Few things are less frustrating than having a plan but being unable to bring it to fruition. This seems to be the epiphany Argentina’s political elite has suddenly had as the deadline to complete their offer to the Argentine public arrives later this month.
Getting things done seems to be the rationale behind President Mauricio Macri’s odd choice of Senator Miguel Ángel Pichetto as his running-mate. But the unexpected arrival of Pichetto changes Macri’s coalition from its very foundations: Cambiemos as we knew it is no more. Not only because Pichetto has been the head of the powerful Peronist majority caucus since 2003, both under Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and during Macri’s first term, but also because he is widely reputed to be a pragmatist with few scruples rather than a person guided by principles.
“Emotions are not an aspect of my personality,” the Senator said in his first press round as vice-presidential candidate on Tuesday, as journalists mistook a casual cough for an unlikely prelude to tears. No wonder social media memes have likened him to the fictional character Frank Underwood of House of Cards, a resemblance Macri and his team are likely to have nightmares about starting now and through an eventual second term.
The euphoria in the political and business establishment, aka the 'Red Circle,' over Pichetto’s appointment has one obvious reason: Macri has finally understood he will not be able to lead the ambitious reform agenda he is promising for the next four years without a real-life Peronist pulling some strings. The ruling coalition’s political marketing strategy will resort to euphemisms during the campaign, but Macri has been explicit about his future plans if Argentines vote him again. In a conversation with Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa before an audience of over 1,000 business leaders in March, Macri said, “If we win, we will continue to move in the same direction, but as fast as we can.” The to-do list would reportedly includes three items the business establishment has been demanding for years: labour, fiscal and pension reform. The political viability of the three remains a question-mark.
But the establishment, and the markets that rallied non-stop since the announcement, might be overestimating Pichetto’s ability to deliver on the promise. At 68, the senator’s influence comes from his position as majority leader in the Upper House, a mandate that largely comes from his peers and from the governors they represent. Pichetto has very little territorial clout: he represents the Patagoinian province of Río Negro, which houses less than half a million voters (1.5 percent of the country’s total). But he has also lost control of the provincial branch of the party, and reelection in the Senate appeared highly unlikely this year, as his term came to an end. What type of actual clout he would have to steer a fragmented Peronist party into Macri’s unpopular agenda is a mystery. So far, no Peronist has endorsed Pichetto’s move. Pichetto wasn’t even Macri’s first Peronist choice for VP.
In the exact opposite direction, Alberto Fernández was also placed at the head of the Peronist opposition ticket to make things happen. He has already delivered on his first task: six years after having departed, Sergio Massa and his centrist Renewal Front have been roped back into the Peronist family. All these years Massa has been preaching a “third way” he failed to nurture. Fernández’s next job is to make the odd coupling between Massa and former boss Cristina Fernández de Kirchner work in a civilised manner, both during the campaign and in an eventual government. They also have a plan: reverting Macri’s economic programed with as little collateral damage as possible. Cristina Kirchner was also explicit this week: “somebody will have to produce the cash” to repay the US$ 57 billion loan the Macri administration negotiated with the Iinternational Monetary Fund, “and it will not be the unemployed or the workers making the extra effort.”
The good news is that the political system’s apparent acknowledgement of its limited power of convincing has opened the doors to so-far unexplored channels of communication bridging the political divide – which has engulfed the new third option now manned by Roberto Lavagna and Juan Manuel Urtubey. They will be desperately needed if the going gets tough economically in 2020, or beyond. Keeping them open might ultimately be the main job for the experiments named Alberto Fernández and Miguel Ángel Pichetto.