For most of the 21st century, Argentina has been considered as one of the world's democratic underachievers despite the fact that Argentina has got high levels of wealth, education and a large middle class with a developed social structure. The underachievement can largely be blamed on civilian regimes that broke between 1930 and 1976. Moreover, a few years ago, when Menem was elected president, there was concentration and abuse of power by his regime that resulted in Argentina's democracy remaining badly flawed. Most scholars were pessimistic of the regime treating it as a case of "delegative" democracy. But surprisingly enough, at the end of the decade which was toward the end of Menem's second term in office, Argentina had diverged from these problems and started to resemble better democracies and institutionalized neighbors in the Latin America like Chile and Uruguay. This essay will discuss the authoritarian behavior of Menem during his two terms as the Argentinean president. We will also examine why democracy might be more stable as his second term comes to the end.
Menem's authoritarian rule during his two terms
Six months before his term came to an end, the then Argentinean president Raúl Alfonsín was forced to hand over power to Menem due to a prevailing hyperinflation and mass looting that characterized his regime. But Menem's government could concentrate on abuse of power that could later threaten and weaken representative institutions eroding "horizontal democracy."
President Menem's rule was at first characterized in a highly unilateral manner. He acted in a highly unilateral manner that he usually violated the spirit and the letter of the lands supreme document; the constitution. An example in point is in 1990 when he pushed through the legislation expanding from 5 to 9 Supreme Court judges despite objections by the opposition and a contested quorum. During his time, Menem used to use widespread of his executive powers and issued 336 executive decrees within a period of 5 years contrasting to only 10 such decrees by his predecessor within the same period of time.
Menem was involved in reckless pursuit of constitutional reforms that permitted his re-election which had a debilitating effect on Argentina's democratic institutions. In 1994, Menem threatened to hold a plebiscite on negotiating a constitutional reform thereby bullying the UCR into a negotiation. The UCR leader was faced with the possibility that Menem could win the election and provoke an institutional crisis that he left his opposition re-election to negotiate for the Olivos Pact. Although the constitution does not allow a candidate to run for a third term, in 1998 Menem pushed the Peronist party to declare its support for his candidacy and later unsuccessfully tried to gain a court ruling legalizing his candidature.
Although sometimes his government tried to remain within the constitutional boundaries, it failed to seek multi-party consensus on constitutional issues. A case in point is the re-election clause and increasing the size of Supreme Court judges. He also violated matters of fundamental importance democracy like in 1990 when he pardoned military officers imprisoned for human rights violations. This kind of hypermajoritarian leadership had a debilitating effect on the country's fragile democracy having come from a decade of dictatorship.
The transition and why democracy might be more stable and stronger at the end of Menem's second term
During Menem's second-term, his perceived indispensability and the opposition crisis enabled the PJ party to establish itself as a near dominant party and he was able to bring together different faction such that he had an overwhelming majority in the 1995 presidential elections. But this crisi that gave birth to Menemism eroded his second term. The middle class opposition resurrected and unified. The emergence of this alliance was seen as a credible alternative and Menem ceased to be seen as indispensable for economic stability. The Alliance was then committed to a convertibility plan which the public viewed as credible. For example in 1997 public survey, a whopping 95 percent of Argentineans believed that economic stability could be sustained into the future no matter the leadership. For business leaders, the survey indicated that 72 percent believed the same or even better prospects if the Alliance gained power.
These changes that happened towards the 1999 presidential election and in 1997 legislative election only six months after the Alliance's formation, Menem's PJ party was defeated by 46 to 36 percent. This was possible due to the large scale defection of independent voters who were mainly middle and upper-middle-class voters confident of economic stability and had given priorities to non-economic issues like education, corruption and judicial independence. These sweeping changes shifted the balance of power in the Argentine party system.
In 1998, Menem engaged in reckless and half-hearted attempt to run for a third term. This resulted to a change in the balance of power. His re-election bid was also met by stiff objection from by half of the PJ and another large part of the economic establishment. His re-election bid opposition was so strong and united that his attempts to get a ruling from the Menemist-controlled courts were aware of such an illegitimate ruling declined to rule in his favor. (64)
The 1999 elections marked the consolidation of post crisis as the Alliance neutralized PJ's advantage on economic issues. Fernando de la Rua who was a heavy favorite ran a cautious campaign from the outset. Although he made few mistakes in his campaigns, FREPASO leader and vice-presidential candidate kept them in line. Elections in October resulted to victory for the Alliance. As a result, Menem handed power peacefully in December 1999, as scheduled.
The essay has dealt with Menem's Authoritarian otherwise called hypermajoritarian rule in Argentina. The regime was characterized by democratic underachievement despite high levels of wealth, education literacy and high number of middle-class. When Menem was elected president, there was concentration and abuse of power by his regime that resulted in Argentina's democracy remaining badly flawed. Most scholars were pessimistic of the regime treating it as a case of "delegative" democracy. At the end of the decade which was toward the end of Menem's second term in office, Argentina had diverged from these problems and started to resemble better democracies and institutionalized neighbors in the Latin America like Chile and Uruguay. This was majorly due to the emergence of an Alliance which was seen as a credible alternative and Menem ceased to be seen as indispensable for economic stability. This later resulted to Menem being banned from contesting the 1999 elections and eventual victory for Fernando de la Rua.