For all its factionalism, the Partido Justicialista (PJ, the Peronist or Justicialist party) is the country’s largest and most cohesive political entity. For most of the past century, the next most important has been the misnamed Unión Cívica Radical (UCR), a middle-class party that seems to function better in opposition than in power. After the collapse of the Radical president Fernando de la Rúa’s administration in 2001, though, the party nearly dropped off the map; the two top vote-getters in the 2007 presidential election were Peronist Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and ex-Radical Elisa Carrió, and Fernández co-opted dissident Mendoza Radical Julio Cobos as her vice-presidential candidate.
The Peronists, Radicals, and similar entities, however, are barely parties in the European or North American sense—in some ways, it might be more accurate to call them movements. When Carrió ran in the 2003 primary, she did so at the head of her own hastily created Alternativa por una República de Iguales (ARI, Alternative for a Republic of Equals) to finish a weak fourth; in 2007, she made a better showing as the candidate of the Coalición Cívica (Civic Coalition), which included additional factions, but she still garnered barely a quarter of the vote (about half what Fernández won).
As of early 2010, Fernández de Kirchner’s Peronist Frente para la Victoria held a majority in the Senado, with 44 seats, while there were 10 Radicals; several other parties shared the remaining 18. In the Cámara de Diputados, the Frente para la Victoria holds 153 seats, the Radicals 30, and the Coalición Cívica 27, with several other parties holding the remaining 47; with intra-party defections, though, the Kirchnerites no longer have a working majority. The Peronists hold a substantial majority of provincial governorships.
Historically, many officeholders have used their supporters for political intimidation instead of dialogue. Voters, for that matter, cannot vote directly for candidates, but only for lists chosen by party bosses at the provincial level. More often than not, the parties serve as patronage machines that, after mobilizing their most militant members for elections, reward them with well-paid public posts that may or may not actually involve working for their paychecks. Such “ghost employees” are called ñoquis (gnocchi) after the inexpensive potato pasta traditionally served on the 29th of each month in restaurants and cash-strapped households. The insinuation is that they start showing up at the office just in time to collect their salary on the first of the following month.
Many Argentines express a “plague on all your houses” attitude toward politicians in general, but the Peronists have still managed to dominate the even more divided opposition parties in most of the country.