democrats (although not always), and UPT is closer to the so-called orange-book wing of the Lib Dems. Again, this is just a simplification to help orient our readers around the world.

After the poor performance of the Civic Coalition in the national primaries of August (it came last nationally with only 3.3% of the vote), tensions between the two parties started to become apparent. The left-wing of the ARI party boycotted Bullrich’s campaign as the main candidate of the Civic Coalition for the City of Buenos Aires’ congressional seat. Carrió, whose power had been deeply delegitimized by the dismal result of her presidential ticket in the primaries, was no longer in a position to defend Bullrich from the left-wing’s attacks. The Coalition remained together, however, until the general election in October, when Bullrich was the only Civic Coalition candidate who was able to win a seat in Congress. The fact that the only seat won by the CC came from the UPT party and Bullrich’s aspiration to be the leader of the Coalition’s deeply reduced bloc in Congress, generated the ire of the left-wing of the ARI party, who had long resented her strong influence and her role as the second most-visible face of the Coalition.  With this scenario, on November 19th, the national assembly of the ARI party unilaterally decided to dissolve the coalition with UPT and form its own separate bloc in Congress, which effectively meant the end of the Civic Coalition. The new leadership of the ARI party, no longer under Carrió’s control, decided to “reclaim the party’s progressive, center-left identity,” which they thought had been lost by associating themselves with liberal and centrist figures  like Bullrich under the Civic Coalition banner. What’s ironic about their decision is that other figures like Estenssoro and Prat Gay, as liberal and centrist as Bullrich, were accepted as “progressives” and remained in the ARI party, which makes us wonder if this was really a matter of ideological differences or simply a dispute for power.

Thus, after being a voice for freedom and liberal values during the last four years –and the main brake to the government’s illiberal policies–, the Civic Coalition has sadly reached the end of its life and, with it, the dreams of many Argentine citizens who thought that a liberal political force had finally arrived to the country’s muddled political system have been shattered.