Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).
We are told that the choice voters face several months
from now could hardly be more straightforward.
They will be asked if they are willing to continue
trudging up the long mountain track which Mauricio Macri says will eventually take the country to
those sun-lit uplands where democracy flourishes and the economy
gets steadily better, or would they rather go back to where they
were when Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was still in power and
the country was sliding towards a cliff?
Though some insist that Macri’s economic policies are not that different from the ones pursued by
the Kirchnerite administration, because they entail
spending more money than the country can afford,
in other areas the two have very little in common.
Some members of Macri’s team may be light-fingered, but nobody thinks they have managed to salt
away tens of billions of dollars.
As is the case in many other parts of the world,
the government is under fire mainly because of
its commitment to austerity, the assumption
being that cheese-paring measures are not really
necessary. That may be true in some places, but
Argentina is not one of them. Were it not for the International
Monetary Fund (IMF), she would be flat broke. This unhappy
fact is recognised by those Peronist leaders people close to Macri describe as “rational,” but it means that to justify their desire to turf him out they have to deride him as a blundering ignoramus who never gets anything right.
Would they do better? There is no reason to think so. One of
them, the former economy minister Roberto Lavagna, who poses
as a safe pair of hands, says he would keep public spending high
because he is dead
against anything that
smacks of belt-tightening while slashing
taxes because they hurt
business, but few have
bothered to ask him to
explain how he would
manage to do this. In
any event, large swathes
of the electorate have let
it be known that they
are unimpressed by attempts by presumably
to find a middle ground
somewhere between Macri-style austerity and Kirchnerite prodigality, plus corruption
on an industrial scale and phoney statistics. Unless this changes,
in October and, as looks likely, in November, voters will have to
choose between Macri and Cristina.
With the option before the electorate being so clear-cut, the
campaign should be as short and sharp as it would be in the United Kingdom, where they get these contests over in a few weeks,
but Argentine politicians like electioneering so much that, in
addition to making the big one last the best part of a year, they
have put in place a series of obstacles candidates must jump over
before reaching the finishing straight.
In addition to doing their bit in all those provincial elections –
which these days seem to be almost as frequent as football fixtures – before getting down to business politicians have to consolidate their alliances, a requirement they must meet by next week
and, with considerable ingenuity, find ways of letting votes cast
in favour of one particular candidate be transferred to the account
of another who may stand for a radically different approach to
the country’s problems.
For example, the governor of Buenos Aires Province, María
Eugenia Vidal, would not object overmuch if, thanks to “a collection list” (that is an arrangement designed to steer votes towards
people competing for the top jobs), supporters of
Sergio Massa – a politician who loathes her boss
Mauricio because he trounced him in 2015 – helped her beat back the Kirchnerite challenge.
But Massa, being the man he is, could well
revert to being the Kirchnerite he once was, if he
hasn’t already done so. After all, Alberto Fernández – who like Massa had subjected Cristina to
extremely harsh criticism when he thought she
was finished – did just that and, to widespread
astonishment, suddenly became her presidential
candidate, though hardly anybody doubts that she
will continue to call all the shots.
Politicians may find all the manoeuvring, backstabbing and
rumour-mongering highly enjoyable, but there are signs that the
general public is getting fed up with what is going on. The spectacle provided by allegedly serious characters like Alberto Fernández and Massa – who one day treats Cristina as a thieving
lunatic who took a wrecking-ball to the economy only to turn
round and embrace her or, at least, start winking at her – annoys
even cynics who take it for granted that, given the chance, both
would be more than happy to see her clapped in jail.
Even more disturbing is the reluctance of would-be presidents
and their hangers-on to come clean about what exactly they
would do should they happen to come out on top. Instead of
presenting plausible programmes of action that would withstand
close scrutiny, they treat the electorate to sound-bites about how
rotten Macri is and how trustworthy they are.
This is a serious matter. Though not that many people take
note of what is being said in foreign parts, by now the literate
must be aware that most observers think the Argentine economy
is facing collapse and that, should word get round that Alberto
(that is Cristina), will in all likelihood succeed Macri, it could
come crashing to the ground, burying millions of people under
the rubble, even before the votes have been counted. Such a
prospect may appeal to those who would be delighted to see
Argentina follow Venezuela on the road to revolutionary perdition, but it should alarm everyone else.
It might be thought that because the risks the country faces are
so great, Macri and sensible opposition politicians, of which there
are some, would present a common front, but even Miguel Angel
Pichetto and Juan Manuel Urtubey are reluctant to give him their
support, while Macri himself fears that getting help from such
Peronist quarters would only make him look weak.
And then there is Lavagna, whose appeal may be limited but
who nonetheless could siphon enough votes away from Cambiemos to let the Kirchnerites take Buenos Aires Province and, it is
possible, the rest of the country. Is that what Lavagna really wants?
If, like Massa, he thinks defeating Macri would be more than
enough to cure Argentina of her many ills, he would not be averse to serving as midwife for a new, and almost certainly disastrous,