Home to almost half the South American population, Brazil is the obvious trendsetter for the region but comparisons are not so much odious as misleading for those seeking to project last Sunday’s run-off here. President Alberto Fernández might race to São Paulo to congratulate a victorious Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva flaunting a “CFK23” cap yet no mirror of his own future awaited him there. While both veteran pragmatists, the two men operate in very different contexts – with an even slimmer margin than Mauricio Macri in 2015 (1.8 percent as against 2.8 percent), Lula is in hock to a conservative Congress while the Frente de Todos coalition here is hounded by its leftist populist Kirchnerite wing with its executive arm Economy Minister Sergio Massa, whose Brazilian model is far less Lula than his opposite number Fernando Henrique Cardoso as a minister who reached the presidency via stabilising the economy.
Even if there is no lack of Kirchnerite voices portraying ex-president Macri as being just as bad as Brazil’s soon-to-be ex-president Jair Bolsonaro if not worse, the comparisons between the outgoing incumbent’s “beef, Bible and bullets” constituency and the fractious Juntos por el Cambio opposition are even weaker – for example, the homophobic discourse and climate change denial so rife in Bolsonaro’s rhetoric are scarcely to be heard across Argentina’s centre-right rhetoric if they exist at all. While Bolsonaro’s undisputed leadership is surviving defeat intact, the supreme opposition confidence here regarding victory next year has bred a plethora of presidential hopefuls – a quintet of declared competitors at least without counting the dark horses (or Macri).
But perhaps the key difference with Brazil is that while last Sunday’s run-off crowned a convergence towards extreme polarisation, Argentine politics are moving in the opposite direction, thus making next year’s elections rather less of a done deal than opposition hopefuls might fondly imagine. The latter still dwell in a yesteryear when the authoritarian drive of the second Cristina Fernández de Kirchner term against the Judiciary, the media and private property among other targets led directly to the creation of Cambiemos (the original name of the current opposition coalition with the same partners). Yet the she-devil of yore is now a witch of Oz at best and the mantra of demonising her neither guarantees the unity of the opposition nor absolves it from its own errors or the responsibility to construct alternatives. Nor is she replaced in any way by her creation – President Fernández has been criticised for almost everything but who would dream of accusing him of dictatorial tendencies?
Polarisation has become self-destructive with both sides cancelling each other out – the blame game no longer works or rather it works only too well because it leads to voters finding points where both this government and its Macri predecessor might be held responsible for the economic malaise. The two main coalitions are no longer the only alternatives to each other and not even the fragmentation into internal factions serves to cover the field – the government is threatened from the Trotskyist left and the opposition from the libertarian right where people are not totally estranged from politics. But at the same time these challenges feed polarisation because both sides move away from the traditional middle ground of electoral politics to cover these flanks.
A further difference with Brazil is that there is still almost a year to go for our elections in which so much can occur. While last Sunday’s Bolsonaro-Lula run-off was always going to happen from the moment the latter was legally cleared to run 20 months ago, the opposition has too many candidates and the government too few but why the urgency to define? Some like the libertarian Javier Milei have made an early sprint while others like Macri bide their time – the speed with which the former has gained, lost and then regained ground in less than a year points to the volatility of the political scenario.
But in any event the electorate is far less interested in candidates than in finding policy solutions to economic woes, especially the ravages of inflation – if there is crisis amid continuing growth, what happens if that growth stops? Moreover, the demand for solutions is more complex – after the continued failure of short cuts, there is an impatience for structural reforms which require patience. Anything but the either-or propositions of last Sunday’s run-off in Brazil.