Warning: This column draws from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” Watching it beforehand is highly recommended, if only because it is an excellent film.
Last Monday, two senior politicians caused a stir in both Argentina and the UK. Argentine Deputy Carlos Heller broke away from the Victory Front (FpV) caucus (group of politicians from the same party who vote along the same lines) in the Lower House of Congress for “administrative reasons”: he wanted to talk more in debates, which he couldn’t do when part of the bigger group. Meanwhile, Dennis Skinner was kicked out of the House of Commons in the U.K for calling the Prime Minister “Dodgy Dave.”
Although both stories are of somewhat rogue members of the parliament or Congress of their country, while the British parliament has at least some vestige of order amidst the insults hurled from one side to another, the Argentine Congress has become ever more like Life of Brian’s depiction of Roman times. While “Dodgy Dave” Skinner’s isolation was because of a slip, Heller’s was because of a split.
“Are you the Judean People’s Front?”
“Fuck off! We’re the People’s Front of Judea!”
That wonderful scene from Monty Python’s "Life Of Brian" has resounded through the decades, still quoted and often used in comparison to politics. It was, of course, a satire of British left-wing politics at the time. While the fragmentation and the division between the anti-imperialist groups are a thing of irony, it is all too real in Argentina after the Victory Front (FpV) lost the elections last year to the Cambiemos alliance (Rome) and President Mauricio Macri (Pontius Pilate).
The Victory Front (FpV) is a center-left coalition that was created as a platform for former President Néstor Kirchner’s candidacy in 2003. It is formally recognised as a branch of the Justicialist Party (PJ), the umbrella party created in the 1940s by Juan Perón, which consequently gave birth to Peronism, the main party platform in Argentine politics. Furthermore, Peronism is both flexible and enduring as a political movement: it has had many re-definitions over the years, with each politician reconstructing Peronism in their own way,
After the elections, both Peronism and the FpV have gone through process of defining their party identities once more: it would seem that the FpV is becoming ever more independent and vocal against the government, while “classic” or “orthodox” Peronism cohabits with new definitions of the movement by politicians such as Sergio Massa that negotiate more with Rome. I mean, Cambiemos. On top of all that, in February, a group of deputies in the Lower House split from the FpV caucus in the Lower House and created the “Justicialist Caucus” (no prizes for names there) over disagreements on how the party should act as the new opposition to the government. They have been crucified by the Fpv, known as traitors or, you guessed it, splitters.
Still here? Indeed, the situation is looking very much like the scene where the anti-imperialist groups try to raid Pontius Pilate’s palace and end up massacring each other while arguing over who had the idea first.
“Whatever happened to the Popular Front?”
“He’s over there.”
However, Heller’s split is something different. The realignment of the Peronist party and the split in the Lower House is understandable —although calling themselves the Justicialist Caucus is scarily akin to the JPF/PFJ groups in the film. The difference is that while in Life of Brian the splits are due to convictions and ideology, Heller’s explicitly said that him splitting from the FpV caucus was “for administrative reasons” and that he “would remain an ally to the [FpV] caucus led by Héctor Recalde.”
With that in mind, one wonders what the point of caucuses are at all: if you are inherently aligned with the caucus, you are a part of it. If you are an independent caucus, you do not necessarily vote with the FpV caucus. Monty Python’s jab at the “popular front” being just one man is hilarious but very real in Heller’s case, as Peronism is the Argentine social and popular movement par excellence.
As aforementioned, Heller’s split was driven by his desire to be able to talk during the debates —ridiculous as it sounds, it's mostly due to a systemic belief that a diverging voice implies a “splitter” (which it doesn’t) and that the solution is to break off instead of negotiating or cooperating (it isn’t). In the UK parliament, everybody can talk but a) the speakers’ allegiances are clear, with higher levels of party cohesion and b) their statements are accountable: although insults and jabs are very commonplace, there are limits. Skinner was able to express his divergence of opinion without creating his own party block: since he did so inappropriately, he was obliged to leave the House of Commons. So the issue is not simply the Peronist party and the FpV dividing and squabbling among themselves to the point where they could potentially no longer function as a credible opposition, but that divergence of opinion should not be interpreted as the highest of treasons nor warrant a lonely caucus of one.
Slips will come every now and then. So will splits. But when the number of splitters is such that Congress seems more of an anarchy or a pantomime, that’s when it becomes problematic and in all likelihood, the road to crucifixion (down the corridor, left hand side, one cross each). The ultimate goal is to have a political system in which the slips come with accountability and the splits do not lead to bloodbaths. There’s only so often people can look on the bright side of life in such a socio-political context.