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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 10-06-2023 06:28

The fading lure of consensus politics

It would be better for everyone, apart from the gung-ho Kirchnerites, if the leaders of Juntos por el Cambio were to make an effort to show that, despite their differences, they still have much in common.

It has long been widely assumed that Argentina’s troubles can be blamed on the quarrelsome nature of self-centred politicians who waste their time squabbling among themselves. Time after time, presidents, party bosses, clerics, military men, business tycoons, trade union bosses and worried citizens have demanded that they put their petty differences aside and start pulling in the same direction to get Argentina out of the rut in which she has been stuck for far too many years. On occasion, governments have asked well-known representatives of the most relevant corporate sectors to come up with the elusive “great national agreement” which, they hoped, would somehow save the country from the unhappy fate looming before it.

Needless to say, all such efforts, and there have been many, have ended in failure. This is because most participants in the round-table discussions that were held tended to be firm believers in a “great national agreement” which already existed. The populist consensus that makes Argentine politics look so strange in the eyes of North Americans and Europeans began to coalesce almost a century ago and was given what proved to be its definitive shape by the followers of Juan Domingo Perón. As somebody once remarked, “for Argentines, Peronism is simply common sense.” This means that breaking away from the way of thinking which has brought the country to where it is today will be far more difficult than most people imagine. At the very least, most members of the political elite would have to replace long-held ideas with others as so many people did when Communism, like fascism before it, bit the dust.

While some take it for granted that if a reformist government takes office in December it will need to be backed by an overwhelming majority of legislators, others are convinced that, for anything useful to be done, a strong-minded minority willing to oppose the populist consensus will have to win power and set about using it before defenders of the old order recover from the electoral pummelling that apparently awaits them.  

Among the former is the Buenos Aires City Mayor, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, a man who until quite recently comfortably led the race to become Argentina’s next president. Confronting him is Patricia Bullrich who belongs to the same party and has the support of former president Mauricio Macri who attributed his failure to be re-elected in 2019 to his attempt to tackle the economic crisis in a “gradualist” fashion instead of going flat-out from the very beginning. If the opinion polls are to be trusted, she is beginning to draw ahead because people feel that, unlike Rodríguez Larreta, she is a really tough cookie who will be more than willing to bash heads if that is what it takes to jolt Argentina out of her stupor.

In her way, Ms Bullrich resembles Margaret Thatcher, who when in office in a country that was in bad shape, sternly insisted on doing whatever she thought was necessary to get it out of the mire without worrying overmuch about what her critics had to say, while Rodríguez Larreta is more like one of the soft-hearted Tory “wets” who were unwilling to move away from the friendly political centre where they felt at home.

The conflict between the two members of PRO risks tearing apart the opposition alliance, in which people who have much in common with traditional Peronists but are more attached than most to what they call republican values, have joined forces with men and women who are attracted to what may be described as Thatcherite conservatism. In most countries, these two wings of the Juntos por el Cambio (“Together for Change”) coalition would make for unlikely bedfellows, but they are kept united by their detestation of the Kirchnerite variety of Peronism, which as far as they and many others are concerned, is not only extremely corrupt and grossly incompetent but also riddled with totalitarian tendencies which, unless countered in time, could do to Argentina what Chavismo has already done to Venezuela by turning her into an impoverished wasteland.

A few days ago, Rodriguez Larreta annoyed many Juntos por el Cambio members by saying it should admit the outgoing Peronist governor of Córdoba Province, Juan Schiaretti, who, like them, greatly dislikes the Kirchnerites. Though Schiaretti, a foxy old-style politico, was quick to say he was not interested, he was surely aware it was already far too late for anyone to reduce the damage caused by an offer which many think could prevent opposition candidates from doing as well as they had expected in the upcoming provincial elections. After all, if they and Schiaretti belong to the same movement, why are they running against his protégés?

To explain what Rodriguez Larreta was up to, his supporters insist that to govern properly the next government will need the support of most of the non-Kirchnerite part of the electorate, which they think comes to about 70 percent of those qualified to vote, and it would therefore be foolish to refuse to do business with potential allies such as Schiaretti. In reply, Rodriguez Larreta’s opponents led by Bullrich and Macri, say that if they let just about anyone join the coalition, it will end up so diluted that, should it eventually form a government, it would be unable to subject Argentina to the root-and-branch reforms that would be needed to save her from going under.

Since late last year, Juntos por el Cambio has been losing support at a very rapid rate. It has been harmed not only by the challenge posed by Javier Millei – a boisterous “libertarian” who says he would like to abolish the peso and blow up the Central Bank – but also by public distaste for the infighting going on among its leading lights. This is a bit unfair because much the same happens in democratic parties the world over, but here most people think that all decent politicians, even ones as different as Macri and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, ought to find it easy to agree on what should be done and, while about it, learn to treat one another with proper respect.

Given the way so many people think, it would be better for everyone, apart from the gung-ho Kirchnerites, if the leaders of Juntos por el Cambio were to make an effort to show that, despite their differences, they still have much in common. Unless they do so, Argentina could soon be welcoming President Milei or watching the swearing in of whoever Cristina finally decides should be her movement’s standard-bearer.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

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

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