CIUDAD EVITA, Argentina (AP) — As Argentina heads for a presidential runoff election on Sunday, the decades-old populist movement known as Peronism is on shaky ground, its candidate having lost some traction even among longtime loyalists living in a suburb of the capital that is its literal and figurative embodiment.
Built in the 1950s by Peronism’s founder, then-President Juan Domingo Perón, Ciudad Evita’s original boundaries were shaped like the profile of his wife, former first lady María Eva Duarte de Perón, better known as Evita. It provided workers not just large homes but also dignity, and its generations of inhabitants have been ardent supporters of a political movement that champions social justice and workers’ rights.
But that support has been rattled by rising poverty and red-hot inflation that has punished society. Some Ciudad Evita residents are tempted to do the previously unthinkable: Vote against the Peronist candidate, Economy Minister Sergio Massa, on Sunday. That has Massa working overtime to keep once-steadfast supporters from straying to his opponent, right-wing populist Javier Milei, who rocked Argentina’s political landscape by receiving the most votes in the August primary election.
“I’ve always been a Peronist. But not for the past few years,” said Susana García, a 62-year-old who has lived in Ciudad Evita most of her life and, as a longtime union worker, has seen the power of Peronism firsthand to mobilize Argentina’s workers. García is struggling to make ends meet, much less pay for needed repairs to her three-bedroom home.
“I have a nice house, but I can’t maintain it,” she said.
Peronism, a nebulous movement with both left- and right-wing factions, has been the dominant force in Argentine politics for decades and draws its origins to the three-time-President Perón’s strong alliances with workers’ unions. Its promise has been derailed by decades of economic decay, and Ciudad Evita is now surrounded by poorer neighborhoods with dilapidated houses and shacks.
“There has been deep disaffection with Peronism in the lower-income sectors over the past four years,” said Pablo Touzon, a Peronism expert who runs the local political consultancy Escenarios. “That is partly what made Milei’s victory in the primaries possible.”
To recover lost ground, Massa has kicked the Peronist vote-getting machine into overdrive. It consists of vast networks of local leaders who hand out mattresses, fridges and stoves. Government-funded organizations provide food, aid and jobs through an array of welfare programs in the poorest neighborhoods. In both cases, they remind voters to which party they owe gratitude.
And Massa has also pulled out all stops from his ministerial post — to the deep chagrin of government creditors and political opponents. He slashed income taxes for the highest earners, began refunding some of a value-added tax levied on food purchases, unveiled fresh payments for pensioners and unemployed people, and announced bonuses for millions of workers.
Massa has described the programs as helping people get by after the government devalued the peso by almost 20% in August, which pushed inflation even higher. It is now running at an annual rate of more than 140%.
Critics say Massa’s moves amplify the patronage of Peronism that they say has created a system of dependance.
“Being able to push the levers of the Economy Ministry allowed him to inject money quickly to influence the election results,” Milei said in a television interview after the first-round vote.
Peronism’s well-oiled operations have kept it a political force for decades. Houses for workers like those in Ciudad Evita, many of whom were able to pay them off in years, were just part of Peronism’s promise to provide.
“People could ask for prosthetics, a dress for Communion, food, beds. Whatever they needed, there was no limit,” explained Carolina Barry, who runs the history of Peronism program at the National University of Tres de Febrero. That created “loyalties across generations,” she said.
That aid doesn’t necessarily translate into the votes it once did, said Mariano Machado, principal analyst for the Americas at Verisk Maplecroft, a global risk intelligence firm. But it helps, he said.
Massa and his supporters warn that such bounty could evaporate if Milei wins the presidency. A self-proclaimed anarcho-capitalist, Milei has spoken out in favor of cutting government subsidies that keep prices of transport and utilities low, particularly in Buenos Aires, privatizing Argentina’s public health and education systems and other measures to cut the state down to size.
In recent weeks, Milei has denied that any such measures would be immediate and accused the Peronist government of carrying out a “campaign of fear.” In his final campaign ad, Milei starkly looks at the camera while insisting he won’t privatize education nor health care.
Massa’s campaign delivered a seven-point win over Milei in October in the first round of voting, defying almost all pre-election polls. Yet the weakening of Peronism is revealed by the fact it is united behind Massa, who netted 37% — the same as just one of two Peronist candidates in 2015 when the party was divided, according to Ana Iparraguirre, partner at pollster GBAO Strategies.
Just a five-minute drive from García’s spacious home in Ciudad Evita lies a neighborhood of uneven streets teeming with sewage and dilapidated apartment buildings, interspersed with precarious shacks. The Evita Movement is one of many Peronist social organizations tending to residents there. The group runs a soup kitchen that hands out more than 400 meals a week.
“I’ve lived off the soup kitchen for a long time. It helps people a lot, people who have more children than me,” said Cristina Bramajo, 48, who has three children. “I am a Peronist and, come what may, I will always vote for Peronism.”
Despite her misgivings over what she calls a corrupt government, García said she, too, will vote for Massa. While change is alluring, Milei’s plan to shrink the state scares her.
“I didn’t like the things he was proposing, what he’s going to cut, what he’s going to eliminate, like schools, studies, universities, everything becoming private,” she said. “I’m from the lower middle class, and it’s not what I hope for my grandchildren.”
AP writer David Biller contributed to this report from Rio de Janeiro.