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OP-ED | 02-09-2023 06:17

Whither the plan, any plan?

The disintegration of Sergio Massa’s electioneering package would seem to confirm that we are now in the embers of the current government but does the problem end there?

This election year is now entering into its final third when all four months end in the suffix “ember” and the rapid disintegration of ruling coalition presidential candidate Sergio Massa’s electioneering package (abusing his parallel role as Economy minister) would seem to confirm that we are now in the embers of the current government but does the problem end there?

Massa’s crudely self-seeking combo of wage and pension bonuses, price freezes, tax breaks, etc. with their only common denominator a crass bribery of voters to boost his precarious electoral chances can in no way be considered a serious economic plan and merits every criticism – it may even be electorally counterproductive if it speeds runaway inflation via the money printed to cover a bigger fiscal deficit (even if much of the financing comes from dipping hands into other pockets).

But the real question here is not the struggle to make this plan stick but the governance problems lying ahead for even the best-laid plans in the current climate. The electorate craves stability amid mounting currency chaos but that stability becomes synonymous with austerity once sought and there must be serious doubts whether any of the trio of presidential candidates emerging from the three-way split of last month’s PASO primaries will have the necessary clout.

Libertarian Javier Milei is riding high with momentum from his stunning PASO victory – the two otherwise polarised preceding presidents, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Mauricio Macri, seem uniquely united in a bizarre consensus of desiring his triumph with varying degrees of secrecy and for entirely opposite reasons (the latter because the Milei bandwagon could clinch permanent structural reforms and the former because the government of a political amateur lacking any party machine would collapse much faster), thus metaphorically passing the presidential baton to Milei. Yet the charismatic economist would be stranded in Congress while his nationwide pull consists entirely of inland protest votes without any control of provincial governments. His two rivals from the two main coalitions, Massa and Patricia Bullrich, enjoy far more structure but both face an acute crisis of representation.

Anyway all that lies ahead – this is now and there must be growing concern whether this government will be able to make the same relatively smooth transfer of power to its successor as the also crisis-stricken Macri administration four years ago. Somebody must possess the power in order to transfer it and this week’s hitches in Massa’s electioneering plan create doubts as to whether there is any such person. President Alberto Fernández vanished from the helm early this year while Vice-President Fernández de Kirchner effectively abdicated just over two months ago when she could not sustain the presidential candidacy of Interior Minister Eduardo ‘Wado’ de Pedro for more than a day (even if last weekend’s remake of the 2021 “plan platita” carries all the fingerprints of her free-spending populism). And now, badly battered by the third place for the Unión por la Patria ruling coalition in last month’s PASO primary, Massa’s authority looks to be in free fall.

Massa, a supremely pragmatic politician, must surely have been expecting hostility from some of the pockets into which he was dipping to improve his electoral chances such as the private-sector companies abruptly required to grant a fixed-sum wage bonus of 60,000 pesos just when they are being hit by recession or prepaid health schemes slapped with frozen fees amid spiralling medical costs – what seems to have knocked the minister off balance is the stiffest resistance coming from within, spearheaded by Peronist governors (including his 2015 presidential running-mate, Salta’s Gustavo Sáenz). Comfortably re-elected earlier this year, these governors had already pulled the rug from under his feet in last month’s PASO primaries (as did Greater Buenos Aires mayors, as openly stated this week by Buenos Aires Province Security Minister Sergio Berni) and are now hammering more nails into his coffin.

The election campaign only commences officially today but there seem to be equally good reasons to conclude that it is over before it has started or that it has not even begun to begin. If a week was a long time in politics for Harold Wilson in the Britain of half a century ago with its constitutional monarchy and two-party parliamentary system, seven weeks until the election day of October 22 in the volatile Argentina of today must seem an eternity – from here to eternity and beyond.  

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