Wednesday, December 1, 2021
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OP-ED | 20-02-2021 06:08

Menem: A man of his times – and ours

Despite his passing, Carlos Menem’s spirit remains very much around, in both the current government and the country as a whole.

Ex-president Carlos Menem’s death last weekend already seems a long time ago within this week, while his presidency in another century and another millennium is an ever more distant memory. And yet his spirit (if politicians can be said to have one) remains very much around in both the current government and the country as a whole. Although the ideological disparity between these two brands of Peronism could hardly be more extreme, and although the differences go beyond mere rhetoric to be reflected in sharply contrasting economic policy approaches between the privatisations of the neo-conservative Menem and the increasingly heavy-handed state intervention of Frente de Todos today, this antagonism is deceptive – as can perhaps be seen in the number of politicians (and voters) overlapping between the two regimes.

The privatisations under Menem and the crony capitalism of the Kirchners might differ sharply but both have a common denominator as means towards the end of funding political machines – kickbacks from state asset sales in the case of the former and back-feeding overpriced public works contracts by various mechanisms in the latter. In both cases corruption rears its ugly head and introduces the Judiciary into politics – a shared problem towards which the reactions of the contrasting ideologies have much in common. Various members of the current government would envy Senator Menem’s ability to elude any binding sentence in the last 15 years of his life as a parliamentarian. Menem’s institutionally cavalier move in packing the Supreme Court from five to nine justices almost overnight in 1990 is something many Frente de Todos leaders would dearly love to emulate while not so secretly hoping that they can win this year’s midterms (whenever these might be) with a big enough margin to reshape the institutional architecture in a constitutional reform, like Menem in 1994.

The late Néstor Kirchner could be described as an involuntary heir of Menem inasmuch as his slush funding was kick-started by the gift of half-a-billion dollars in oil royalties from Menem’s 1992 YPF privatisation, while he reached the presidency via Menem and his former vice-president Eduardo Duhalde cancelling each other out by thwarting each other’s presidential aspirations in 1999 and 2003. And if the two Peronists moved in different directions, this was also because both were men of their times – Menem in the world of the Washington Consensus and Kirchner part of the 21st century socialism of a predominantly centre-left region.

Nevertheless, the two departed ex-presidents were a long way from being identical twins for reasons other than the very considerable difference in height, and nor can the Menem presidencies be effortlessly twinned with the current government. Menem was, above all, a man of action who always charged ahead regardless of the consequences whereas today the ongoing debate about postponing the primaries is yet another example of what President Alberto Fernández does best – procrastination. Yet while charting the general course, Menem was also only too happy to delegate vast areas of administration, showing a minimal interest in the nuts and bolts of governance – so much so that he is often remembered today for his “pizza and champagne” frivolity more than anything else. In contrast, Fernández is a remarkably hands-on president (even more remarkable when considering his lack of a personal power base) who likes to be at the centre of decision-making even when lacking the last word – his style is a curious mix of dictating the political agenda while dropping the ball into other courts.

Beyond the leaders, the Frente Justicialista de Unidad Popular (the official name of Menem’s winning ticket in 1989) and Frente de Todos are structurally different. The latter is very much a coalition government under the single label with its partners embedded in the structure and the Kirchner surname located beyond the presidency. Menem indisputably headed an ultra-presidential democracy with allies such as Alvaro Alsogaray moving in orbit as clearly external figures.

For all Peronists elections have almost always been the overwhelming priority and now is no exception with the timing in question. Public health is the excuse here – around half the world’s countries have voted in the past year with the pandemic neither better nor worse subsequently. The real doubt lies in trying to calculate whether it is better to vote sooner before price controls outrun their shelf life with credit on a short fuse or later with more vaccinations, more economic recovery and more commodity price windfalls bolstering reserves. Whatever the decision, we can be sure that it would have been quicker under Menem.            

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