In 2007, well before an Argentine became Pope, the Vatican printed a 41-page document. It buried the idea, once and for all, that there exists a place called limbo, a border between heaven and hell for the souls that were neither condemned to punishment nor graced with the eternal joy of heaven.
And then Argentina held presidential primaries.
The country is right there now, in a political limbo that threatens the governability of an economy that was already fragile, now that it seems certain that President Mauricio Macri will not win reelection and that Alberto Fernández will most likely be the next head of state, as from December 10.
A question-mark still hangs over the format of the transition, both here and abroad. Macri is now a premature lame duck but he is still obliged to run in a presidential campaign because there are plenty of other jobs at stake in October (half of the Lower House, a third of the Senate, and hundreds of elections at provincial and municipal levels), while the ‘VPE’ (virtual president-elect) Alberto Fernández is pressed to offer opinions about his future policy and team, without yet having a legal mandate.
Where does power rest? On Wednesday morning, as part of a handful of measures he hopes will soothe angry voters, Macri announced the price of fuel would be frozen for 90 days. Later in the day, oil companies and hydrocarbon-rich provinces put pressure on the government to freeze the freeze, forcing the Energy Secretariat to issue a sombre statement that night to say that the decision would be taken “in agreement ” w it h the companies.
Then on Thursday, the day after another frantic day that pushed the price of the US dollar against the peso another six percent upwards, Fernández came out to hush the markets, saying that 60 pesos per greenback seemed a good level for him and that there was no reason for further devaluation.
How this limbo is resolved will shape the next political scenario in Argentina. Both Macri and Fernández have that in mind. If October repeats that of August, the future ruling Peronist coalition will have control of both Houses of Congress, but Macri’s Cambiemos coalition will continue to have clout as the main opposition force (that is, of course, if the partnership between Macri’s PRO party and the UCR Radicals survives the tremor of defeat). Macri has to keep one eye on the thorny transition ahead and another on the future of the political structure he created in 2003, so that it lives to fight another day.
With Buenos Aires Province surely lost too, despite having one of the most popular figures in the race, María Eugenia Vidal, the crown jewel Macri has left to protect is Buenos Aires City, which was his sounding board, and springboard, in the first place. Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta won his primary by almost 15 percentage points (46.5 percent vs 31.9 percent) over the opposition front led by Matías Lammens. But unlike Alberto Fernández, Rodríguez Larreta needs to score 50 percent – something unlikely given the new political and economic environment – to avoid an unpredictable second round race in November.
Holding onto the nation’s capital will make or break the future of Macri’s party. And Argentina’s democracy needs it. If Macri’s exit from government were chaotic in the coming weeks and his party disintegrated, the next government would simply have too much power and little counterbalance. And the reasoning goes on: without an external check, governments are more careless and make more mistakes, and there is more infighting.
Infighting will be one of the crucial things to keep an eye on in the coming Peronist coalition government, in which at least three factions will wrestle for space in the decision-making table: the pure Albertistas, the more hardline followers of would-be vice-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and the backers of Sergio Massa’s Renewal Front.
Macri’s shift of tone in the days after the PASO primary was a sign of a survival political instinct kicking in. On Monday, after a bad night of sleep and still in shock, the president launched a verbal blitzkrieg against the opposition. It was if the avalanche of votes against him had not happened. On Wednesday, he apologised, called the opposition “opponents rather than enemies” and called for dialogue. Then he called Alberto Fernández. Limbo, it seems, is always better than hell.