THERE WAS no outright winner in Argentina's presidential election on Sunday. That will depend on a run-off in three weeks time. But the country's political establishment - and ruling class - has won a certain sort of victory. Sixteen months ago a spontaneous uprising led to the resignation of the country's president, De La Rua.
People were protesting against savage attacks on living standards and jobs in the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis. Crowds swarmed through the centre of Buenos Aires chanting 'Throw the lot out' - and there were three more presidents in fewer weeks before anything like a stable government was formed. On Sunday, 80 percent of people took part in an election in which all the main candidates came from the parties responsible for the neo-liberal economic policies that produced that outpouring of anger.
A quarter of those voting opted for the architect of those policies, former president Menem. He is unrepentant, still stands for the replacement of the Argentinian currency by the US dollar and calls for harsh repression against the unemployed 'piqueteros' movements and the factory occupations.
Another 15 percent voted for another neo-liberal figure, Lopez Murphy - driven from his position of economics minister by strikes just two years ago. Menem is likely to lose the run-off to Sunday's other frontrunner, Kirchner, who got 22 percent of the votes as against Menem's 24 percent.
But Kirchner barely differs from Menem. He comes from the same Peronist party, and his vote depended on the political machine of the current president, Duhalde, one-time vice-president to Menem.
The movement that exploded on the streets 16 months ago has not disappeared. The unemployed piqueteros movement is still over 100,000 strong. There are 150 'asembleas' - groups of neighbourhood activists - in Buenos Aires.
Some 15,000 people mobilised at short notice last week after police attacked a demonstration against the eviction of workers who had been running the occupied Brukman's clothing factory. There are some 200 other workers' co-operatives or occupied factories in the country.
Most importantly, there are growing signs that workers who still have jobs share the same bitterness as the more than 20 percent who are unemployed. But the elections show that the movement has failed in one important respect. It has not presented to the millions who turned against all the old politicians 16 months ago the sense that the movement itself offers a way out of poverty and economic crisis.
This has enabled these old politicians to raise their heads again. Menem has convinced some of those hit hardest by the crisis that he is the answer. And the media have been able to make it seem to the great majority of people that the only choice you can ever have is between one or other of a bad bunch. Part of the responsibility of this state of affairs belongs to the established left. The two biggest revolutionary organisations in the country, the PO and MST, have reacted to the whole movement and each other in a sectarian way.
Instead of using their experience to develop the wider movement, they have each built themselves apart from it - and ended up standing rival candidates for the presidency. One got 1.76 percent of the vote, the other 0.74 percent. Other sections of the left have turned away from politics altogether. They put forward 'autonomist' views that hold that the unemployed can somehow improve their situation simply through their own organisation, without challenging the state and trying to change society as a whole.
The election shows how wrong both approaches are. Between them they have allowed the old political establishment to make a comeback and to make things safer for the Argentinian rich and their foreign backers.
The immense bitterness at the base of Argentinian society can still explode again. Those who voted for the old politicians on Sunday can still take to the streets and go on strike as they put their policies into effect. But it would all be much easier if the left would learn that it is possible to try to give political direction to struggles without falling into sectarianism.