Tuesday, December 10, 2019
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OP-ED | 23-11-2019 13:54

Call no country stable

The potential difficulties of President-elect Alberto Fernández go far beyond picking a Cabinet (the main focus of media speculation in the past week) but as if these were not enough on the domestic front, events elsewhere in the region are raising the bar even higher.

Fernández does enjoy the advantage of a relatively strong electoral mandate after winning by several points in the first round, rather than by a couple of points in the run-off like the man he will succeed (even if not sufficing for an overall parliamentary majority), but that mandate has also been conditioned from the very start by the unique circumstance of being the only presidential candidate to be nominated by his running-mate rather than the other way round.

But even more challenging than this and other political complexities are the formidable economic problems lying ahead such as debt overhang and a spiral of negative growth which no forecast expects to be broken in the first year of the new presidency at least. Yet just to stretch the odds even further, recent events from elsewhere in the region would suggest that even if the Alberto Fernández Presidency can achieve the miracle of being an economic success story, it may not be enough.

The growth rate is generally regarded as the bottom line in economics and there can be no doubt that disenchantment with almost two years of recession and stagflation under the Mauricio Macri administration contributed more to the change of presidency here than the Frente de Todos campaign platform. If we compare with growth rates around the region, Argentina’s negative growth this year is estimated at three percent or more with minus 1.3 percent forecast for 2020. Now Chile and Bolivia both grew four percent last year (as against a 2.6 percent contraction here) while Colombia grew 2.7 percent with 3.4 percent projected for this year. Nor is such growth a flash in the pan or a cyclical upswing but goes back many years – Chile’s economic miracle started three decades ago, Colombia has been enjoying peace dividends for several years now and the Bolivian economy has quadrupled since 2005. And yet all three countries are in turmoil today.

Alberto Fernández will have his work cut out to return his country to that growth path which offers no guarantee of stability in neighbouring countries (although he has not failed yet) but at least he has in his pocket almost 13 million votes from last month’s general elections. In this respect he enjoys a clear advantage over future colleagues – Colombian President Iván Duque’s approval ratings are below 30 percent and Chilean President Sebastián Piñera’s below 20 percent while Evo Morales cannot even remain in Bolivia – but the outburst of protests across Colombia in the last couple of days shows that thousands in the streets can do more to shape the news and define a country’s image than millions of votes or any macro-economic indicators. And given the rise of the picket movement in Argentina to become one of the powers that be, the inherent sense of entitlement of many Argentines and the expectations which Alberto Fernández himself created in the election campaign, the future president’s chances of immunity from the protests now raging in much of South America look slim indeed.

Political success is no longer a question of winning elections and presiding over economic growth (if indeed it ever was). No space here for a full analysis of the causes of current unrest in this subcontinent but economic growth clearly is not everything – the pricing of public services (including education and health) is clearly a major factor in most of these countries and the prominence of students in Chile and Colombia should draw more attention to the worldwide problem of youth unemployment. Cause for concern indeed but all this still lies ahead – for now Alberto Fernández should enjoy his honeymoon while it lasts and be encouraged in what he is already doing to ensure a smooth transition next month, by no means a minor detail in Argentine history.

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