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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 28-07-2023 21:09

Presidential candidates remain neck-and-neck

If the coming crunch is as painful as some predict, will it be enough to make the entrenched political elite decide that the time has come for whoever is in power to apply policies that have worked well enough elsewhere?

Like most people around the world, Argentines crave certainty, the feeling that for them personally at least the future will be more or less as expected, but with few exceptions they are aware that big changes are in the offing even though nobody can say what they will look like. Perhaps the primaries, which are almost upon us, will help sort things out, but despite months of strenuous campaigning by the leading candidates, the electoral outlook is even murkier than it was a year ago when it seemed more than likely that the opposition Juntos por el Cambio alliance would unite behind Horacio Rodríguez Larreta and then proceed to sweep the board.

Since then the coalition which was put together by Mauricio Macri, Elisa Carrió and the Radical Ernesto Sanz has been seriously harmed by the fierce infighting that has been going on between Patricia Bullrich and Horacio. As far as many voters are concerned, decent politicians really ought to put aside their petty differences and pull together. This may be naïve and undemocratic, but, like it or not, it is what much of the population thinks. It would appear that, by and large, Argentines are not that interested in debates; many have convinced themselves that they are incompatible with “national unity”, which would be reasonable enough if the country faced a foreign threat but, as Pope Francis recognised, “we are the problem”, by which he meant the Argentine people, not the Roman Catholic Church, so it does not make much sense.

According to most, but not all, opinion polls, Patricia is drawing ahead of her rival. She comes across as being far tougher than Horacio who is a bit too fond of stressing his willingness to incorporate into the rainbow coalition he is seeking to assemble a wide variety of people, ranging from “neoliberal” hawks such as José Luis Espert to traditional-minded Peronists, among them the outgoing Córdoba governor Juan Schiaretti, who happen to dislike Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. As the Buenos Aires mayor, who is very proud of his administrative skills, points out, a reformist government which would have to take a large number of controversial measures will need a great deal of parliamentary support so he has to rope in politicians whose views he does not share.

Patricia will have none of this. She takes it for granted that a broad-based coalition such as the one Horacio has in mind would limit itself to conserving what remains standing of the status quo after the Kirchnerites depart leaving behind a huge pile of wreckage lashed by gale-force inflationary winds.  In other words, the lady who could be Argentina’s next president  believes that his sort of government would at most slow down Argentina’s slide towards oblivion but do little to halt it, let along succeed in putting it into reverse so the country could at last recover from its self-inflicted wounds and start moving forward.

The differences between the two Juntos por el Cambio frontrunners are so great that many disgruntled supporters of whoever loses could well decide to vote in the finals, which should take place on October 22 either for Massa, in the case of those who favoured Horacio, or Javier Milei, in that of fans of Patricia. Given the circumstances, the very fact that Massa could conceivably climb out of the economic rubble he is helping to pile up into the Pink House is quite remarkable. What makes him hard to kill politically is his renowned ability to adapt himself to new situations overnight. It is plausibly assumed that, if elected, he would quickly dispose of Cristina and her acolytes. As for Milei, he appeals to people who would like nothing better than to see the established order crash into the ground, taking with it most members of a political “caste” they despise so much.

Onlookers puzzled by the reluctance of many, perhaps most, Argentines to abandon their faith in policies which have had ruinous consequences for millions of their compatriots and, needless to say, for the country as a whole, are prone to shrug their shoulders and say that it would take a thoroughgoing disaster to make them change their minds. If the available statistics are anything to go by, one such is fast approaching. The Central Bank’s vaults are empty, inflation has topped 100 percent a year and, according to the International Monetary Fund, the economy is now shrinking after having enjoyed a minor boost provided by consumers who wanted to spend their pesos before they became completely worthless as had happened on various occasions in the not so distant past.

If the coming crunch is as painful as some predict, will it be enough to make the entrenched political elite decide that the time has come for whoever is in power to apply policies that have worked well enough elsewhere?  Strange as it may seem, this remains an open question because, up to now, professional politicians have fared rather better than most people in other walks of life. This is why Milei’s strident criticism of “the caste” has won him the support of almost twenty percent of the electorate. It also helps explain why more and more people are boycotting the polling booths even though in this part of the world voting is obligatory.

Argentina’s “populist” or, if you prefer, corporatist order has deep roots. Much of it was already in place before Juan Domingo Perón gave it the institutional scaffolding which holds it up and which it has retained despite pressures from farmers, competitive businessmen and others who found all the often contradictory rules and regulations constricting. They argued that for the economy to grow it would have to export far more, but enemies of free trade managed to counter them by insisting that it would lead immediately to mass unemployment because local companies needed more time in which to prepare themselves before embarking on a campaign to conquer markets abroad. The notion that Argentina would be the helpless victim of merciless foreign “dumping” if the protective barriers shielding her from such an unhappy fate were lowered even slightly is still widely held. It will continue to be a major obstacle in the path of any reformist government, especially one which depends on the support of politicians with links to local business enterprises. Many of these would be more than happy to join a coalition led by someone as amenable as Horacio and then immediately set about watering down measures that would make life harder for their friends. 

James Neilson

James Neilson

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

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