Even before Argentine President-designate Reynaldo Bignone announced that banned political parties could resume their activities this week, the most powerful mass movement in modern Argentine history was once again stirring. Peronism, a cult of nationalism, populism and social welfare fostered by the late Juan Domingo Perón, has been a force in Argentina since the mid-1940s. Twice, from 1946 to 1955 and briefly in 1973 and 1974, its founder held power. Twice also, according to the movement's critics, Peronism brought Argentina to the brink of ruin. Yet so strong is the creed's appeal, especially among lower and working classes, that most political experts estimate that the Peronists would win between 40% and 50% of the vote if free elections were held now.
A onetime army colonel, Peron developed his political ideas after he visited Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany in the late 1930s and early 1940s. In 1943 he became Argentina's Minister of Labor and Welfare. Perón skillfully used that post to create a power base within Argentina's working class (known as los descamisados, the shirtless ones). Briefly imprisoned by his jealous military colleagues in 1945, Perón was freed when Maria Eva ("Evita") Duarte, who was soon to become his second wife, helped to organize mass demonstrations on his behalf. Elected President a few months later, Perón began building what he called the "third position" between capitalism and Communism, while Evita, until her death in 1952, built a Peronist personality cult among the masses.
Peronism was never more than a series of catch phrases to justify Perón's authoritarian rule, extolling nonalignment and a heavy state role in the economy. His economic policies, which poured resources into highly protected, inefficient, state-directed enterprises, depleted Argentina's treasury as the country devoured its foreign exchange earnings from agriculture. In 1955 the military ousted him. Peron eventually settled in Madrid, but he remained in touch with loyal followers back home, encouraging both the right and the left to think that he espoused their goals. In 1973, amid a rising wave of terrorism, the Argentine military returned the country to civilian rule. Within a month, Perón returned to live in Argentina and was re-elected President three months later. Perón died in July 1974, leaving power in the hands of his third wife, Maria Estela Martinez de Perón, a former cabaret dancer. "Isabelita," as she was known, was unable to reduce Argentina's terrorism or its hyperinflation, and the country's increasingly impatient generals overthrew her in March 1976.
Peronism is now a splintered movement, but its various branches all endorse some blend of nationalism and populist welfarism. One faction still supports Isabelita Peron, now in her own exile in Madrid. If the party is indeed permitted to operate openly, the question is not just whether the Peronists will be able to overcome their differences and win the electoral majority they claim. It is also whether the military will accept such an outcome.