Over the next six months this column is likely to face frequently a conflict of priorities between the following day’s voting somewhere around the country and the general national scenario, but this is not the case today – as against a handful of Mendoza municipalities as the only places going to the polls tomorrow, we have seen since the last column was written the momentous news of the death of a president, to use the title of the William Manchester book on the JFK assassination now almost six decades ago (death in political rather than physical terms, of course, and even in those political terms the April 21 renunciation of his re-election bid was more the funeral of President Alberto Fernández than his demise).
In a country where the urgent almost invariably displaces the important, this premature entry into “lame duck” status had immediate consequences. Opinions might differ as to its contribution to an already rising “blue” dollar shooting up from 432 pesos on the eve of the presidential exit from the electoral fray to flirting with the 500-peso mark this week but it certainly did not help. Rather more indisputable is the fact that ‘super-minister’ Sergio Massa has now become president in all but name by default – in many ways closer to the “suma del poder público” than any man since the inventor of that phrase, the self-styled “tyrant anointed by God” Juan Manuel de Rosas.
Yet this column is less interested in going into any further detail about those immediate consequences than in exploring the deeper implications of the presidential withdrawal from the electoral race because it potentially represents not just an individual but also an institutional crisis. If those 40 consecutive years of democracy which will be marked at the end of this year had any common denominator, it was that Argentina was always an ultra-presidential democracy amid all the ups and downs – as strong or weak as the person on top. But Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s creation of a puppet presidency (the first successful experiment along those lines since her late husband was cast for that role in 2003 but ended up making power more centralised on the Pink House than ever) has dislodged that institutional core for the last four years and perhaps forever.
Elective government has traditionally been an either/or proposition between presidential and parliamentary democracy but in the Argentine case the decline of the former has not been accompanied by any inverse rise of the latter, rather the contrary – a Congress gridlocked more than ever since the last midterms has made the legislative branch of government even more dysfunctional than the executive branch in the past two years. Yet while parliamentary democracy is far from ready to spring into the presidential vacuum which has just been formally confirmed, it retains a negative power which should not be underestimated either (institutionally enhanced by the 1994 constitutional reform even if it otherwise failed in its attempts to introduce elements of parliamentary democracy such as the Cabinet chief as a quasi-premier).
Candidates who talk tough about sweeping reforms and scorn consensus like Javier Milei or Patricia Bullrich might be closer to the frustrated public mood but they would be well-advised to factor the next Congress into their plans (as would this column, which at some point in the future will examine the legislative campaign instead of an exclusive focus on the presidential and gubernatorial races). Given the likely fragmentation of that Congress, such candidates might find themselves facing a hard choice between being trapped into an involuntary gradualism by the dictates of parliamentary approval and bulldozing the Constitution.
Yet Milei at least has started to anticipate this problem by hinting at a way out of this dilemma and the either/or proposition of presidential versus parliamentary democracy – namely plebiscitary or direct democracy. If ultra-presidential democracy has been drained of substance by the current government where the nominal and real power have more or less cancelled each other out, could Argentina skip correcting the tremendous backlog of its parliamentary evolution and leapfrog straight into the digital age by using modern technology for direct plebiscitary democracy?
An interesting question but plebiscitary democracy is not purely futuristic – in Switzerland at least referenda are as old as the Swiss Confederation founded in 1291 (and incorporated into the Constitution in 1847). Nor is its history entirely unblemished since two of the most active users of referenda were Napoleon III and Adolf Hitler (who was not averse to submitting to public opinion such loaded questions as whether the Rhineland was German, something not even the most ardent anti-Nazi could deny). Referenda are notoriously vulnerable to manipulation of the question – thus mindful that they are often a vehicle for negative emotions (as seen with the Brexit vote in 2016), the Québec separatist provincial government phrased its 1995 referendum question in such a way that if you wanted an independent Québec, you had to vote “No” (at the risk of being cancelled, this columnist would venture to compare this approach to that coarse tip that when a woman says no, she likely means yes). But turning to the here and now, Argentina needs structural reform on such a broad front that referenda in the plural might have to be held every week – furthermore if a referendum was held on whether people preferred almost zero electricity bills and transport fares or for them to carry their true cost, guess how that vote might go (it is not called populism for nothing).
Plenty more could be said about the fallout from the recently confirmed presidential vacuum but space is starting to run out. If this week’s column has been largely abstract institutional speculation, next week’s will revert to “All politics is local” (as they say in the United States) as Jujuy, La Rioja and Misiones hold their provincial elections next weekend.