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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 26-10-2019 09:57

Argentina votes as Latin America burns

Argentina will hold its presidential election tomorrow. Time ticks slowly when there’s a crisis, but still it ticks. The day will arrive.

The elections can’t come fast enough for Alberto Fernández, the frontrunner who leads a left-leaning united Peronist front. But perhaps President Mauricio Macri, the leader of the centre-right Juntos por el Cambio coalition, is thinking that what must happen best happen fast. And all of a sudden, our national election has a clear regional significance. The new twist in the race is that Latin America is burning – and the globe’s eyes are on it.

Macri was energised by a massive rally on Avenida 9 de Julio last Saturday. The day after his big event, all six presidential candidates engaged in a televised debate at the Law Faculty of the University of Buenos Aires. Frontrunners in general are always on the defensive. They need to protect their lead. Alberto Fernández played it safe to the point of being drab during the debate. Macri managed to deliver his coached lines with enough electricity to bring life to them. But will any of this alter the result of the August 11 PASO primary when the Peronist thrashed the president?

In a presidential race time is on nobody’s side, come to think of it. A massive political crisis in Chile, so often touted as an example of neoliberal success in the region, comes exactly at the wrong moment for Macri. The president is more used to bashing Venezuela, torn by strife and inflation. But now the news is about riots, looting in neighbouring Chile sparked by a metro fare increase.

Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, a billionaire, had described his country as a capitalist “oasis” in a volatile continent. But the violence unleashed by the protests, the Army on the streets, and the looting makes you wonder if the oasis across the Andes wasn’t just a mirage all along. The heavy hand of the police in Chile, along with allegations of human rights abuses, has been ugly. It has left Chile looking like a heartless democracy with military boots on.

It’s not what Macri, a market reformer who has often namechecked Chile as an inspiration, needed in the final week of the campaign. Piñera’s initial belligerence – he declared the country at “war” during the disturbances – eventually turned into an apologetic “I hear you” and the announcement of moderate wage and pension increases. The hawks in Macri’s administration had another take. Peronist Senator Miguel Ángel Pichetto, the president’s running-mate, said communist agents from Cuba and Venezuela were behind the fierce agitation in Chile.

The regional turbulence also includes the electoral uncertainty in Bolivia where the leftist President Evo Morales (in office since 2006) sought re-election last Sunday amid accusations of “fraud” by the US-backed opposition.

Still, Argentina’s Sunday night debate was not really about Latin America. Mauricio Macri and Alberto Fernández traded accusations that were on the brink of turning personal, especially when the issue of corruption came up. Fernández served as Cabinet chief to then-president Néstor Kirchner between 2003-2007 and he was taken to town about the corruption allegations surrounding that administration (and the 2007-2015 administrations led by former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, now his running-mate). Alberto chose to hit back by mentioning the sleazy graft record of the late Franco Macri, the president’s business tycoon father. That comment, the president said, was below the belt because his father is dead and can’t defend himself. Probably. But Alberto Fernández managed to remind voters that the president comes from a family that is not squeaky clean themselves when it comes to corruption.

The debate mostly felt like one long mashup of the campaign advertisements of all six candidates. But it was also often dominated by two fringe candidates: the neoliberal economics professor José Luis Espert and the far-left lawmaker Nicolás Del Caño. Both those candidates have little to lose in this race. One defended the drastic market reforms that Macri dared not implement and the other extreme socialist policies. The debate has worked wonders for Espert and Del Caño, who both could be on the verge of turning into household names.

Did the debate do the opposite for former economy minister Roberto Lavagna, who won eight percent of the vote in August? Lavagna is credited by many as having been the individual who pulled Argentina out of a huge crisis when he headed Néstor Kirchner’s Economy Ministry. Lavagna quit in 2005 alleging kickbacks in public works projects. But the Consenso Federal leader did not shine during the Sunday night debate. He was ashen, absent and fastidious. Lavagna was not the ghost in the machine. He was the ghost in the debate.

The irony, in hindsight, is that Espert is also fanatical about Chile, which is practically the birthplace of the global neoliberal economic recipes. Remember how Margaret Thatcher gifted Augusto Pinochet a bottle of prime Scotch whisky when he was under house arrest in the United Kingdom? The question is if the region has been rattled so much by the field battles unfolding in the blood-drenched streets of Chile (which on paper is still a booming economy that has pulled millions out of poverty) to tarnish the reputation of neoliberalism for many years to come.

Maybe the problem is that most democracies have been in bed with the financial elites for too long. Maybe it’s time to sing praise to the Argentine brand of democracy established by President Raúl Alfonsín in 1983 (and the Peronist opposition leader Antonio Cafiero). Macri thought he was steering the nation in the direction of a Chilean-like democracy. But along the way the president made a point of trashing institutions, like the human rights organisations, that were fundamental when Alfonsín took the military leaders to court and democracy as we know it first spread its wings here.

Much will be revealed tomorrow night. Remember, elections can be fun. But not here because Argentina is financially on the brink. The Central Bank lost US$450 million on Wednesday alone as the peso was continually thumped. By one count the Central Bank has lost US$20 billion in reserves since August’s primaries. The black market dollar is back due to the capital controls (no more than US$10,000 dollars per head can be purchased a month). Alberto Fernández was forced to declare that if he wins the presidency, dollar deposits will be safe. But is that credible, given the country’s financial history?

The situation is so delicate that Macri and his Peronist rival probably have a backroom agreement not to stoke the flames of what is looking more and more like a looming financial debacle. They don’t want you to run to the bank to pull out your money.

Sticking with behaviour, the way the candidates behave on election night will be important because any major argument about the election result could be very costly for Argentina as a nation. The day after the election will also reveal if Macri and Fernández can deploy their institutional manners with the Central Bank’s coffers running dry.

There is a lot of talk about Argentina’s frailty as a democracy. But somehow the country has surfed things like the meltdown of 2001 and the rise to power of Macri after 12 years of Kirchnerism by staging fair and clean elections.

Latin America is burning. Chile is up on its head. But Argentina, as so many times before, has a chance to sort out its problems playing by the democratic rules established in 1983.

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Martín Gambarotta

Martín Gambarotta

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