Most things don’t work when they are taken out of context. This may one of the truisms of the long electoral year that is about to begin in Argentina and which, unless something very unexpected happens, will have its climax on November 24 with the election of a new president in a second round.
Roberto Lavagna was not in the contextual framework of Argentine politics this year. Widely credited within the establishment as a predictable yet pragmatic, moderate economist, one who steered the country out of the debt default debacle of 2001-2002, Lavagna hits exactly the opposite key to the one Argentines have been hearing over the last decade.
The man was retired from politics to the eye of the larger public. His last great act happened in 2007, when he took a shot at the presidency and came in third behind the first-round winner, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and Elisa Carrió.
Lavagna bagged 3.2 million votes, or 16.9 percent. Fernández de Kirchner, however, went on to be the dominant figure of Argentine politics over the coming decade. Carrió faced political extinction after getting a mere 1.8 percent of the votes in the following presidential turn in 2011, but has since staged an unforeseen comeback to become one of President Mauricio Macri’s main allies. In contrast, Argentines had barely heard of Lavagna again since then.
Only Lavagna did not totally retire. A couple of electoral seasons ago he was a satellite to the rising (and now declining) star of Sergio Massa. Over the last few months, word has started to circulate in the corridors of power that Lavagna was considering a comeback, holding meetings here and there, yet all the while away from the limelight. The exact opposite approach to his former protégé Massa, who prefers overdoing US political marketing practices in his public appearances, Lavagna got himself photographed in white socks and sandals outside his summer home in the coastal hamlet of Cariló, standing next to the Peronist leader of the Senate, Miguel Ángel Pichetto, the closest there is to a Frank Underwood in local politics.
Although on March 24 Lavagna will turn 77, his date of birth or doddering style is not an issue per se. The real question is whether his promise of a “proposal for national unity” – the only four words he has uttered in public these weeks – passes the acid test of the political moment that dominates Argentina and Western democracy overall.
The chaos engulfing Venezuela this week is only the latest extreme testimony of recurring polarisation, which in shades of grades is happening across the Americas and Europe. The public seems to enjoy receiving simple solutions to complex issues, coming from populists from right and left – or perhaps politicians simply have nothing new to offer them. Chicken or egg, the outcome is the same.
In any case, Argentina is no anomaly to the trend. Of the three promises President Macri made when he ran for office in 2015, he’s arguably made progress on one (fighting drugtrafficking) and little to no progress on another (reducing poverty). But most notably he has shed ground, almost intentionally, on the third: uniting Argentines.
The president and his political marketing team feel comfortable fuelling a political crack (described in local jargon as grieta) with Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. This is what Macri’s PRO party has done since it was founded in 2003. It was originally called Commitment for Change, lest we forget. It is not easy to right childhood wrongs.
The context also helps Fernández de Kirchner and her followers, whose three-term administration was politically grounded on polarising against anything that smelled of the establishment. Macri and his pro-market reform drive, gradual at first and more accelerated now that he is under financial stress, is the perfect antagonist for someone whose main political drive is to stay politically alive, win or lose.
In this context, the window for Lavagna’s strategy seems, at first glance, out of sight. Pundits pondering his prospects point to the fact that, unlike his potential rivals, he scores low rejection ratings in the polls. That’s understandable: voters do not have him in their radars. But such an asset might quickly turn into a liability if those voters are driven by anger or hatred rather than calm and rationality.
At the end of the day, they might feel a sock rather than a sword-wielding, candidate like Lavagna might be too full of the milk of human kindness to put up a real fight.