Spring duly arrived last Tuesday with the official announcement of “the last stage of the pandemic” – the first country to do so within Latin America (despite that region’s puzzling relative immunity from the otherwise universal delta variant). This premature optimism is clearly feelgood electioneering on the part of a government permanently on the prowl for the lost votes of a fortnight ago and was quickly followed by some more concrete incentives – such as upping the income tax floor from a monthly 150,000 to 175,000 pesos or taking the minimum wage beyond 30,000 pesos. Yet there were few signs of a celebratory mood in a country which still has over two million workers jobless despite the 3.5 percent fall in unemployment posted last Thursday and an annual growth rate which could rebound by as much as eight percent this year.
This abrupt U-turn from being talibans of quarantine to approximating the libertarian attitudes now in electoral fashion was premature for reasons other than the continued delta risk – public health is a provincial and local more than federal responsibility under the Argentine constitution while even within the forced optimism of Tuesday’s national announcements, many of the relaxations of restrictions will not come into effect until next month or even November while face-masks did not vanish overnight. Meanwhile elsewhere in the world there are various cautionary tales. The United States declared independence from coronavirus on its July 4 Independence Day, only to enter into deep trouble as from the end of the same month with the Spanish flu death toll of 675,000 from a century ago overtaken in the past week. Israel with 60 percent of its population fully vaccinated and daily coronavirus cases barely in three digit made face-masks voluntary outdoors in April and indoors in June, only to have this month’s daily cases topping 20,000. Some countries are almost back to normal while many others are experiencing an uncertainty which is the only honest analysis for Argentina – an uncertainty so total that we might even be in “the last stage of the pandemic.”
Uncertainty would also be the word for the electoral prospects of what can only be described as a provisional government formed in the wake of this month’s shattering PASO primary defeat. While the ministerial shuffle leaves the Cabinet chief as firmly within the presidential orbit as ever instead of shifting the post to the wings of either Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner or Lower House Speaker Sergio Massa (Juan Mansur as Tucumán governor anointed Alberto Fernández as the new head of the Peronist movement from the start of his presidency), the continuity is more apparent than real because there could hardly be a greater contrast of styles than between the hyperactive Mansur and his passive predecessor Santiago Cafiero. Are the other wings of the Frente de Todos coalition yielding to the experience of more traditional Peronist veterans or are they merely trying to dodge the blame for an expected midterm defeat? And if the latter is the case, might not their own interests be better served by a setback than a triumph?
The answer to these questions will largely lie in the outcome of November voting. Apart from the efforts of Mansur and the lavish distribution of electoral goodies, any government optimism would largely depend on the hope that the opposition peaked in the PASO primary while their vote bottomed out and can only rise, much like the economy since last year. But everybody loves a winner and nothing succeeds like success, as they say, and the stigma of defeat runs deep. Quite aside from the numerous voters who did not come out for Frente de Todos when they were supposedly on top being even less motivated now, there are signs of erstwhile satellites of the ruling coalition shifting orbit – small but significant details like the trial of illegal espionage under the Mauricio Macri administration moving closer to being quashed among other changing judicial tides, “third way” mentor Roberto Lavagna becoming more critical and the hitherto ultra-loyalist Santiago del Estero Governor Gerardo Zamora now edging much closer to the farming sector.
Yet uncertainty remains the operative word on all fronts. All options are still open for the November midterms – Frente de Todos could still win or suffer an even worse defeat or the outcome could be much like the last elections when Macri halved the PASO margin against him. And the uncertainty as to any last word on the coronavirus pandemic is just as great.