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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 02-10-2021 00:33

Argentina now in the danger zone

In a country in which parliament calls all the shots, the fall of an unpopular government would not present any constitutional difficulties, but here things are done differently.

The presidential system imported from the United States in the 19th century may have its merits, but flexibility is not one of them. Even if nobody at all votes for its candidates in next month’s legislative elections, the Peronist government would feel constitutionally obliged to remain in office for over two more years. It cannot simply resign and allow whichever grouping comes out on top to take its place. No matter what happens in the midterm elections, whoever is president is entitled to cling to office until his or her preordained stint finally comes to an end.

This means that unless ill-health intervenes, or he gets impeached, Alberto Fernández could be with us until December 2023.Were Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to force him to step down, as she no doubt could, she herself would have to take his place. This is a prospect that neither she nor the many people who fear her find appetising.

In a country in which parliament calls all the shots, the fall of an unpopular government would not present any constitutional difficulties, but here things are done differently. This is a serious problem, not just for those Kirchnerites who would prefer to play by the rules but also for members of the opposition. If, as some predict, opposition candidates do even better in the November elections then they did in the primaries, they will have to choose between propping up a weak and in all likelihood malignant government on the one hand and, on the other, doing their best to discredit it still further and risk setting off an almighty political upheaval.

Ever since it dawned on them that, countrywide, over two-thirds of those who bothered to vote in the primaries were against them, Cristina and her acolytes have been behaving as though they expected to be out of office within a few weeks unless they somehow manage to claw back a large number of votes by the time the polling booths reopened. Overlooking the unfortunate fact that Argentina is flat broke, they are making a desperate effort to shovel more brand-new thousand-peso banknotes into people’s pockets in the hope the recipients will be impressed by the government’s generosity with the taxpayers’ money and decide it deserves their support. Economists warn them that they themselves will have to deal with the inflationary fires they are vigorously stoking because, hard though it may be for them to understand it, life will continue after November 14, but they brush such thoughts aside.

Alberto’s initial reaction to the primary vote was to take defeat philosophically and promise to do better in future. Cristina’s was to throw a tizzy fit. She knows that unless she remains politically powerful she could end her days behind bars, as could her son Máximo and, perhaps, rather unfairly, her daughter Florencia. After seeing which way the wind is blowing, of late public prosecutors and judges have been showing more interest than previously in the many charges confronting her. From her point of view, discouraging such individuals from prying into her affairs is the only thing that really matters. This makes her very dangerous.

While members of the main opposition movement, Together for Change (Juntos por el Cambio) or, in some parts of the country, Together (Juntos), are sticklers for democracy, the same cannot be said of all Kirchnerites. Many have far more in common with the Chavist thugs who have wrecked Venezuela or the dour Marxists who have done a similar job in Cuba than with the politicians ruling Western European and North American countries, as well as our neighbour Uruguay. For them, justifying the transformation of Argentina into an allegedly left-wing dictatorship would not present any ethical, let alone ideological, difficulties. As far as they are concerned, they represent the demos and anyone who disagrees with what for them is a self-evident truth is a reactionary worm (or gorilla) in league with the unspeakable Mauricio Macri who hates ordinary folk.

All this could mean that Kirchnerite zealots – some of whom must be aware that it is foolish to rely on nothing but the printing press to churn out the large sums of money they want to spend in order to persuade the electorate it got it all wrong in the primaries – are deliberately setting the stage for economic and social turmoil soon after the mid-November elections because they think it will provide them with an excuse to take increasingly authoritarian measures. They would certainly have no qualms about ordering the jailing of opposition politicians or journalists for, according to them, stirring up “hate,” as their like-minded counterparts in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, Turkey, Belarus, Russia and, needless to say, China, do all the time. For Cristina, encouraging such steps would be natural enough; according to her way of thinking, if her foes want to see her put away, she has a right to demand that the same happens to them.

The presidential system works satisfactorily in societies in which almost all politicians are centrists and disputes are not that serious. When differences become too great, as they did in the United States after Donald Trump got elected, its built-in rigidity can make governing properly all but impossible. While parliamentary democracy is often untidy, as the Germans are currently showing the world, it does at least make sure that those in charge pay attention to public opinion.

If it is any comfort to them, in the primaries the Peronists did get a larger share of the votes cast than did the German Social Democrats, who nonetheless came first in last week’s elections with a paltry 24.7 percent, but to form a government they will have to team up with their rivals, which is something Alberto cannot do because Cristina would not permit him to recruit members of Together who, for their part, would be most unlikely to offer her immunity from prosecution.

Alberto, a political operator who has no known principles, can choose between behaving like a genuine president and ask members of the opposition to occupy senior positions in what would be called a national-unity government, or do Cristina’s bidding even if it entails saying goodbye to democracy. As he seems content to obey most of Cristina’s orders, it would appear that he is determined to continue to grovel before her, no matter what the consequences for the country may be. Unless we are very lucky, these could be exceedingly unpleasant, especially if the economists are right and inflation, which is already running at an alarmingly high rate, takes off long before his allotted term in office has approached its end, and large-scale civil unrest, fuelled by official incompetence, leads to blood in the streets.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

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

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