President Mauricio Macri defends his questionable record on poverty saying that many Argentines were living “in the poo,” because they had no sewers before. A man takes a picture of former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner on a plane and her followers publish his postal address for protesters to go after him. Congresswoman Elisa Carrió campaigns in Santa Fe, calling a gubernatorial candidate a ‘narco’ boss and in Córdoba celebrates the recent death of a former governor in a car crash . Former domestic trade secretary Guillermo Moreno says in a rally that it is OK to be corrupt, as long as you are subtle about it.
Argentina’s political system is never very civilised, but the grotesque becomes more visible when the country’s economy begins to spiral down into crisis, as seems to be the case now. Politicos have a reason to be losing their nerve: they will, through June 22, be jockeying for position until the final slates with the candidacies for this year’s general elections are drafted.
But they might also be playing with fire. At the pace events are moving, late June looks like the distant future and, all of a sudden, instead of debating who can provide Argentines with a better life, everyone is looking around to find culprits for the current crisis.
In a historical perspective, Macri is about to muster an outstanding political feat: to be the first non-Peronist president to complete an elected term in almost a century (the last was Marcelo T. de Alvear, back in 1928). That, per se, places him in history books. Unfortunately, market operatives do not care much for history. Neither do the larger part of the public, who is struggling to make ends meet because of untamable inflation and rising unemployment.
Politics is cruel. The business establishment – which once hailed Macri as the country’s anti-populist hero – is now voicing out in the open its concerns about his electoral prospects, as they begin fear a comeback by Fernández de Kirchner, a state of affairs that was, until recently, unthinkable. And, as business leaders tend to do when they stick their nose into politics, they want magic.
Their latest ‘spell’ is María Eugenia Vidal, the governor of Buenos Aires Province, where almost 40 percent of Argentines live – and vote. Throughout Macri’s presidency, Vidal has retained approval ratings that are consistently higher than the president’s by some 10 or so percentage points. Businesspeople, who likely get rich because they are good with simple numbers, do their quick math: if Fernández de Kirchner beats Macri by nine points, according to some recent polls, and Vidal is 10 percentage points ahead of Macri, then the governor would beat the former president by at least one point. But in politics, two plus two does not always make four.
Let’s look at history, once again. No Buenos Aires province governor has ever won a presidential election. A few have tried, with fair chances: Eduardo Duhalde lost to Fernando de la Rúa in 1999; and Daniel Scioli to Macri in 2015. Both were, at one point, the favourite in their races. Why would the incumbent governor be a first?
Vidal has been the rising star of Argentina politics since she scored an upset win in the 2015 gubernatorial election that largely catapulted Macri to the Casa Rosada. On Tuesday she gave an hour-long speech before the entire business establishment detailing her administration’s work in the province, but the business big shots were only interested in the one question that came up repeatedly and stubbornly in the Q&A session: will you run for president?
She said no. Macri has also said she would say no (and said it again this week). On Thursday Buenos Aires Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta also said no. The ruling party repeats in chorus there is no Plan B, or Plan V, and that Macri will run, no matter how many pesos you need to buy a greenback come June. And the president may be right here, even if he ends up losing. Exiting the race in the last minute because economic quagmire could lead to eventual defeat would also be a blow for Vidal, or any other member of his team who could step into his position.
The country’s sad reality is more complex than a candidacy, though. There is no magic spell that to be cast in this exhausting electoral year, be it by the government or the opposition. The current debt/currency crisis started exactly a year ago this week. Back then, you only needed 20 pesos to acquire a US dollar. In the process, inflation has racked up over 50 percent, poverty and unemployment have gone up, the government signed an agreement with the International Monetary Fund and then redesigned it a few months later.
No matter who wins the election, the future does not look bright right now: a debt crisis looms and trust does not abound. Will the leadership be up to the challenge?