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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 14-09-2019 00:44

Alberto is already in the hot seat

In Argentina, politics and economics parted company at least half a century ago. This is why her performance in the latter department has long been worse than that of just about any other non-Communist country in the world.

The social justice warriors who get their followers to pitch tents in the middle of town, battle police and harangue bourgeois shoppers by telling them about their many grievances have rather more in mind than the desire to speed Mauricio Macri’s “neoliberal” regime on its way into the wilderness.

Their main target is his probable successor as president, Alberto Fernández. They have good reason to fear that, once in office, he will turn out to be every bit as “neoliberal” as Macri or, given the circumstances, even more so, and are warning him against straying from what they think should be the party line which, broadly speaking, is that just about everyone is entitled to a generous handout. And that anyone who says otherwise is a wretched reactionary who deserves to be dragged before a people’s court and severely punished for his or her ideological sins.

With elections over a month away, Alberto is still trying to be all things to all men (and women). He wants businessmen to think he will make life easier for them by adopting sane economic policies and tells the International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan sharks that Argentina will pay off all her debts after talking things over with the creditors, while going on about his determination to make hard-pressed workers and needy pensioners happy by filling their threadbare pockets with crisp banknotes.

Not surprisingly, his optimistic campaign promises have many worried. Those who are convinced that Argentina could soon be devastated by a hyperinflationary firestorm think he will have set one off by going on a spending spree, while the activists who rather like that particular idea suspect he will do whatever it takes to prevent prices from going through the roof and that, among other unpleasant things, he will slash the welfare funding they depend on.

The folk who sporadically camp out in the centre of Buenos Aires contrived to wheedle large sums of money from the Macri administration, which spent far more on handouts in a vain attempt to appease them than the Peronists ever did, and have good reason to fear that with Alberto and his godmother, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, in charge, a new government would let its political operators decide who gets what, thereby depriving community organisers of what for them had been a much-prized source of income.

Mauricio and his teammates have yet to recover from the hammering they got on August 11 when the electorate made the most of a chance to tell them to get lost, but after winning the poll by an apparently insuperable margin, Alberto too found himself in serious difficulties. If he lets it be known he is all for a full-blown Kirchnerite upheaval, the dreaded markets will see to it that he takes over a riot-prone country which is flat broke; should he insist he will do his utmost to play by the rules, his wilder supporters could rise up against him even before he has had time to don the presidential sash and be given the other symbols of high office.

Like Macri before him, Fernández must continually choose between politics and economics. If he favours one, the other will waste no time in showing him he made an unforgivably bad mistake. Macri has been berated even by his own supporters for his reluctance to appreciate that people would not stand for all those utility rate increases and other measures that reduced their purchasing power, but had he made keeping consumption up his priority, the economic situation would be even grimmer than it now is.

In Argentina, politics and economics parted company at least half a century ago. This is why her performance in the latter department has long been worse than that of just about any other non-Communist country in the world. Before getting elected, presidential hopefuls swear they will manage to bring the two together thanks to a “national agreement” with politicians of various stripes, business lobbyists, trade unionists and religious hierarchs all promising to be good. Such corporatist arrangements have always proved useless. For a time, Carlos Menem seemed to have come up with a solution to the problem by having the peso hitch a ride on the US dollar, but, alas, after several years the scheme unravelled in a truly spectacular fashion. Will Alberto fare any better than his predecessors? It already looks most unlikely; even before getting sworn in, the troubles facing him have started to mount.

To have any chance of surviving, let alone of making a success of the job Cristina told him to apply for, he would have to persuade more than half of the population that hard times are likely to last for several years at the very least and, as there is nothing much he or anyone else will be able to do to change this, it would be better if they all kept their mouths shut and soldiered on. Alberto may well be prepared to give such an unappealing policy a try, but by furtively hinting that he has few illusions about the country’s immediate economic future, he has already angered people who belong to what in theory is his “base”: the Kirchnerite faithful and their allegedly left-wing allies who blame everything they dislike on Macri, a man they insist is a multimillionaire who hates the poor, and the heartless “neoliberals” who surround him.

No matter how many concessions a future president Alberto Fernández makes in an attempt to buy off such malcontents, they will continue to demand a great deal more. They are at war not so much with any identifiable political movement or social class as with the sad fact that Argentina is far poorer than they are willing to acknowledge.

This suggests that, unless somehow or other the country becomes extraordinarily rich in the next few months, the people currently hurling insults at “the dictator Macri” will continue to do all they can to demolish the government of his presumptive successor which – whether it likes it or not – will end up by depending on people who have noticed that, despite its many imperfections, liberal capitalism as practised in all the developed countries is the only economic system that actually works. In other words, along with the presidency, Alberto is in line to inherit the role that Mauricio has been playing for almost four years. And, like him, he will have to rely on the goodwill of many who are clinging to the edge of a once substantial but now much-shrunken middle class as well, needless to say, as the small but, in a behind-the-scenes way, still influential upper class.

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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