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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 24-08-2019 12:18

When turkeys keep voting for Christmas

Democracy works well enough in countries in which most people understand that they share responsibility for the consequences of the choices they make.

It was Joseph de Maistre – the fiercely reactionary Savoyard thinker whose works are still well worth reading – who said that every nation gets the government it deserves. Unless you attribute military weakness to moral failings, or, as with the Poles, you blame people for living in a neighbourhood dominated by belligerently rapacious powers with an eye for plunder, such a judgement may be considered grossly unfair, but there is much to be said for it when, like the Venezuelans and Argentines, no outsider threatens them.

In both countries, the prevailing political culture is hard to square with democracy, a system that requires people to take a demanding approach towards those who aspire to govern them and what they propose to do. How many of the four or five million Venezuelans who have fled their homeland voted for Hugo Chávez and the other individuals who turned it into a disease-ridden, crime-infested and increasingly impoverished charnel house? Do those who did feel just a little bit guilty for their part in the immense tragedy that is unfolding back home or, as seems to be the case, do they console themselves with the thought that they are among the innocent victims of a thuggish regime which has nothing to do with them?

Argentina has yet to plumb the depths that have already been reached by Venezuela, but it would be foolish to deny that her long decline has been, in large measure, due to the behaviour of a large proportion of her inhabitants who, time after time, have enthusiastically put their faith in governments which, to judge by what their leaders had done in the past, would only make things worse.

The main culprits, needless to say, are the many professional politicians who have learned how to thrive on other people’s misfortunes and depend on the gullibility of much of the electorate. By now, more such politicians should have come to the conclusion it would be in their own interest to handle the nation’s affairs with greater efficiency. Have they? There are not many reasons to think so.

Mauricio Macri got clobbered in the phoney election that was held a couple of weeks ago because the economy is in a bad shape. Did that mean people looked for a tougher and presumably more competent alternative? Far from it. As had been predicted by those who warned that, if they favoured the man Cristina Fernández de Kirchner chose to represent her cause, the markets would go berserk, the results made everything far worse. Perhaps Macri and the new finance and treasury minister, Hernán Lacunza, with a modicum of grudging help from Alberto Fernández who plainly has no desire to see the country go under before he moves into the Pink House, will manage to postpone meltdown for a couple of months until the real elections take place, but for the foreseeable future Argentina will remain just hours away from a socioeconomic catastrophe much like the one she suffered just after the 21st century rolled in.

Even if Fernández proves he has it in him to be a far better president than Macri, he will find it all but impossible to win the trust of potential investors from the developed world. As well as sane economic policies, they want legal security – a concept Axel Kicillof, who is well placed to become the next governor of Buenos Aires Province, says is “horrible” – not because they are all law-abiding folk but because they are aware that if they are caught handing out bribes down here, they could be in big trouble in their home countries.

By refusing to take seriously the routinely dishonest practices that characterised the previous Kirchnerite government, the electorate told the world it wants Argentina to be run by some of the most corrupt politicians on the planet, so foreign businessmen would be well advised to give her a wide berth. The sudden decision by certain members of the Judiciary to go easy on corruption charges levelled against notorious Kirchnerites is unlikely to convince them that Argentina is about to go straight. Margaret Thatcher – who won elections thanks to her attachment to austerity, not despite it – once remarked that “the problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.” While the Kirchnerites are, in their slapdash fashion, corporatist conservatives rather than socialists, they too have grown accustomed to depending on “other people’s money”. Unluckily for them, and for almost everyone else, there will be little available of that for a long time to come.

For a while, a new government would try to get away with blaming the shortage of hard cash on Macri, but after a few months the many who take it for granted that the Kirchnerites are about to usher in an age of plenty will start pointing the finger at them. How will Alberto, Cristina and the rest of them react? If experience is anything to go by, they will try to assuage the population with a spot of street theatre by organising huge demos against the IMF – as in similar circumstances a Radical government did – and intimidating critics so they keep their mouths shut. Though such expedients are worse than useless, they would find it hard to resist the temptation to lash out instead of facing facts and calling it a day.

Democracy works well enough in countries in which most people understand that they share responsibility for the consequences of the choices they make. By backing the Kirchnerites despite their unlovely record in office, the electorate – especially the large part of it that lives in the Greater Buenos Aires slum belt – let it be known that it wants more of the kind of policies that have allowed an ever greater number of people to descend into dire poverty.

Is that their fault? Before the advent of Donald Trump and Brexit persuaded them otherwise, paternalists thought it was bad to “blame the victim” by accusing voters of irresponsibility. It often is, but a political culture in which it is assumed that millions of people will always behave, as a British politician once put it, like turkeys voting for Christmas, clearly has much that is wrong with it.

Brazil’s former president, the distinguished sociologist Fernando Henrique Cardoso, must have had something like this in mind when, a couple of days ago, he said that Argentines should only fear themselves. In other words that, as has been painfully evident for about a hundred years, they are their own worst enemies.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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