Argentina's political history dates to the sixteenth century when Spanish explorers first visited the region. Spain established a permanent colony in what is now Buenos Aires in 1580. In 1776, Spain created the Vice-Royalty of Río de la Plata and Argentina became a flourishing port and an integral part of the Empire. On 9 July 1816, Argentina formally declared its independence from Spain under the leadership of José de San Martín, who was a dominant force for national independence throughout the continent. The defeat of the Spanish brought with it a protracted period of conflict between federalist and centralist forces in Argentina to determine the future structure of the nation. The Constitution of the Argentine Republic was promulgated in 1853. Conservative forces dominated until 1916, when Hipolito Yrigoyen, the candidate of the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR—Radical Civic Union), was elected president in Argentina's first free popular election. Yrigoyen was overthrown in 1930 by a military coup. This event established a pattern in Argentine political history of alternating between civilian and military governments, which persisted until December 1983 when the Radical candidate Raúl Alfonsín assumed the presidency. In July 1989, Alfonsín ceded power to his constitutionally elected successor, the first time that had occurred since 1928.
One of the legacies of Argentina's history is the phenomenon of Perónism, a mass movement created in the 1940s by Juan Domingo Perón, who came to power in a 1943 military coup. Perón was elected president in 1946 and in 1948 he created the Perónista Party, a movement focused on social programs and nationalist ideology. Labor unions and the working poor were the overwhelming basis of support for Perónism and in 1951 contributed to Perón's reelection as president. Overthrown in 1955, Perón returned from exile in 1973 and was reelected president of Argentina. He died in office, and it was the chaos of his wife's administration that precipitated the 1976 coup. The fact that many of the nation's political woes stem from the Perónist period notwithstanding, the ideology remains a potent force in Argentine politics and it emerged essentially unchanged after the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s. The country returned to democracy in 1983 after seven years of brutal military rule. At least 10,000 and perhaps as many as 30,000 Argentineans "disappeared" during military rule. The prosecution of former military leaders charged with human rights abuses remains a major issue in the country.
Raúl Alfonsín was elected president in 1983, but he was unsuccessful in harnessing the runaway inflation that was plaguing the country. As a result, Carlos Saul Menem of the Justicialist Party was elected president and the first transfer of power from one democratically elected president to another in the country's history took place. Menem, a former soccer player, cut government spending and liberalized the economy, pardoned former military leaders, and succeeded in accomplishing economic and political stability. In 1994, he was reelected. Although he tried to force a constitutional change that would allow him to run for a third term, he was forced to accept his rival, Eduardo Duhalde, as the Justicialists' candidate for president in 1999; Duhalde lost to Fernando de la Rúa of the UCR.
De la Rúa took office in 1999, pledging to address the country's economic problems, but by early 2001, the economy was slipping further into recession. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) delivered US $22.7 billion in emergency aid in two installments (January and August), which turned out to be not enough. By December 2001, with the country teetering on the edge of economic collapse, rioting protesters forced de la Rúa's decision to resign. Argentina then defaulted on its US $155 billion foreign debt payments, the largest such default in history. After a period of instability that saw three candidates accept and resign the presidency in succession within days, Congress named Eduardo Duhalde president on 1 January 2002. Duhalde soon announced an economic plan devaluing the Argentine peso, which had been pegged to the dollar for a decade. The devaluation plunged the banking industry into crisis and wiped out much of the savings of the middle class. Thousands of people began to leave the country, primarily for Italy and Spain; thousands of others took to the streets, banging pots and pans in protest over the condition of their finances.
Argentina is a republic, the national leadership of which is vested in the president, who from 1995 until 2001 had been elected every four years. The president may succeed himself in office. The Congreso Nacional (National Congress) is composed of a 72-seat Senate, members of which are directly elected to six-year terms, and a 252-seat Chamber of Deputies, whose members are directly elected to four-year terms. The voting age is 18 and voting is compulsory for all Argentines between 18 and 70.