For a few dramatic moments this week, Argentina seemed to be on the brink. Only a few hours after the shooting of lawmaker Héctor Olivares and his friend and aide, Miguel Yadón, when they were jogging outside Congress, the investigation seemed to point to private rather than political motives behind the awful crime.
Phew, yes. But Argentina’s political system remains an accident waiting to happen, as the country marches on toward a long and uncertain presidential election, marked by a fragile economy and a severe lack of trust.
This week, the public saw the political elite exchanging epistles with grand words about the potential of reaching “consensus” over 10 vaguely scribbled points. The government wheeler-dealers claim that if a few big names endorse, in writing, a series of platitudes, Wall Street executives who fear the country might not have enough cash to service its debt in the near future would suddenly calm down.
But what if these guys are reading something different to Argentina’s domestic letter swap? In Wall Street, for instance, they tend to look at The Wall Street Journal every morning. And this week, the newspaper sent its regional correspondent to look into the state of the country’s economy and talk to a few people on the streets. The second paragraph for instance reads, “[Fernando] González, a 43-year-old maintenance man, saw his work dry up amid a grinding recession. He cancelled vacations and stopped going to the movies. He pulled his son out of private school, enrolling him in a public one.”
In normal political conditions, an economic picture like this would electorally eject a ruling party from office, without much protocol. But Argentina is never normal. Despite reading the WSJ keenly, Mauricio Macri’s campaign spin-doctors are exultant these days, because they believe the consensus hat-trick is bringing the government back to political centre-stage, potentially reviving the president’s chances of re-election. Opinion polls, followed by the minute in the Casa Rosada it seems, showed a slight recovery in the first week of May after a forgettable April.
Since the beginning of his administration, Macri has repeatedly rejected the notion that he needed anybody outside his inner circle to run the country. That was the strategy that took him to office in the first place, and there seemed to be no reason at all to change that. But as he made that call, his administration was severely underestimating the problems the country was facing and overestimating his political strength to tackle them. With the call for a lukewarm form of political agreement this late in the game, and at the doorstep of a presidential election, Macri managed to get two of his likely opponents, Sergio Massa and Roberto Lavagna, to type away “thanks but no thanks” responses. He might not get much more than that. All this acting was possible because the markets were unexpectedly benign with Argentina this week, despite the turbulences caused by the trade battle cries emerging globally.
But there are no certainties, and the political earth is shaking under every player’s feet, augmented by their own unforced errors. The ruling Cambiemos alliance, for instance, is heading toward a humiliating defeat tomorrow in the province of Córdoba. The incumbent, Peronist Juan Schiaretti, is likely to win comfortably, mostly thanks to an unforced error by Macri’s coalition, which could not even agree to disagree and is fielding two candidates in a district where the president took 71 percent of the vote in the 2015 run-off. Symbolically it’s important too: Córdoba is also the district where the Cambiemos coalition was born in 2014. Macri’s main political partners, the centrist Radical Civic Union (UCR), is expected to hold an unpredictable party convention late this month to decide if, and how, it will stay in the alliance.
If Schiaretti wins big, he will also emerge as an influential force in attempts to direct the Peronists who do not blindly follow former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. But Schiaretti will not go crazy about it, as polls show the former president has also picked up in the polls in his province. The Unidad Ciudadana leader is now supported by around a third of the voters there – a level similar to the provincial numbers she showed in 2011, when she got 54 percent of the votes nationally.
Fernández de Kirchner will not get 54 percent this year. On Thursday, during the presentation of her book Sinceramente (“Sincerely”) at the Book Fair, she trod a thin line between preaching to her choir (supporters showed up in large quantities to the event), and targeting more moderate voters that today would be crucial in order to break her low electoral ceiling. Cristina, of course, did not write back to the president’s consensus invite. And the president did, and will not, read her book.