After a thinner first-round victory than initially predicted, president-elect Alberto Fernández will soon face an even narrower set of hard choices as he tries to tackle the country’s ill economy. And he will need to maintain a delicate political equilibrium while doing so.
Last Sunday, we witnessed the first scenes from the new (or should that be old) political power establishment. On show was an unprecedented Peronist coalition of at least three factions, with loyalties and alliances seemingly ready to mutate, depending on random circumstances.
On election night, Fernández endured a virtual ambush onstage from the more leftleaning groups of his coalition, led by former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and the freshly elected governor of Buenos Aires Province, Axel Kicillof.
With conciliatory messages coming from President Macri’s losing camp – including a personal presidential call to Fernández and an invitation to brunch the next morning – Fernández de Kirchner and Kicillof made it clear in their speeches, which preceded the president-elect’s, that they wanted no mingling with the enemy.
The tension was all too visible in Sergio Massa’s face. With almost five million votes, his slate was the most s u p p o r t e d a m o n g t h e country’s cong r e s s i o n a l candidates. Now earmarked to be the next Speaker of the Lower House, the head of the Frente Renovador (“Renewal Front”) party – a dissident faction of the mainstream Peronist party since 2013 – made the crucial decision to rejoin the Peronists and Kirchnerites, a key move that ultimately handed Fernández victory. Onstage, Massa was not allowed to talk, nor was he acknowledged by any of the night’s speakers. Next door from him in Congress, Fernández de Kirchner will, as vice-president, control the Senate.
For the rest of the week Fernández sought to recover some command of this transition’s multifarious political saga. First, he had his picture taken with Macri, then he joined an all-traditionalist Peronist powwow at the inauguration of Tucumán Governor Juan Manzur. In between, he appointed a transition team that mostly reflects his moderate vision.
He also took the time to pick out some meaningful words to respond individually to every foreign leader who cared to greet him publicly on social media. They were chosen carefully: “Democracy” appeared for Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, “equality” for Chile’s Sebastián Piñera, “growth” for the IMF’s Kristalina Georgieva, “freedom” for Brazil’s jailed former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, “sovereignty” for Britain’s Boris Johnson, “respect and mutual understanding” for US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
In his first days as president-elect, Fernández continues to behave as if he plans to keep everybody happy all the time, forever (Brazil’s Bolsonaro being the only conscious exception to the rule). And yet, he is also starting to pass along the message that is likely to frame the first months (or years?) of his presidency: “Argentina is a country with many problems. The next few years ahead will not be easy.”
Until he takes office on December 10, one of Fernández’s first goals should be to curb any enthusiasm among his followers and voters that there will be a sequel to the cashhappy policies that dominated some of the Kirchnerite years, when Fernández served as Cabinet chief to the late Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) and for the first months of the Fernández de Kirchner government(2007-2015). But what the new leader is yet to state, or even define, is who stands to lose – even in a context in which there will likely be no immediate winners either.
The concrete impracticality of populism should also avert market fears that Fernández would want to steer Argentina the Venezuela way – at least not as his Plan A. The new president will be walking a tightrope between convincing suspicious markets and making good on at least some of his promises to voters. The margin for keeping them both happy is much narrower than his eight-point electoral victory.
Counterintuitively for a leader who has just won an election, the roadmap for Fernández starts abroad before he can deliver anything at home. If he wants to reignite the economy, rein in inflation and gradually improve the pockets of Argentines, he will first have to uphold the value of the peso, which has been in a nosedive since April 2018. And in order to do that, Fernández needs to engage in talks – and hopefully agree swiftly – with creditors, including the IMF, which since the August primary has put the mammoth US$57 billion stand-by agreement it signed with the Macri administration on pause.
He won’t have much time. In addition, the success or failure – and the speed – of Fernández’s balancing act will either contradict or reinforce the trend of social unrest in the region, whose latest examples are popular uprisings over shrinking pockets in Ecuador and Chile but also the election of disruptive figures like Jair Bolsonaro.
Fernández needs to settle on minimal but feasible goals – i.e.
inflation in the lower range of two digits only by the end of his
four-year term and modest annual growth of two to three percent, at best. Having any grander ambitions could make him –
and the country – fail all over again.