If The Bible tells us that no man can serve two masters, does this also mean that no man can be two masters with Economy Minister Sergio Massa a case in point? Since his confused emergence last weekend as the great white hope of the ruling coalition party (which has abruptly changed both its name and its presidential candidate in the final run-up to defining electoral lists), he has been riding two horses pulling in opposite directions – the minister engrossed in complex negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is pressured to be a reincarnation of Scrooge while a Peronist presidential candidate is expected to be Father Christmas. Nor is there any real chance of dismounting either horse because his resignation as minister would almost certainly trigger an economic chaos leaving the candidate dead in the water, while his battle against inflation would be even more uphill without the political clout conferred by his candidacy.
As if these dilemmas were not enough, Massa has also plunged himself into the much smaller world of Tigre municipal politics on behalf of his wife’s mayoral candidacy (or is this escapism?) but he has his work cut out elsewhere. The solution of buying time until the elections or at least the PASO primaries with IMF frontloading remains elusive – and perhaps not because of any brick wall of IMF intransigent monetarist dogma but because its board is undecided, which could be worse. That board of directors is not a monster but 24 human beings representing multiple national interests and has problems deciding whether Argentina is too big to fail with its US$44-billion debt or whether it is pushing its luck by straying from one deviation of last year’s agreement after another.
Turning to the electoral front, last weekend’s triumphant conquest of the Unión por la Patria presidential candidacy at the expense of Interior Minister Eduardo ‘Wado’ de Pedro (as well as the 2015 candidate Daniel Scioli) was rapidly placed in perspective just two days later by Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. At a ceremony to mark the return of one of the 1976-1983 military dictatorship death flight planes when a dedication to the human rights so sacred to Kirchnerism might have been expected, she had no time for such idealism but proceeded to put Massa (seated at her side) in his place. According to her account, the minister was the candidate by default because her own first choice (herself) was banned by the courts, De Pedro had been vetoed by President Alberto Fernández (whose authority she is not known to respect) and the Peronist governors were insisting on a unity list – although that is not the case at presidential level where social leader Juan Grabois has been installed to keep the Kirchnerite left within Unión por la Patria at least until the PASO primaries. In reality Massa is a win-win situation for the veep because if he somehow prevails, thousands of Kirchnerites save their jobs while if he loses, a chronic rival is destroyed. And should he be the next president, as proclaimed by the current incumbent last Tuesday, Massa will be the hostage of a Congress where a huge majority of the candidates in the major districts (especially Buenos Aires Province) are Kirchnerite. The Plan B of retaining Buenos Aires Province is thus far more central to government strategy than the Plan C of Massa.
While Grabois until PASO and Máximo Kirchner as top Buenos Aires Province candidate for Congress beyond are entrusted with retaining the loyalty of the left, the national strategy has Massa exploring the middle ground as a pro-market voice with strong Washington links. But this is a crowded field with traditional Peronism having its own candidate in outgoing Córdoba Governor Juan Schiaretti while Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta is offering outreach beyond the centre-right. Even the libertarian extremist Javier Milei is in part competing here because he is digging deep into former supporters of the late 1989-1999 president Carlos Menem who might otherwise be attracted by Massa’s brand of Peronism. Just how broad that middle ground is and how big a slice Massa, Schiaretti, Rodríguez Larreta or Milei might claim all remain very much in the air.
Meanwhile Massa is stuck with his contradictory dual role for the next four months unless somebody plucks a rabbit out of the hat (Scioli as economy minister as a consolation prize?). Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown but even more so when it wears two hats with the crown still distant.