An opposition politician in Argentina used to have it wonderfully easy. All they had to do was take it for granted that the country was several times richer than it actually was, a notion that for understandable reasons always appealed to much of the population, and go on from there. For at least a century, politicians pretending to believe that Argentina was awash with easy money always managed to come out on top after wearing down the few governments – among them several military ones – that dared to defy them, so it is unsurprising that until very recently their approach to the country’s many economic and social problems remained very much in fashion. From their point of view it worked very well, and that was what counted.
Has this changed? Perhaps it has. Lately, there have been signs that a growing proportion of the country’s politicians are coming to the conclusion that it would be helpful if they returned to the real world and made a serious effort to get a grip on things. Top Peronists such as Senator Miguel Ángel Pichetto and Salta’s Governor Juan Manuel Urtubey have even said as much. The former has assumed postures that put him well to the right of President Mauricio Macri.
However, the apparent willingness of some high-profile opposition leaders to face unpleasant facts may not be enough. Though over the years the individuals convinced that Argentina is rich and therefore has no need to worry about minor matters like productivity have succeeded in impoverishing many millions of people, the regrettable consequences of their happy-go-lucky endeavours do not seem to have impressed some of the more talkative members of the political fraternity and their camp followers. They continue to suggest that if people are hard up, it must be because a mean-minded government is depriving them of what is rightfully theirs and that, being public-spirited souls, it is their duty to keep goading it until it hands the money back.
This is what many Peronists and their leftist allies are currently up to. They reacted to the end of “gradualism” and the resulting slump in Macri’s poll ratings by trying to have it both ways, attacking him for going slow on long-overdue reforms during his first two years and a bit in office and for then making a desperate attempt to get it all over with quickly by eliminating the deficit. They may have left it too late; had they demanded a tougher approach far earlier, their strictures would sound far more convincing.
Macri adopted “gradualism” when he moved into the Pink House in order to prevent the big-spenders from mounting an immediate all-out offensive in an effort to dislodge him before he had time to settle in. It did keep them quiet for a while, which allowed his government to look like a permanent part of the landscape and not just a fleeting aberration, so in political terms at least it did pay some useful dividends.
Nonetheless, with the carefree days of snail-paced gradualism well and truly behind us, even the allegedly “rational” Peronists have begun to lose what inhibitions they may have had. Having persuaded themselves that for the time being it would be unwise for them to deny that plenty of money is still available, they are trying to browbeat Macri into doing the decent thing by opening the coffers and sharing out whatever he finds in them.
Some also insinuate that because the latest phase of the country’s endless economic crisis must be Macri’s fault and his attempts to pin what happened last April when the peso nosedived on a devastating drought, the US Federal Reserve and market forces are unwarranted, he and he alone or, failing that, big business, should pay for the damage the country has suffered. Such arguments may not make much sense, but that does not make them any less persuasive.
Were most of the electorate split between supporters, enthusiastic or not, of Macri, and one of the presumably level-headed Peronist politicos, the outlook for Argentina would not be that bad. It would then be fairly easy to convince the International Monetary Fund and the people who call the shots in the financial markets that, no matter who happens to be in the Pink House at the start of 2020, he or she could be relied on to handle the economy in a more or less realistic manner.
Unfortunately for people who are trying to persuade potential investors that Argentina has repented of her past sins and from now on will behave in a sensible manner, the prospects facing the country are made much murkier by the continued presence of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner; despite the widespread belief that she would be unable to win back the presidency in a run-off with Macri because far too many people distrust her, she has kept the loyalty of many voters in the shantytowns that dot Greater Buenos Aires, and with it her capacity to intimidate Peronist politicians who would otherwise move closer to the ideological centre.
For Macri, being the principal target of Cristina’s wrath is a mixed blessing. His advisors tell him it is in his interest to have her out there berating him and to respond by hammering away at the astonishing levels of corruption that characterised her administration and the very real danger that, under her, Argentina could soon become a sub-tropical Venezuela, with millions fleeing to Chile, Uruguay or Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil.
But while it suits Macri to have Cristina as his main political rival, the mere thought that, if things went badly wrong, she could return to power is undermining confidence in the nation’s economy. That surely harms him even more than would the belief that next year he would be roundly defeated by someone like Pichetto or Urtubey, both of whom dream of taking his place.
Businessmen and financial operators tend to be nervous folk. Thanks largely to Macri’s desire to make people think that the alternative to the Cambiemos coalition he depends on is not a down-to-earth, right-of-centre fragment of the Peronist movement, but a gang of vengeful Kirchnerites with outlandish economic ideas, many who would be tempted to invest large sums of money in the country – if they felt certain it had finally grown weary of subjecting itself to fanciful experiments – will prefer to wait until the electoral outlook becomes less uncertain. With Cristina lurking in the background, Macri will find it all but impossible to make them change their mind.
(*)Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).