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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 08-07-2023 06:55

Getting from here to there

All four serious presidential hopefuls strike financiers and businessmen as “right-wingers” who are properly determined to put an end to populist folly. For believers in free enterprise, it is a welcome development.

Has Argentine public opinion swung sharply towards the right? If the current political line-up is anything to go by, it certainly seems to have done so. When running for office, politicians tell voters what they think they want to hear; of late, many who not that long ago would have promised to lavish the taxpayer’s money on costly welfare programmes because they thought the “social deficit” was far more important than any financial one and derided those who worried about the inflationary consequences of such generosity have taken to talking like penny-pinching fiscal hawks.

As expected, the change of mood greatly worries the social justice warriors who have made a profitable business out of widespread poverty. To warn politicians they had better keep the money rolling in, they regularly order throngs of welfare dependents to pitch their tents in the centre of Buenos Aires.

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner may not have changed her opinions about economic policy, but she too sees the writing on the wall and takes it for granted that her outfit, whose adherents are fond of the leftish rhetoric that appeals to progressives both here and abroad, will be subjected to a painful drubbing on polling day. This is why she caved in so quickly when senior Peronists told her they wanted the movement’s presidential candidate to be a man who, as his enemies never tire of pointing out, has more friends in the United States than in places where Kirchnerites hold their get-togethers. To nobody’s surprise, the markets perked up when she told her protégé Wado de Pedro, a gentleman who has a big name in the La Cámpora organisation which has its fingers in a wide assortment of governmental pies, to stand down.

The way things stand, before the year is out Alberto Fernández will, in all probability, hand the symbols of power to either Horacio Rodríguez Larreta or Patricia Bullrich. Though Sergio Massa could win by supplementing Peronist votes with others coming from disgruntled supporters of whoever loses the race between the two PRO contenders, and the oddball libertarian Javier Milei, who represents the many who want to send the entire political establishment packing, could still provide an upset, few think any of this is likely to happen.

The two front-runners have more in common than their willingness to throw mud at one another. Both have been close associates of Mauricio Macri and, by and large, agree with him that what Argentina needs is a decidedly capitalist economy similar to in all prosperous countries with the exception of some oil-rich emirates. Both are keen on balanced budgets, letting the Central Bank refuse to print money just because the government of the day wants more of it and making people on welfare do something useful in return. What is more, there is good reason to believe that Massa, and, in his over-the-top fashion Milei, fully agree with the PRO candidates when it comes to handling the economy. All four serious presidential hopefuls strike financiers and businessmen as “right-wingers” who are properly determined to put an end to populist folly. For believers in free enterprise, it is a welcome development.

All this means that Argentina is virtually certain to enter 2024 with a government which is strongly committed to reshaping her economy to make it look more like a typical Western one, much as Macri wanted to do after getting elected in 2015. However, even if 80 percent or more of the votes cast in the upcoming elections go to pro-market candidates, those who hope to keep things more or less as they are could still manage to thwart the next government’s efforts to give the majority what it apparently wants, just as they did when Macri was in the Pink House.

For understandable reasons, much of the population seems to have come to the conclusion that the “corporatist model,” which has been around for a great many years during which Argentina has slid down the international league tables and most people have seen their standard of living get steadily worse, should be replaced by something more efficient and, needless to say, far less expensive.

This is easier said than done. In addition to the millions who have come to rely on welfare payments of one kind or another doled out by what in the US are called “community leaders,” there are tens of thousands of businessmen, bureaucrats, political operators, professional activists, trade union bosses and others whose livelihoods and personal status in the circles they frequent depend on their links with organisations set up to take advantage of the favours which can be bestowed by the people in charge of government departments.

They may be well aware that the public sector and its variegated subsidiaries have acquired such monstrous proportions that the rest of the country, which is forced to pay for them, is getting choked to death, but even if they do appreciate that big changes are inevitable because the money has run out, they will all do their utmost to ensure that any reforms, whether structural or merely superficial, do not affect them personally or cause much inconvenience to their friends and allies.

This no doubt is why Bullrich, whose poll ratings are improving, favours a tough stance from day one. She believes that people have to be warned that she would not tolerate violent resistance to the harsh measures any reformist government would be forced to take. Like President Emmanuel Macron in France, she would confront unrest with a massive police presence, a prospect that greatly alarms softer-hearted members of the Juntos por el Cambio coalition who fear it could mean lots of blood on the streets. 

Her main rival, Rodríguez Larreta, dreams of putting together a multi-party political alliance so broad-based that a suitably impressed populace, including men and women who would much prefer a minimalist approach, would resign itself quietly to seeing the old order dragged off to the junk heap. As for Massa, were he to become president, he would presumably try and have it both ways and proceed with guile, reassuring those who objected to whatever changes he and his technocratic friends thought desirable that he deep down is as devoted as they are to the Peronist legacy and will do anything to protect them, all the while doing away with large bits of it as relentlessly as Bullrich says she would if the electorate decides to put her in power.

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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