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OP-ED | 15-07-2023 06:53

A parlous parliament

Congress might be virtually ignored in this election campaign and yet its pivotal role should not be underestimated by any of the presidential candidates.

If slumping productivity is often given a central role in Argentina’s decline, its Congress would take some beating as a frontrunner on that score – a fact now brought to attention by the deplorable failure of the Senate in midweek to extend its 2023 sessions beyond one last April. Or to express it in the more mathematical terms of productivity, 72 people are being paid some six million pesos each (plus expenses) to work just once a year. The ballots being printed for this year’s election extend to yards of paper due to the multiple lists for Congress seats far more than to the relatively minute space required by the 13 presidential hopefuls and their running-mates yet the latter are commanding virtually all the attention.

Two alternative reactions might logically be expected to such a dysfunctional branch of government – either to clamour for it to be shut down altogether or to seek an end to this crisis of representation in order to give the people their institutional voice for a better balance of political power – but neither is really happening due to sheer inattention. Most people equate the state with the executive branch of government as the exclusive source of all rights and wrongs while the previously abstract judicial branch has increasingly fallen under the spotlight in the past decade – not so much because of its exasperatingly slow (almost dysfunctional) performance as the obsessions of Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, whose constant bids to impose a judicial agenda on the Senate were a central factor in the collapse of the latest session since a bid to renew a friendly judge beyond her shelf life led to a denial of quorum. Yet that third branch of government supposedly closest to the people hardly enters their radar in days when the ‘blue dollar’ tops 500 pesos.

Apart from the failure of last Wednesday’s Senate session, Congress has recently received more attention than usual with the controversy around the sale of candidacies within Javier Milei’s libertarian camp. Indignant reactions to this privatisation of public office are natural and yet beg certain questions about campaign financing which Milei is posing in his provocative way – indeed so openly that it is less a question of a scandal being exposed, as often presented, as his insistence on political candidacies being submitted to the laws of the market like everything else (including human organs) belatedly coming to light. His proposals are clearly outrageous and yet from what kind of house are his critics throwing stones? The current state financing of the electoral process sees the hapless taxpayer footing the bill for a gridlocked Congress which cannot be bothered to session most of the time. And apart from that, how transparent is the campaign financing in the mainstream parties with the insidious penetration of vested interests and lobbies both before and after elections? Milei’s proposal of self-financing campaigns might simplify the job of lobbyists (or perhaps put them out of work altogether) but their influence is already pervasive enough.

Congress might be virtually ignored in this election campaign and yet its pivotal role should not be underestimated by any of the presidential candidates (perhaps least of all by Milei and others proposing drastic changes). Curiously enough, one of the few politicians giving the legislative branch priority over the executive is Fernández de Kirchner who has abdicated the presidential candidacy to two politicians from other wings of the ruling Frente de Todos/Unión por la Patria coalition (Economy Minister Sergio Massa and Cabinet Chief Agustín Rossi) while stacking the Congress lists with her faithful in order to maximise the parliamentary obstruction of structural reforms (whether by the opposition or her own party). Even if that strategy has limited success, an ambitious reform programme will require not only guts (the central message of one leading presidential hopeful) but solid parliamentary majorities, a remote prospect with 175 of the 329 members of the two houses of Congress not up for renewal and increasing cracks in the two main coalitions with a vicious circle of fragmentation and the abstention of a disenchanted electorate feeding each other. Milei has proposed referenda as a way around parliamentary deadlock but an ambitious reform platform would require a frequency not seen in Switzerland – and this country is not Switzerland in this and many other respects.

Questions for the future government but in the here and now all the ordinary voter can do is take a much harder look at who is running for Congress and not just the Casa Rosada.             

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