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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 11-07-2020 08:19

Argentina: Great at failing miserably at democracy

What level of tolerance to dissent are we willing to accept? And at which point does the discussion about who thinks what shut out the underlying debates we should be having?

Argentina is very quickly descending into a dangerous spiral of hate and division. This situation isn't exactly new, but it actually accurately reflects the general political topography of Argentine society. For a quick second it fleetingly seemed as if we could put it behind us, with Alberto Fernández appealing to Raúl Alfonsín and proposing a unity government in his inaugural speech as president. Words, ephemeral as they are, mean very little though if not backed up by actions. The global coronavirus pandemic gave President Fernández the space to do just that, taking decisive decisions with the support of a panel of experts and including key members of the opposition – Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta in particular – in the most important instances of policymaking. The "ghost of Cristina" had given way to a consensus-building Fernández, while Mauricio Macri's silence implicitly gave his successor in the capital the necessary wiggle room to build a working relationship with the ruling Frente de Todos coalition, particularly with the president and Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof.

But it was nothing more than a fleeting illusion, unfortunately. Already we have seen how the dreaded grieta has crept back, taking over public discourse and most of the media’s attention with it. At the same time, it feels as if we, as a society, have become too sensitive, reacting viciously against anyone with a different point of view, as if we’ve forgotten that dissent is the main element of this game we play called democracy. The real question then becomes: what level of tolerance to dissent are we willing to accept? And at which point does the discussion about who thinks what shut out the underlying debates we should be having? The answer is clear: we are failing miserably at democracy.

Cynical tweeters Alberto Fernández and his Cabinet Chief Santiago Cafiero have used social networks to express their dislike of a certain group of journalists and their work. Beyond the specifics of each situation, what’s contradictory is that both have delivered a message of “post-grieta unity” in their public appearances, only to then take to Twitter to mock those they dislike, treading on the limits of harassment. While it is good in one way to see them genuinely expressing their thoughts, it feels that sometimes they have forgotten that they hold two of the country’s highest offices. This then sparks an empty battle between anti-Kirchnerite journalists and their counterparts, one in which hundreds and thousands sign communiqués expressing their absolute sacrifice in the name of “freedom of speech.”

Over the past several months, the coronavirus pandemic has pushed the global conversation toward issues, particularly the recommended epidemiological response to Covid-19 and its direct consequence on the economy. Leaders in Argentina worked together in developing containment plans that crossed jurisdictions, regardless of political orientation, and the general population appeared eager to learn how to take care of itself, while also worrying about the fate of others. In a matter of weeks, though, the Fernández administration has managed to alienate millions of Argentines who had supported his handling of the pandemic, unexpectedly announcing the expropriation of agro-giant Vicentin, dissing journalists, dismissing mass protests, while we witness the freeing of several former Kirchnerite officials and associates behind bars for corruption. Cristobal López has already gone on the offensive, using his media companies (C5N news channel in particular) for political revenge, while gaining leverage in his negotiations to regain full operational control of his business empire (Grupo Indalo), with government support. Cristina and Alberto both know how important his media companies are to their base. Lázaro Báez, one of the last major Kirchnerite graft still behind bars, should walk out of his jail cell soon.

The opposition, essentially grouped in the Juntos por el Cambio coalition, hasn’t helped either. While Macri remained prudentially quiet and the “political wing” of the coalition sought to gain ground, the lead role went to PRO president Patricia Bullrich, who has fanned the flames of division at every instance. Bullrich is being reined in by Rodríguez Larreta and ex-Buenos Aires Province governor María Eugenia Vidal, but the generalised sentiment throughout some 40 percent of the population is that their personal freedoms are being trampled on through arbitrary quarantines and emergency decree governing, sidestepping Congress. Hearing that Cristobal López could be acquiring private shipping company OCA or that Fabián Gutierrez, the recently murdered former private secretary of Mrs. Fernández de Kirchner, owned 77 properties and three boats, only confirms their preconceived notions that Alberto is a willing accomplice to Cristina’s plan of impunity.

Whether or not some of their arguments have some teeth, the anti-Kirchnerites and anti-Peronists end up taking fundamentalist positions. Every publication that isn’t directly against the government is considered to have been secretly orchestrated by the Casa Rosada. Listing the number of fatalities left behind by the coronavirus pandemic is equated with being complicit with the Fernández administration, and therefore against democracy. It’s the same kind of accusations used by Kirchnerites during the “media war” of Cristina’s second mandate, but used by the other side. In this week’s 9 de Julio mobilisations, C5N journalists were attacked by a mob, illustrating just how much anger has been whipped up.

Late former president Néstor Kirchner was a savvy negotiator, and for years he courted the mainstream media’s support. He did this using the same mechanism with which he controlled the nation’s governors, using the state coffers — our money. It wasn’t until Cristina took the presidency that an all-out war for control of the electorate’s heart and soul pitted her supporters against the mainstream media, embodied by the battle against Grupo Clarín, Argentina’s response to the vampire squid. Since then polarisation has only increased (aided by the preponderance of social media) and trust in the media has fallen, which in turn has led outlets to debase their coverage, lowering the level of the public debate to subterranean levels. It’s gotten worse and worse, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to change anytime soon.

Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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