With so much voiced by the various media throughout this momentous week and with so much up in the air following the midweek Cabinet crisis (at least at the time of writing), this column is simultaneously left with nothing and everything to write about. Making the best approach to retreat to this space’s usual comfort zone – relating the present to the past based on a Buenos Aires Herald newsroom experience going all the way back to the very first elections of this current democratic period in 1983.
But in my personal case and within an electoral context that past stretches back even further – from 1977 to 1979 I was part of a European University team working towards a uniform electoral system for the first direct elections of the European Parliament in the latter year. Still none so not too much claim to bragging rights but this gave me vast experience in things like the D’Hondt electoral system adopted by Argentina – so much so that I can actually spell that name correctly, unlike almost everybody here (D’Hont is the virtually universal local usage). Victor D’Hondt (1841-1901) was a Ghent lawyer and mathematician who devised the successive division method of proportional representation used to allocate seats – since this method is misunderstood almost as frequently as its Belgian creator’s name is misspelled, this column might explain it a bit more further down if space permits.
But for now onto more immediate and central issues. Let us start this week at its beginning with last Sunday’s PASO primary voting. The intervening ruling coalition crisis now makes this already seem old news so let me condense all the myriad voting figures into the single percentage of 70 which basically tells the story – 70 percent voted against the government, 70 percent voted for the two main coalitions (as against almost 80 percent in the 2019 PASO and almost 90 percent in the actual presidential voting) and the turnout in the central battleground of Buenos Aires Province was 70 percent (well, OK, 69.3 percent and 66.2 percent nationwide).
Almost the mirror image of the 2019 PASO primaries with the common denominator of a heavy anti-government swing confounding the advance expectations of a close contest. Ahead of the voting a cryptic electorate was offering few clues as to whether all the calamities and errors of the last 18 months would result in a massive protest vote or a disenchanted abstention, but the former largely prevailed. At the time the government might have had reason to hope that those bullet ballots were a catharsis which could be turned around come November but the autistic power plays now underway are only likely to sustain the anger against a dysfunctional coalition.
Not much light ahead at the end of this tunnel but rather than speculate about an uncertain future, let us see what exit strategies the past can offer. For the most obvious (especially for any populist government), we need go no further back than the penultimate PASO primary of 2017 in San Luis when the Rodríguez Saá clan turned a defeat of almost 20 points into a triumph with the comfortable margin of 12 percent in the actual midterms by the simple expedient of throwing money and everything but the kitchen sink (indeed even including the kitchen sink, since domestic appliances were lavishly distributed) at the electorate. Even if replicating this formula nationwide would carry approximately 90 times that cost, this instantly occurred to many Kirchnerite minds at least and indeed, early last week, the announcement of a package of electoral goodies (including a revival of last year’s IFE emergency handouts) was anticipated for Thursday. But the mass resignations in midweek, including the social security service chiefs in charge of many of the potential benefits, delayed all this (at least at the time of writing) – on that front Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner would seem to be her own worst enemy.
Another reference to the recent past seems to have been a prime catalyst of the Cabinet crisis – La Cámpora leader and Buenos Aires provincial minister Andrés ‘Cuervo’ Larroque pointed out that the last two midterm defeats of a Kirchnerite government in 2009 and 2013 had been countered by changing the Cabinet chief and economy minister in both cases. What he failed to mention was that the 2011 landslide was more the result of a sympathy vote prompted by Néstor Kirchner’s death the previous year than having Aníbal Fernández (now suddenly returning to the limelight) as Cabinet chief or Amado Boudou as economy minister. while the 2015 presidential election was actually lost. What he also omitted was the decisive factor of strong dissident Peronist lists in the previous defeats while last Sunday’s debacle was suffered by a supposedly invincible united Peronism (unprecedented since 1983), thus making it all the more shattering.
Larroque’s suggestion was very likely inspired by his current boss Axel Kicillof emerging as the economic czar in the latter case in 2013 and keeping the crisis largely asymptomatic via capital controls and a major devaluation but these methods would hardly work now – how can monthly dollar purchases be any lower than US$200 (US$2,000 was the cap back in 2013)? There is no margin for devaluation with annual inflation already around 50 percent following the multi-trillion money-printing against the pandemic and nor can the tax burden be realistically raised any further in a society with more people below the poverty line than ever.
Not that there is anything unprecedented about either economic mega-crises or changes of minister in Argentina. There were no less than six economy ministers in the hyperinflationary year of 1989 and four at the other end of convertibility in 2001. But in both those years there was a change of government eventually leading to a stable economic management (Domingo Cavallo and Roberto Lavagna) whereas the current presidency in theory still has 27 months to run. Rather than a Cabinet shuffle, President Alberto Fernández needs a coalition shuffle if the institutions are to be preserved.
No more space to enter into any explanations of successive division while leaving readers little the wiser as to what is going on or what will happen – but at least they can now spell “D’Hondt” correctly.