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OP-ED | 09-09-2023 05:25

It’s not just the economy, stupid!

In the last general elections in 2019 PASO primary winner Alberto Fernández was seconded by a woman whom nobody underestimated and today’s PASO primary winner Milei is seconded by a woman who perhaps should not be underestimated either.

The economy has never been far away from the top priorities of Argentine voters or the political agenda but more so than ever this year. If the stage is a country now spiralling from treble-digit annual to double-digit monthly inflation with over 40 percent of the population below the poverty line, the cast would only seem to confirm the supremacy of bread-and-butter issues – glancing at the three leading actors, the government’s candidate is its Economy Minister Sergio Massa (even if no economist), libertarian Javier Milei is one of the most obsessive students of the dismal science as well as the most eccentric and Juntos por el Cambio presidential candidate Patricia Bullrich has opted to relaunch a sputtering campaign by recruiting one of the most articulate members of a generally arid profession with the economist Carlos Melconian. With this stage, cast and script, what room could there possibly be for any supporting actors or any other subtext?

Nevertheless, this editorial begs to differ with reference to two events early last week – Monday’s tribute to the victims of terrorism in the City Legislature and Tuesday’s shantytown mass in solidarity with Pope Francis in Barracas, which both shift the campaign elsewhere even if neither escapes keeping the libertarian frontrunner Milei at the centre of attention.

Starting with the latter, the mass represents the Church’s most direct entry into the political arena in several decades (the closest precedent would be the subliminal misgivings which undermined the campaign of 2015 Buenos Aires Province Peronist gubernatorial candidate Aníbal Fernández in alarm over his alleged connivance with drug-trafficking rings but without any electoral smoking gun). It might be argued that the Synod has yet to pass any comment on the election campaign beyond deploring insults and reiterating appeals for dialogue but the slum priests are leapfrogging that level of the hierarchy to reach Pope Francis himself, who echoes their opinions. Not because he is nothing but a Kirchnerite militant constantly meddling in local politics (as belittled by some opposition leaders) but because his role as spiritual leader of a universal church takes him in the same direction, expressing alarm over the rise of a new ultra-right worldwide with Milei only a small part of a broader trend.

Another significance of this mass is a defence of social justice coming from a source which cannot possibly be rubbished by Milei as a “caste” of political hacks protecting vested interests. Milei can dismiss Eva Perón’s maxim of “Where there is a need, a right is born” with the argument that the needs are infinite while the rights can only be implemented with finite funds but Christian notions of social justice date back two millennia, not several decades, and are deeply imbedded in the subconscious of most people with or without formal religious practice.

Yet with all due respect to the Church, human rights have always been more central to the line of journalism this newspaper strives to continue, obliging us to speak out against the Monday event in the City legislature – perhaps not so much the opinions as such in a free country but the institutional venue given them in the 40th anniversary year of democracy.

In the last general elections in 2019 PASO primary winner Alberto Fernández was seconded by a woman whom nobody underestimated and today’s PASO primary winner Milei is seconded by a woman who perhaps should not be underestimated either, even if Victoria Villarruel is not Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Government leaders tend simplistically to dismiss Villarruel as a “denialist” of the horrors of the 1976-1983 military dictatorship but this is not quite accurate – indeed there are clearer examples of denialism in their own ranks among an extreme fringe which either denies guerrilla activity outright or presents it as a heroic defence of democracy, even when against an elected Peronist government. Villarruel never directly denies what used to be called a “dirty war” but pushes for a “complete memory” also including the victims of terrorism (whom she numbers in the thousands when they were hundreds). Rather than denying the mass slaughter, elimination of identity and baby-snatching, her arguments whitewash them – in a war abnormal things are permitted (like obliterating Dresden or Hiroshima) which would never be allowed in peacetime but she would carry that logic one step further by implying that Dresden somehow vindicates Adolf Hitler.

A debate vastly exceeding this space but now injected into the campaign and to be continued. Food for thought even with football and Rugby World Cup distractions.

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