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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 05-06-2021 00:38

Superclásicalisation

In a nation of heated discussions and high passions, the political arena has mimicked the deep divisions of a football derby.

Argentina appears to be stuck in a paradoxical situation in which the conditions for progress are hindered by the structural incompetence of the political class. In a nation of heated discussions and high passions, the political arena has mimicked the deep divisions of a football derby. The paradox is that this system, which determines who is in charge of running the state, has now become the pre-condition for the impossibility to solve certain structural problems that require a scope that exceeds political terms. It also requires generating empathy with one’s antagonist, which as in the world of football rivalries is essentially impossible, particularly if the relative strength of both teams is similar, generating in the diehard fan a feeling that the opponent’s capitulation is possible, albeit difficult.

This paradox is one of the major conditioning variables behind years of socio-political-economic decrepitude, expressed — of course — in recurring economic crises. A Catch-22, which Merriam-Webster defines as, “a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem or by a rule.” The situation’s own circularity is impossible to escape. In very simple terms, it could be defined as the incapacity to reach longer-term agreements on necessary issues that inflict shorter-term pain on the electorate, which in turn increases the chances of negative electoral outcomes for whoever is in power.

One of the main proponents of the ‘superclásicalisation’ of Argentine politics is Cabinet Chief Santiago Cafiero. This week, in his first ‘monthly’ policy report to Congress in more than 280 days, the official took a page from his predecessor’s playbook to berate the opposition. “While President Alberto Fernández is putting in the effort to save the lives of Argentines, the opposition is only worried about the next election, news outlets and television ratings,” Cafiero told his political opponents. “We’ve woken up to an obsession with one pharmaceutical company,” the Cabinet Chief said, referencing the debate regarding failed vaccine negotiations with Pfizer. “[You] sound more like sales representatives than politicians,” he spouted off. 

The longer-haired Cafiero sounded just like Marcos Peña, who held his post during the entirety of the Mauricio Macri administration. Peña won the support of the hardcore supporters of the Cambiemos coalition for telling the Peronist opposition in the Lower House to “take charge” of the mess in which they had left the country, after more than a decade of Kirchnerism. His main antagonist was none other than Axel Kicillof, who used his protagonism in the Chamber of Deputies to become Governor of Buenos Aires Province and is again one of Argentina’s most influential politicians. Kicillof, of course, is a master of polarisation. (A side note about Cafiero: he doesn’t seem to be winning the favour of the hardliners closer to Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner with his constant anti-Macrismo, seemingly his target audience.)

Cafiero and his boss Alberto have a greater responsibility than the Juntos por el Cambio (opposition coalition, which is equally as aggressive. From PRO party chief Patricia Bullrich to Radical Mario Negri, head of the Juntos por el Cambio caucus in the Lower House, the leaders of the opposition have sought to attack the Fernández-Fernández administration’s every move – particularly with regards to the management of the continued and unprecedented health crisis generated by the global pandemic. Alberto Fernández’s management of the Covid-19 outbreak has been absolutely deficient and tainted with petty politicking. Yet, the opposition questioned the use of quarantines, the acquisition of Russian-made Sputnik V and Chinese vaccines, the lack of more support for the private sector and those in need, etcetera. Indeed, it’s the same stance several political oppositions have used to their electoral favour in countries spanning from Brazil to the United States, regardless of their ideological orientation.

Bullrich caused a stir the previous week by indicating she had evidence that proved that Fernández and his sacked health minister Ginés González García had asked for kickbacks in their negotiations with Pfizer, sparking the outrage of the accused. And while she later watered down her accusation by claiming she was referring to the technological transfer of information to a friendly local producer, her intention was to orient electoral debate towards the government’s deficient vaccination plan. That is every bit as questionable as the government’s incapacity to properly describe why it failed to reach a deal with Pfizer, which has been approved in 85 countries including Argentina. From the “impossible” contractual conditions that supposedly required us to hand over the Malvinas Islands and the glaciers, to the need to safeguard dollars — after having closed a deal with AstraZeneca to produce part of the components in Argentina, for which the government apparently paid 60 percent of the cost upfront — the Fernández administration continues to generate distrust among a large part of the electorate who wishes they could receive the Pfizer vaccine. Those lucky enough to be able to jump on a plane to Miami and stay there for a month in order to get both shots are probably not Alberto Fernández sympathisers. (From our sources in Miami, the region is apparently “overflowing” with Argentines.)

In the world of football, nothing is sweeter than seeing your lifelong opponent humiliated. Victory in a derby is enough to save a manager from being sacked despite a horrible season. For a fan, winning the clásico is a matter of ends justifying the means. Do whatever it takes, they say. During eternal bar stool discussions, each side will find subjective elements to justify why a certain number of domestic trophies are more important than international competition, and vice-versa. In televised debates, talking heads will go at each other’s throats to defend their preferred player or manager. In more extreme circumstances, hooligans will actually resort to physical violence to steal the other groups flags and expose them in the stands as war booty. There is carnal pleasure in football obsession, especially amongst the fans of the largest teams, like River Plate and Boca Juniors.

The world of politics has always been one of binary division, but it was supposed to retain a certain level. Modern society is defined by massive access to information, as most of everyone is allowed to “play the game,” both by choosing their political allegiance and consumption, and through their vote. Politics has imitated football in its methods, to the point where some of the most important political commentators in Argentina originated in the world of sports journalism. Nowadays, it is difficult to imagine the 'superclásicalisation' of Argentine politics not being the most successful electoral strategy. Problem is, it just digs the grave deeper.

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Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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