Nobody knows what, if anything apart from his own personal welfare, Alberto Fernández really believes in. To judge from his increasingly off-key public utterances, the man himself is as bewildered as the rest of us. If he said what just about everyone, including Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, thinks he said and, should the electorate give him a second term in office, would make putting an end to 20 years of Kirchnerism his top priority, he now sees himself as an anti-populist mole who is determined to undermine the political movement he helped build when he was Néstor Kirchner’s most trusted advisor.
That would make sense. Before becoming president, Alberto regularly appeared on television programmes to which he was invited because he could be relied on to subject the then-president Cristina to some extraordinarily harsh criticism, treating her as a malignant money-grubbing lunatic who was causing immense harm to the country. A born cynic, he should have realised that, by offering him the keys to the Pink House because he would be likely to win quite a few votes from people who greatly disliked her, she was taking him prisoner and would immediately force him to grovel before her. In what presumably was an effort to placate her, he dutifully obliged, but only succeeded in making her despise him even more.
To the disappointment of many, for over three years Alberto made no significant attempt to extricate himself from the trap he had cheerfully walked into, but it would seem that, with elections approaching, he has finally understood that Cristina will never forgive him for insulting her when he thought it was in his interest to do so and that the time has finally come for him to audition for a different role, one which would allow him to attribute his unimpressive performance in office to a woman who wanted to see him “twist slowly, twist slowly in the wind” like a man who had been hanged, as one of Richard Nixon’s aides famously described the fate he had in mind for an ambitious individual he disliked.
While Alberto has certainly done much to weaken the Kirchnerite hold on the country, he has not lacked for helpers, men and women who, by their attachment to inflationary policies and their willingness to turn a blind eye to street crime, have cost their political faction the support of a considerable chunk of the electorate. Though it is still backed by most of the semi-literate poor, as yet there are not enough of them to enable the Peronist coalition the Kirchnerites dominate to beat their main rivals on polling day unless the excitable “libertarian” Javier Milei deprives the opposition Juntos por el Cambio candidates of the votes they would need in order to prevail. In a three-horse race, with a gaggle of no-hopers making things a bit more complicated, the Kirchnerites and their fellow Peronists could still surprise those who have been writing their political obituaries.
Kirchnerism has survived for 20 years because its leaders, especially Cristina, succeeded in tapping into the bitter resentment much of the population feels towards those who are better off. For well over a century, politicians have been winning elections by telling people that a self-regarding establishment, with links to sinister foreign speculators, had deprived common folk of their rightful share of the wealth available in an enviably rich country. For many millions of Argentines, this has always been perfectly obvious and to dispute it is considered heretical by Roman Catholic clerics, most would-be intellectuals, large numbers of Radicals and, of course, almost all Peronists.
Argentina is far from being the only country in which the politics of resentment have played a major role. Movements based on them are currently making waves not just in the rest of Latin America, but also in the United States, Canada, and much of Europe. However, in the richer parts of the world, an awareness that just about everybody would benefit from policies allowing the productive to make piles of money has loosened the stranglehold on the population a hearty dislike of those apparently rolling in money would otherwise have. Here, this has not happened.
Like Peronism, of which it is a sub-variant, Kirchnerism manages to profit from its own failures. By generating inflation, it intensifies the resentment of the have-nots when they see others doing fairly well and encourages them to blame a shrinking minority for what is happening to them. In a more rational universe, by now the inhabitants of the huge shantytowns surrounding the Federal Capital and other big cities would hate those responsible for condemning them to a lifetime of poverty. Instead, they cling to them as though they were their saviours.
Many Peronists expect their candidates to be massacred in the elections scheduled for next October. For some, this means that, before trying to make a comeback, they should do their best to rethink the policies which have done so much damage to the country. There are even those who, like Miguel Ángel Pichetto four years ago, are weighing the pros and cons of joining forces with the ancestral enemy, but there are also others, among them leading Kirchnerites, who are already preparing themselves for a counter-offensive in which they will have a plentiful supply of their most effective weapon, the visceral distrust so many feel towards anything connected with the prosperous bourgeoisie and successful businessmen which, as far as they are concerned, are represented with almost comical precision by Mauricio Macri.
Opposition leaders are not exaggerating when they accuse the government of putting together an economic bomb timed to explode when they are in office. Whether deliberately or because they know no better, this is what Economy Minister Sergio Massa and other members of the government are up to though, of late, some must have suspected they could get the timing wrong and the thing could go off before they have moved out. This may happen, but even so, the best placed to take advantage of the painful aftermath would not be those who are currently in opposition but the people whose aim in life is to ensure that Argentina never enjoys the prosperity that many other countries now take for granted.