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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 06-03-2021 08:28

Alberto on the psychiatrist’s couch

Is Alberto his own man or just a dutiful servant who is willing to go to any extreme to ingratiate himself with an employer who has plenty of good reasons to despise him?

Everything President Alberto Fernández says is eagerly sifted through by people who are far more interested in seeing how his relationship with Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is getting on than in what he intends to do to prevent what is left of the economy from falling over a cliff, overhaul a notoriously sluggish judicial system and reduce the harm done by the pandemic which, pessimists warn, could get far worse as colder weather creeps nearer and more people stay indoors. Alberto’s personal psychodrama and Cristina’s hold over him may make a fascinating story, but most of the country’s population is getting tired of it because it has other things to worry about.

After over a year-and-a-half of wondering what Alberto feels about Cristina, and what she feels about him, those who are interested in Argentina’s tangled politics still find it hard to come up with a clear answer to the questions they have been asking ever since the lady made the man (who until a few days earlier had treated her with outspoken contempt) her presidential candidate and by so doing gave dissident Peronists an excuse to join forces in what would prove to be a successful effort to remove Mauricio Macri and his supporters from power. Is Alberto his own man or just a dutiful servant who is willing to go to any extreme to ingratiate himself with an employer who has plenty of good reasons to despise him? Nobody really knows. Perhaps he wants to be both but has yet to decide how to go about it.

Were Alberto an old-fashioned politician, he would find all the chatter about his willingness to fawn on Cristina galling but – being the enemy of the patriarchy he presumably is – he does not seem to mind being described as her sock-puppet. As for his habit of saying one thing before breakfast and another radically different after lunch, depending on where he is or who happens to be within earshot, he evidently does not think there is anything wrong with a bit of inconsistency. Rumour has it that even Alberto’s closest associates find his chameleon-like ability to change his alleged opinions so unsettling they suspect that he himself would be hard-put to say which, if any, of the characters he plays is the most genuine. They must think he has lost his way in a mental labyrinth of his own making.

Last March, when the great pandemic began spreading throughout the country, many assumed that Alberto would make the most of the opportunity given him by the virus to wriggle free from his partner’s embrace and move closer to the political centre, but it seems that since then she has tightened her grip on him. This is the conclusion many came to after listening to the long and rambling speech he delivered when opening a new parliamentary session on Monday. They interpreted it as an attempt to persuade Cristina that he remained a loyal retainer who would never dream of doing anything that could possibly annoy her, and dismissed as irrelevant all the verbiage about national unity, economic growth, governing for all and the like he added to make it look as though he took an interest in the country’s future.

The arrangement reached by the couple would not seem that strange to the Japanese, who for many centuries have been accustomed to seeing real power, not just in the entire country but also in political parties and business concerns, in the hands of shadowy individuals whose job-descriptions tell them little, but Argentines prefer things to be much more clear-cut. As is frequently pointed out, the country’s political system is highly, even excessively “presidential”; if the man or women at the top is regarded as weak, the government is more than likely to collapse. Since the demise of Juan Domingo Perón, this has happened on several occasions.

If things get nasty, as they well could if, despite the expected arrival of more plane-loads of vaccines, the pandemic lasts much longer and the economy, starved of investment, proves unable to recover as quickly as many, including Economy Minister Martin Gúzman, desperately hope, would Alberto – backed as he is not just by Cristina but also by the belief, which is rapidly dwindling, that he is capable of limiting the damage she and her more fanatical devotees could do in their attempt to keep the “neoliberal” hordes at bay – manage to survive for very long? Perhaps he could, if only because members of the main opposition alliance do not want to see the country plunge into yet another major political convulsion.

The prospects facing Argentina would be less bleak were she unencumbered by the rigid presidential system she imported from the United States, in which a hopelessly incompetent government feels obliged to soldier on until it completes its allotted term which may last several years. In countries with parliamentary systems, such as those of the United Kingdom and some of her European neighbours, a clearly unsuccessful government can be replaced almost overnight without anyone having to break the rules, but for such a change to come about peacefully here, a president would have to agree to let the legislative branch lord it over the executive. This could happen if the crisis engulfing the country suddenly got much worse, but the Kirchnerites led by Cristina would do their utmost to prevent it.

Though, on occasion, Alberto seems to have resigned himself to playing a largely decorative role like that of his German counterpart or of a constitutional monarch, he is beholden to Cristina, not to the Congress, and it would appear that she wants him to make far more use of the power invested in the presidency than he already does, but while a man or woman with immense personal authority could get away with doling out free pardons in a situation as serious as the one facing Argentina, authority is something Alberto does not have.

This means that until further notice the government will continue to give priority to Cristina’s many problems with the law and try to bully the courts into giving her the benefit of every conceivable – or, failing that, inconceivable – doubt, rather than ordering them outright to leave her alone. She evidently dislikes his gradualist approach because wants him to wipe her slate clean without any more delay, but Alberto is reluctant to do so by executive order, while getting Congress to agree to amnesty her, members of her family and some trusted cronies would not be easy. It would also do enormous harm to the country’s international reputation. 

Unfortunately for everyone immediately involved in this unseemly business and, needless to say, for well over 10 million others, investors, whether local or not, tend to steer clear of places where politicians, starting with the ones at the very top, are known to be on the take and are only too happy to bend the law so they can get away with it.

 

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James Neilson

James Neilson

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

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