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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 20-04-2019 08:08

Can the art of the message save Macri?

After months of repeating that his way of marketdriven austerity was the only way forward, President Mauricio Macri and his government have now resorted to the short-term, heterodox economic patchwork fixes it has often decried as populist flimflam. Why?

Simple. Four months ago – even after last year’s 50-percent devaluation of the peso – Macri was still receiving polls showing he would beat his political arch-rival Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in the next presidential election, somehow even comfortably. Two months ago, those surveys started to show a virtual tie. Now, the polls say Cristina would win, both the first and the second round, by a narrow but clear enough margin. They also say that Macri would lose to almost any other potential candidate.

The newly-found form of pragmatism is a sign of political desperation. The package includes price controls, consumption loans at subsidised interest rates for pensioners and a freeze on utility rates and transport fares, among other measures that (almost) everybody in the government hates. So do the so-called markets. In only six months, President Macri has twice announced the introduction of a major policy he says he abhors, not to mention thinks is ultimately useless and counterproductive: export duties (in September 2018) and now a price freeze (dubbed by some “a gentlemen’s pact”) to curb inflation.

What the government is not changing is the nature of its political communication, which has been something of a trademark for Macri’s PRO party. Can the art of communication work miracles? This is the most dramatic moment of Macri’s administration so far, with approval ratings steady below 30 percent and escalating tension within the ruling Cambiemos coalition, given the prospects of a potential electoral defeat. The president has lost public credibility after venturing into several failed projections, all related to the ills of the country’s economy. But, nonetheless, presidential communication moves on undeterred, as if Macri still had a clean slate with the public.

On Wednesday, the government introduced the much-awaited new measures by releasing a bizarre video of Macri visiting two citizens, only identified as Alejandro and Adriana, in the City neighbourhood of Colegiales, in which he explains his decisions to them. The president had been there before, last year. Then they had mate, now it was only a glass of water. Adriana, holding her toddler, tells the president how they are struggling to make ends meet, and that she even had to give up her mobile phone because she could no longer afford to pay for it. Then in a scripted moral message, Adriana says that she was pleased the president had finally decided to introduce these “measures of relief for the people.”

“We are going to beat inflation,” the president tells them, repeating a mantra that has failed systematically in the past.

Cut.

Even with its sometime flaws in tone and timing, professional and innovative political communication is virtually the only source of electoral hope for the government. This week’s package is largely a matter of public opinion, rather than a policy drive. Macri and his staff do not believe a nonorthodox array of decisions would sort or solve any of the economy’s deep-rooted problems.

In Argentina, prices increase by over 50 percent annually, a recession is entering its second year, there’s a shortage of hard currency and mounting debt. The government is racing against the clock to change public perceptions, and the one thing it cannot afford is to stand still.

TO DO OR NOT TO DO

This week’s movements also reference another communication misstep, one that caught the President off-guard in February, when a construction worker at an official ribboncutting ceremony vehemently asked him to “do something” to sort out the economy. A non-official video of the worker’s monologue went viral – and it sounded real.

But is doing something contrary to your deepest beliefs – and your public stances – an asset or a liability in this electoral context? The government does not know at this point, but the prospect of standing still was not an acceptable choice for the campaign strategists or Macri’s political allies, including the centrist Radical party (UCR), many of whom are flirting with endorsing former economy minister Roberto Lavagna.

Watching the spectacle from the other side of the political divide, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is taking exactly the opposite approach: keeping quiet. Her recent growth in polls coincides with a low public profile, one only disrupted briefly to introduce her daughter Florencia’s health drama in Cuba, where the former president will be heading for a few days this weekend.

Cristina’s electoral chances are increasingly a dependent variable of Macri’s economic fate; the worse it gets, the better for her. Appearing in public only feeds people who might feel nostalgia for her government’s economics, but still detest her political and personal ways. Seems there is very little Marcos Peña’s campaign genie can do to get her to open her mouth.

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Marcelo J. Garcia

Marcelo J. Garcia

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