Type of Government
Technically under a “federal republican representative form of government” according to its 1853 constitution, Argentina has experienced ongoing episodes in which military rule suppressed that form of government. Since the restoration of civilian rule in 1983, Argentina has maintained separate executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government at both national and provincial levels. An unusual feature of Argentine constitutional law is that each of the country’s twenty-three provinces has its own constitution, modeled on the national document. Argentina’s executive branch is headed by a president and vice-president, elected to four-year terms. The legislature is bicameral, with an upper Senate and a lower Chamber of Deputies, and the Argentine judiciary, defined by the constitution as an independent branch of government, has the Supreme Court as its highest-ranking body.
Argentina lies at the southern end of South America and is bordered by Paraguay and Bolivia to the north, Brazil, Uruguay, and the Atlantic Ocean to the east, and Chile to the west. Before the era of Spanish conquest the region was populated by Native American groups living on the edges of the orbits of the more powerful Inca to the north and the Guaraní-speaking groups to the east. Parts of what is now Argentina’s eastern coast were sighted by the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1545–1512) in 1502, and further explorations were carried out by the Spanish explore Juan Díaz de Solís (1470?–1516) in 1516. Spain established small colonial settlements, including one on the site of present-day Buenos Aires, in the sixteenth century. In spite of these settlements, the region was overseen by Lima, the capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru, far to the north.
In 1776 Spain created the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata and established Buenos Aires as a major administrative center for a region that now includes Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia. Among the foundations of Argentina’s wealth is its magnificent natural harbor, which is located where the Río de la Plata broadens into an estuary before meeting the Atlantic Ocean. As Buenos Aires became an important trading center, Argentina’s population grew. However, the viceroyalty proved short lived as a combination of war in Europe and revolutionary fervor in the Western Hemisphere led to calls for Argentine independence. After the French military leader Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821) seized power in Spain, a group of Argentine generals formed a shadow government in 1810. This effort bogged down as disagreements among the various Spanish provinces in the region arose, but a new period of military resistance commanded by General José San Martín (1778–1850) led Argentina to declare its independence on July 9, 1816.
From 1816 to 1853 Argentina was part of the United Provinces of South America, spearheaded by the Uruguayan general José Artigas (1764–1850) as an effort to create a federal republic along the lines of the United States. The United Provinces dissolved as individual countries in the region declared their independence and fended off powerful Brazil. The early decades of Argentina’s existence as an independent country were unstable as internal factions and foreign powers vied for control, but an Argentine constitution established in 1853 remains in force in the twenty-first century.
Argentina’s history in the nineteenth century has parallels with that of the United States, in that European immigrants crossed the ocean to settle a potentially wealthy new land. As Argentina’s rich grasslands were transformed into farms, Europeans cultivated investments in Buenos Aires and in other cities. These investments paid off in the late nineteenth century as agricultural innovations, refrigeration, and modern ships brought Argentina into a thick net of global trade. Between 1880 and 1930 the country ranked as one of the ten richest in the world.
With this wealth came the emergence of a set of competing groups in Argentina: an urban working class, farmers, the Catholic Church, and the military. A two-party structure took hold early in the twentieth century, with the Unión Cívica Radical favoring the expansion of democratic institutions. The Radical president Hipólito Yrigoyen (1852–1933), weakened by the collapse of the world economy as the Great Depression deepened, was overthrown by the military in 1930. The army propped up a series of Conservative governments as strong far-left and far-right movements developed in the 1930s.
The key feature in Argentine political life after World War II (1939–1945) was the development of Perónism, a political movement named for Juan Perón. Perón was one of a group of military officers who overthrew the Argentine government in 1943 and, as the minister of labor, became one of the junta’s (military government coalition) most popular figures. An important contributor to his popularity was his wife, María Eva Perón (1919–1952), who ascended to quasi-mythic status among the Argentines in part because of her devotion to charitable works. Elected president in 1946, Juan Perón nationalized some Argentine industries and promoted a new broad-based General Confederation of Labor. He was reelected in 1952, after amending the constitution to allow him to serve a second term, but he lost a crucial supporter that year when Eva Perón died from cancer. In 1955 he was himself overthrown in a coup d’état.
A long economic decline was an underlying cause of Argentina’s continuing instability. Power passed repeatedly between military and civilian hands, with neither group able to solve the country’s economic problems nor recapture the popular allegiance of the banned Partido Justicialista, which by this time encompassed both left- and right-wing elements. Perón returned from exile in Spain and was elected to a third term as president in 1973, but died the following year. His wife, Isabel Martínez de Perón (1931–), was his vice president and succeeded him in power, but she, too, was deposed by a coup in 1976. During this period extremist movements threatened the country with terrorist attacks, and the harsh clampdown that was imposed following the establishment of a new military government was called the Dirty War. Argentines were imprisoned without trial or due process, and at least ten thousand—some estimates run much higher—simply disappeared between 1976 and 1983 and were presumed to be victims of political violence.
Military rule came to an end after Argentina’s unsuccessful 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands, which were under the control of Great Britain but regarded by most Argentines as a legitimate part of Argentina. The Falklands War lasted only three months. The Argentine military junta, which had launched the war partly to distract Argentines from worsening economic conditions at home, found itself the target of large street demonstrations and allowed free elections to take place in October 1983. Raúl Alfonsín (1927–) was elected president, inaugurating an unprecedented period of democratic governance in Argentina.
Argentina’s government is divided into independent executive, legislative, and judicial branches. At the head of the executive branch are the president and vice president, who are elected by popular vote. The executive branch is quite powerful: the president has the authority to make line-item veto (selective veto of sections of a bill) over laws passed by legislators and can, under emergency circumstances, enact laws by decree. The president and vice president can run for reelection once and can run yet again after yielding the office for one four-year term. The Argentine president need not be born in Argentina but must be “the son of a native-born citizen if born in a foreign country”; he (or she) is both the head of government and head of state. If one presidential candidate fails to receive 45 percent of the votes in the first round of voting, a runoff between the top two candidates must be held within thirty days.
The bicameral (two-chambered) Congreso de la Nación Argentina (Congress of the Argentine Nation) consists of the Senado (Senate), the upper house, and the Cámara de Diputados (Chamber of Deputies), the lower house. Even though there is no age restriction for the presidency, senators must have reached the age of thirty and deputies the age of twenty-five. There are seventy-two members in the Senado, three from each of Argentina’s twenty-three provinces and three from the capital of Buenos Aires, a federal district. A senator must be an Argentine citizen for at least six years and have resided in the province he or she wishes to represent for at least two. Senators are elected by party, with the party receiving the most votes in a province winning two of its three seats; the second-place party is awarded the final seat. They serve six-year terms, with one-third of the seats coming up for election every two years as in the United States, and they are not term-limited (restricted by the number of terms they can serve). The vice president presides over the Senado and can cast tiebreaking votes.
The 257 members of the Cámara de Diputados serve four-year terms. The seats in the chamber are apportioned among the provinces and the city of Buenos Aires according to a proportional representation scheme. Half of the chamber is elected every two years. Like senators, deputies are not term-limited. A deputy must have reached the age of twenty-five, have been an Argentine citizen for four years, and have resided in the district he or she wishes to represent for at least two years. Deputy candidates run on party slates, and seats are allocated by party according to a proportional formula.
The judiciary is headed by the nine-member Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación (Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation) whose independence, which is guaranteed by the constitution, has been strengthened by various appointments and reforms in recent years. The members are nominated by the president after a three-month period of public discussion; the Senado must confirm the selections by a two-thirds majority vote.
Political Parties and Factions
In the 1990s the two political parties that had existed since World War II splintered into new factions. Party affiliation was also weakened by the turbulent events of modern Argentine history: Argentina’s presidents, from the 1983 restoration of civilian rule onward, have been forced to react to specific crises for which general party philosophies provided no solutions. Argentina’s two main political parties remain the Partido Justicialista and the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR; Radical Civic Union). The Justicialist Party was founded by Juan Perón (1895–1974) in 1945. The UCR dates back to the 1890s, at which time its advocacy of the interests of the urban middle classes against those of large landowners and the plutocracy (government by the wealthy) was indeed somewhat radical. Both parties are generally centrist, with leadership figures often determined by internal rivalries.
Many other parties are represented in the Congreso de la Nación Argentina, some of them regional in orientation. Two parties that made strong showings in early twenty-first century elections are the Alternativa para una República de Iguales (Alternative for a Republic of Equals) and the Recrear para el Crecimiento (Recreate for Growth). In 2007 the Recrear para el Crecimiento and several smaller parties joined forces to form a new anti-Perónist coalition: the Propuesta Republicana (Republican Proposal).
Argentina’s recent governments have had to contend with several crises. In the 1980s President Alfonsín presided over a national reconciliation process as Argentina struggled to recover from a repressive seven-year military dictatorship. He signed laws granting a general amnesty (pardon) to officers for acts committed under military rule, but in 2005 this amnesty was voided when the Suprema Corte upheld new measures, passed by the Congreso de la Nación Argentina, that repealed the original bills.
An economic crisis in 2001 and 2002 destabilized the Argentine government and led to street demonstrations of the kind that had previously resulted in sudden political change, but this time Argentina’s democratic institutions proved more resilient. The crisis, originally set in motion by the meltdown in Asian stock markets in 1998, culminated in a run on Argentine banks in November 2001. Panicked Argentines rushed to liquidate their assets in advance of a feared devaluation of the Argentine peso and default on Argentina’s international financial obligations. When the devaluation finally occurred, in several stages over the first few months of 2002, the Argentine economy contracted sharply and faced severe inflation. Unrest in the streets followed as the savings of ordinary Argentines were wiped out, but the situation finally stabilized as the interim president Eduardo Duhalde (1941–) worked to maintain basic social programs and imposed a series of austerity measures. Since the 2003 presidential swearing in of Néstor Kirchner (1950–), Argentina has enjoyed economic growth during the first years of the new administration.
Despite the stabilization of the Argentine economy, the country has not attained its former level of prosperity. Fundamental economic weaknesses threaten to bring back the instability that plagued Argentina over the past several decades. For example, in 2006 unemployment was estimated at 8.7 percent and a massive 26.9 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. Even though the country has made strong progress toward institutionalizing the vigorous give-and-take of democracy, its democratic foundation was shaken by the 2001–2002 financial crisis. Argentina faces a host of internal environmental problems but has also responded to one that it shares with other countries: the country is noted as an international leader in the setting of voluntary targets for reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases that are believed to cause a dangerous warming of the earth’s atmosphere.
Brown, Jonathan C. A Brief History of Argentina. New York: Facts on File, 2003.
Lewis, Daniel K. The History of Argentina. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
U.S. Department of State. “Background Note: Argentina.” (accessed July 3, 2007).