Opinion & Features

Argentina’s new Peronist rulers may take on the Church over abortion

Newly elected President of Argentina Alberto Fernandez (Getty)

Pope Francis’s native Argentina has swung sharply to the left in its recent general election. Amid a deep economic crisis, conservative president Mauricio Macri was easily defeated by Peronist challenger Alberto Fernández. 

This also marks a dramatic return to power for left-wing former president Cristina Kirchner, who with her late husband Néstor dominated the country from 2003 to 2015. Kirchner, who left office dogged by high inflation and corruption scandals, is now the vice president-elect. 

Mauricio Macri was seen as a standard-bearer for a new generation of pro-market leaders in Latin America, and his liberalisation of the economy had some initial success. However, an economic crisis beginning in 2018 brought a devaluation of the peso, rocketing inflation, austerity budgets and the International Monetary Fund’s largest ever bailout. This set the scene for the return of Kirchnerism. 

As president-elect Fernández was Néstor Kirchner’s chief of staff, there has been speculation that he will be a puppet for Cristina Kirchner. The reality is more complicated. Fernández, a moderate Peronist, resigned from the government in 2008 and did not even speak to Kirchner for almost ten years. His rise is due to the Peronists’ need to reunite their party. Cristina Kirchner is popular with the urban poor, but also a highly polarising figure, while Fernández was better placed to reassure swing voters. If things go badly for Fernández, though, he is likely to face a challenge from Kirchner’s supporters. 

The election result is likely to lead to renewed tensions between the Church and government. Pope Francis, when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, had a famously bad relationship with the Kirchners, and clashed more than once with President-elect Fernández. Sometimes this would be sparked by culture war issues, such as the introduction of same-sex marriage in 2010. But just as often it would turn on the question of who authentically represented the interests of the poor – the Church or the Kirchners.  

The arguments were especially heated as Pope Francis grew up in the same Peronist political tradition. This reflects the oldest tradition in Argentina’s politics. In a country that is overwhelmingly Catholic – though religious observance is low – its 19th-century founders, most of them Freemasons, crafted a strongly secular constitution. Over the past two centuries, this has led to a highly politicised Church, and a political sphere that has swung between promoting the Church’s interests and restricting its freedom. 

The next clash will be over Argentina’s strict abortion law. A liberalising move last year was defeated in the Senate, in what pro-lifers hailed as a big win. However, polling shows that public opinion is in favour of a more liberal law. A government struggling to deal with a bankrupt economy may decide that revisiting the issue is a fight worth having to bolster its popularity.