The Argentine football team’s running average of less than a goal per match in World Cup qualifying play now entering its last round might also be seen as an apt metaphor for the poverty of ideas and debate in the midterm election campaign whose definition is only a fortnight away.
To describe this campaign as confronting the smiling visage of Buenos Aires Governor María Eugenia Vidal with shouts of “Austerity” might be oversimplifying the case but not excessively. And while the Cambiemos ruling coalition can legitimately claim that some of its support stems from its “Let’s Change” label retaining sufficient credibility to inspire hopes of change and thus could be construed as a positive vote of confidence, there should be no illusions about its core impact coming from negative campaigning. A government facing difficult times has gained popularity via a cunning role reversal whereby it reinvents itself as an opposition party – the opposition to a demonised ex-president and senatorial candidate Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a figure who offers plenty of fire in every sense to justify the smoke and who did only just win the PASO primary in Buenos Aires province.
This topsy-turvy strategy whereby Mrs Fernández de Kirchner is simultaneously President Mauricio Macri’s best candidate and her own worst enemy might well be crowned with electoral success this month but ultimately it is not good news for either the government or a democratic state. Bad news for Macri because if his electoral success continues to hinge on a rival with feet of clay, this will increase the pressure on his government to translate the vague hopes for a better future into effective structural reforms. And these reforms will need to be steered through Congress, which will require complex political engineering to construct a new fabric of alliances.
Beyond the promises of future growth, Cambiemos bases its campaign on a defence of republican institutional values against populism. Their claim is far from bogus – there can be no doubt that populism has proved a serious threat to truly democratic politics in much of the region during the last decade. But at least in this country populism is in sharp decline – if the three Peronist presidential tickets of the 2003 elections polled 63 percent of the vote between them, the various Peronist fragments participating in last August’s PASO totalled 42 percent, thus losing fully a third of their former support.
But (and here lies the most serious challenge to democracy) populism is not the only threat. The new political winds might well end up favouring technocracy at the expense of parliamentary democracy – a possibility always latent in a government headed by an engineer with a Cabinet containing several CEOs and running a country requiring drastic structural reforms. If Congress seems too hard to handle, Argentina’s historical experience offers plenty of ways whereby it can be bypassed and democracy transformed into technocracy.
And here we come back to the poverty of the campaign. The onus is on democratic politics to prove its worth – smiling faces and cheap slogans are just not good enough. These elections are exclusively legislative and should be treated as such – for its candidates at least parliamentary politics should not be a means to an end but an end in itself, making its top priority the creation and consolidation of a parliamentary democracy, including a serious party system instead of subordination to one-man (and one-woman) shows. But if reversing the negative trends of World Cup qualifiers in the Andean heights of Ecuador next Tuesday looks difficult, this challenge is even more uphill.