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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 04-05-2019 10:23

Is Argentina on the road to a governability crisis?

The main poles of Argentina’s political establishment are oceans apart, incapable of reconciling or even compromising on the pettiest item on the agenda.

One of the main campaign arguments the ruling Cambiemos coalition is resorting to, in order to put up an electoral fight, is that Argentina was heading the way of Venezuela until President Mauricio Macri became president. So technically, every time Caracas descends into a new layer of economic and political disaster, as happened this week, the government scores a campaign point.

The great thing about counter-facts is that they are impossible to prove, for right or wrong. In their reasoning, if Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s chosen candidate last time around, Daniel Scioli, had won the 2015 election, the country would have turned a totalitarian state à la Nicolás Maduro. This means every economic problem the country has now – from inflation to devaluation, recession, rising unemployment, poverty and foreign debt – is miniscule compared to what was brewing and what was only narrowly averted.

The main poles of Argentina’s political establishment are oceans apart, incapable of reconciling or even compromising on the pettiest item on the agenda. The only common ground for Macri and Fernández de Kirchner this year was death: the president’s father passed away in March and the former president’s mother in April. At least they had the courtesy to mutually tweet their condolences at each other (talking on the phone was out of the question, of course).

Fernández de Kirchner’s new book Sinceramente, a 600-plus page recollection of her past in office and her present (and future?) in politics, leaves little hope that any of that might change in an eventual third term. Not only is the former president still obsessed with whatever the media writes about her, even in the tiniest of opinion columns, but she offers a daunting view of how she perceives democracy when narrating the failed transfer of the presidential sash and baton to Macri in December, 2015.

The outgoing and incoming presidents could not agree on time and place to perform the traditional changing-of-the-guards ceremony. Kirchner wanted to do it in Congress, which she hoped to be surrounded by her supporters, just before Macri’s inaugural speech. The Cambiemos leader, instead, wanted to do it at the Casa Rosada, just after his inaugural speech. In her book, Fernández de Kirchner evokes her fears about an incident that never happened: “It would have been a moment in which the representative of the people (i.e. herself) would hand over the government to a person who was the brainchild of a business and neoliberal project, the result of deceptive electoral marketing.”

When rivals exclude each other from the possibility of legitimate representation, no political compromise in possible, not even if – as is the case now – the country risks entering a major economic crisis that could ultimately drag down the entire political system with it. That is why presidential hopeful Sergio Massa sounded like a fish out of water this week, when he called on Macri to gather the entire leadership (including Cristina) to guarantee a more predictable and somehow stable transition through the end of the president’s term on December 10. Implicit in Massa’s language was that – with the economy on a downward spiral and a dragging presidential race that begins officially when the candidacies are registered on June 22 and is likely to only end in a second round on November 24 – the country could become ungovernable, and that the leadership should cast (some of) their differences aside in order to project, both domestically and to foreign observers, that they are at least on speaking terms.

There is one precedent in Argentina’s beleaguered democracy of an election period plagued with economic crisis: 1989. That year, the elections were scheduled for October but were moved forward to May, as the country verged on hyperinflation. The incumbent leader, Raúl Alfonsín, was not legally entitled to seek re-election and the ruling party candidate, Córdoba Governor Eduardo Angeloz, lost to the Peronist candidate Carlos Menem. Alfonsín had to exit office six months ahead of the end of his term, as the economic crisis spiralled. That is the last thing Macri would want to happen.

The Massa plan, of course, will not happen (not that he really meant it). On the contrary, the blame game is well and truly on. Macri spin-doctors are saying the incipient chaos results from the prospects of a “populist” government making a comeback. And Fernández de Kirchner says in her book that the country needs solutions for the “chaos” that is Macri.

Even if the electoral uncertainty does not erode what little credibility there is left among Argentina’s political class and the country manages to surf decently enough through until December, the incoming president, whoever he or she might be, will face an uphill governability battle next year, with pressure mounting on debt payments, the demanding rules of International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreement, a crippling recession and a divided electoral mandate from a divided population.

Sitting around a table, while there is still a table to sit at, might not be such a bad idea after all.

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Marcelo J. Garcia

Marcelo J. Garcia

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