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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 20-10-2023 05:11

Judgement Day finally arrives

Nobody has much idea as to which of the three main contenders will come first or second, but all conceivable outcomes look likely to make a terrible situation even worse.

Like the senators, consuls, praetors, emperor and distinguished orators in Constantine Cavafy’s memorable poem who – after waiting impatiently for the barbarians to turn up and relieve them of their responsibilities – belatedly realised that they would have to continue governing their city, many politicians put off thinking about the country’s problems until after the elections, which, they apparently believed, would somehow provide them with answers. The campaign, which at times seemed destined to go on forever, gave them an excuse to forget about what mattered to the rest of the population and concentrate on what interested them most; their own place in the oversized political organisations which have proliferated despite their evident inability to govern the country in a reasonably efficient manner.

Well, election day is now upon us and, far from making the prospects before the country any clearer, the long campaign has made them even muddier. Nobody has much idea as to which of the three main contenders will come first or second, but all conceivable outcomes look likely to make a terrible situation even worse. If the chainsaw man Javier Milei romps straight away into the Pink House, what is left of the economy could collapse overnight. If Sergio Massa gets eliminated, for a couple of months the country will be without a genuine government, what with the president goofing off somewhere, probably in China, the vice-president AWOL and a discredited economy minister unable to make anyone take his orders seriously. Were Patricia Bullrich left in the race, she and Milei would have to battle it out with chaos erupting around them. 

Large numbers of people have pinned their hopes on a man who promises to use his now iconic chainsaw to get rid of the huge amount of deadwood the country is labouring under. Though Milei certainly looks like one of Cavafy’s barbarians, the consensus is that to govern he would need the help of large numbers of people who belong to the corrupt and crassly incompetent political “caste” he says he wants to do away with. It would appear that, with awareness of this sinking in, support for him has ebbed in the last couple of weeks; even so, he remains the bookies’ favourite to come out on top either on Sunday or, if forced into a run-off, in mid-November.

In the latter case, he would confront either Massa or Bullrich. Were Argentina a “normal” country, the lady would be a shoo-in; since it is anything but, Massa still has a fighting chance of doing well enough tomorrow to prevent Milei from knocking him out in the first round and then to go on to defeat him in the second. Given Massa’s evident failure to handle the economy – which as a result of his efforts to get elected by churning out zillions of banknotes could soon plunge into a hyperinflationary vortex – and the wretched performance of the government he represents, it would be a truly remarkable achievement. It would also be bad news for Cristina Fernández de Kirchner; being the person he is, Massa would be quick to show her who is boss by throwing her and her acolytes to the wolves.

However, those who hope Milei has been seriously harmed by his willingness to consort with a gaggle of unsavoury politicos and trade-union heavies also think the light being thrown on the corrupt behaviour of Massa’s cronies could deprive him of a great many votes. If this happens, Bullrich could come from behind and overhaul both her rivals.

Those who prefer to look on the bright side of things feel encouraged by the fact that the three leading presidential candidates, plus Cordoba Province’s outgoing governor Juan Schiaretti (who, if he clings to the 3.7 percent of the votes be received in the primaries, could hand Massa the Presidency), are all decidedly market-friendly. This suggests that an overwhelming majority of Argentines have come to the conclusion that what the country needs right now is a strong dose of old-fashioned capitalism. Indeed, it would seem that even slum-dwellers who have grown accustomed to living off handouts want the government to leave them free to go about their business. This makes sense: until fairly recently, the minority that does things by the book has been benefitted by State-regulated welfare arrangements and labour legislation, but most people have had to survive as best they could in the black economy in which just about anything goes and “neoliberal” principles are taken for granted.

As has made clear Milei’s performance in the primaries, especially in the “feudal” provinces which for many years have been run by Peronists of one kind or another, millions throughout the country feel that for far too long they have allowed themselves to be treated like obedient serfs by members of a corrupt political elite who for decades made out that they were the only people who could protect ordinary folk against “oligarchs,” businessmen and other vermin. Along with the inhabitants of the decrepit badlands of Greater Buenos Aires, they gave the Peronists an apparently impregnable electoral base that guaranteed them at least 30 percent of the popular vote, but, thanks to Milei, it is now crumbling at the edges.

For some, this means that Argentina is about to consign Peronist populism to the dust heap of history; while this is unlikely to happen, the movement could fade away into the background as have so many of its equivalents in other parts of Latin America and southern Europe. Much would depend on whatever the next government manages to do. No doubt Cristina and other Kirchnerites – who know full well that Massa, unlike the hapless Alberto Fernández, is very much his own man – think it is bound to fail and that in the ensuing turmoil they will be able to stage a comeback. They must be hoping that either Milei or Bullrich gets sworn in as president in December; from their point of view, both are far less dangerous than Massa, the libertarian because he is a nutcase whose improvised political base will be extremely fragile, the lady representing Juntos por el Cambio because she is surrounded by Radicals who can be relied upon to play by the rules.

Whoever wins will be up against it from the word go. Argentina is in meltdown, what with inflation gathering pace by the day, the Central Bank getting deeper into the red, companies that depend on imported parts having to halt production, and a great many men, women and children finding it increasingly hard to get enough to eat. Just as threatening is the public mood; there are many out there who fear that, at any moment, millions of people could go on an anarchic rampage, looting and destroying anything in sight not because they believe it would make life better but because they need an outlet for the despair they feel in a directionless society whose democratically elected leaders have helped bring about the appalling mess the country has got itself into.

James Neilson

James Neilson

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

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