At the start of this month outgoing British prime minister Boris Johnson had lost the support even of his own party while here President Alberto Fernández is long past his shelf life in the eyes of most of the country, starting with his own vice-president – how can it be then that the former is on his way out while the other hangs on? The simplest answer to that question lies in the difference between parliamentary and presidential democracy. Whereas the former system offers the flexibility of a vote of no confidence at any time (usually anticipated), the Argentine presidency has a rigid expiry date – December 10, 2023.
Since most analysts seem agreed that the ongoing crisis is as much political as economic, it might well be worth looking for ways around this constitutional barrier but this could be a question of not so much looking beyond as into the current Constitution. Its original design back in 1994 contemplated something approximating the British solution although the model was far more the other side of the English Channel – i.e. the creation of a Cabinet chief envisaged as akin to the French premier representing the legislative majority under the president winning the last general elections, not necessarily from the same party (it should be borne in mind that while the Constitution was being written in 1994, the French president was the Socialist François Mitterrand while the premier was the Gaullist Edouard Balladur). This stillborn function was ignored from the start by then President Carlos Menem who simply promoted his presidential chief-of-staff Eduardo Bauzá to the post, followed by the even more mediocre Jorge Rodríguez and so on through to the current Cabinet chief Juan Manzur, in full retreat from the national scene with one foot back in Tucumán where he is the governor on leave.
Should Manzur complete that retreat or be otherwise removed from that post, his replacement would not necessarily come from government ranks. Against a backdrop of Peronist voices hinting with varying degrees of clarity that the quest for consensus would imply an opposition role beyond mere dialogue (voices not limited to the moderate wing of the ruling coalition or Congress Speaker Sergio Massa but also including Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof and Interior Minister Eduardo “Wado” de Pedro), at least one Peronist constitutional expert has explicitly proposed an opposition Cabinet chief as the key to making Argentina governable.
An Argentine Balladur at this point in time is going to be a hard sell in most spheres. If Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner memorably said at the start of the year that “the pandemic of Mauricio Macri” was worse than coronavirus (at a time the Covid-19 death toll was closing in on 120,000), how could her camp possibly believe that the people causing the main problems might offer any solution? Horror at that prospect might encourage Massa to revive his ambitions of pioneering an omnipotent version of Cabinet chief but the dissident Peronist has done enough in the past to puncture Kirchnerism to be still lacking full trust. Opposition resistance to any invitation goes beyond a natural reluctance to be stuck with responsibility for an escalating crisis – even with the best will in the world to salvage President Fernández, they still lack consensus within their own ranks as to any constructive alternative and nor is there likely to be any definition ahead of their candidacies being defined next year.
Complex as any political solution might be, finding economic answers looks even more uphill. The classic Kirchnerite formula has always been to throw money at problems yet the big snag here is that they are no longer throwing money but bits of paper – with zero credit abroad and with scant margin to increase the tax burden, there seems little alternative to go on printing. Instead of an excess of pesos, the government keeps insisting that the problem is a lack of dollars when they abound in security boxes, tons of grain or stashed abroad. The anxiety to shed the worthless paper has also led to substantial consumer-led growth in the first half of the year at least (Argentina is back to “Chinese growth rates,” given China’s current slowdown) and this along with the record exports and the postponed foreign debt convinces the government that this crisis is irrational panic. Ahead of any consensus, never mind cohabitation, a common language and premises are needed.