Tuesday, November 30, 2021

OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 13-09-2019 23:41

The hunger debate

Alberto Fernández’s words fill a vacuum. At times Macri is absent and seems to have delegated power almost entirely to his lieutenants.

History spares no-one in Argentina. Practically every political and economic recipe has failed to deliver at some point. Liberal capitalism? Failed.

Price controls? Failed. Military dictatorship? Failed. Welfare state? Failed. You can always try again (except for dictatorships, please), of course. But what other choice is there? Alberto Fernández, the Peronist frontrunner in the presidential race, is now implying that he will float the idea of a sweeping “social accord,” possibly to anchor salaries and prices for 180 days, if he wins the election on October 27. The Frente de Todos candidate, with former president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner as his vote- getting running-mate, thrashed centre-right President Mauricio Macri 47-32 percent in the August 11 presidential primary, so now, unsurprisingly, he is now already talking like the potential head of state.

Fernández returned from a visit to Spain and Portugal this week, where he had met with the Socialist leaders of those countries, and continued to grant interviews. His words fill a vacuum. At times Macri is absent and seems to have delegated power almost entirely to his lieutenants, only to then make an appearance to say he is still confident he can force a run-off. Yet the most likely outcome is that Alberto Fernández will defeat the incumbent by an even wider margin next month.

The vacuum on Tuesday took the form of a field battle between riot police and far-left demonstrators trying to block traffic in demand of welfare hikes on Avenida 9 de Julio, smack bang in the middle of downtown Buenos Aires.

The clashes came amidst calls by the Peronist opposition for the approval of a ‘Food Emergency’ bill, which would reallocate budget funds to inject more funds into the community networks that feed the poor. Talk of a food emergency is humbling, on the verge of humiliating, for Macri’s centre-right coalition, which had envisioned an entirely different kind of ending to its first four years in office.

Macri had no choice but to address the food emergency issue by saying that technically it has been in place since 2002 and the government did not oppose the debate in the lower house of Congress to enhance it. Here was Macri trying to spin the story by arguing that Argentina’s hunger problem is not new.

If you ask the opposition what is new, it’s the rising poverty during Macri’s mandate which has been dominated by utility rate hikes, soaring inflation and growing unemployment. The Chamber of Deputies unanimously approved the bill on Thursday. It now moves to the Senate.

Fernández has called for a “social pact,” a bid to sit down with business and trade union leaders for talks at the negotiating table, days after his running-mate declared that what Argentina needs is “a new order.” Yet not everybody appears to be willing to wait to find out what a social pact and a “new order” really mean. Argentina’s presidential race is always packed with anxiety and agitation. The economy stokes the panic. Inflation in August clocked in at four percent (the annual inflation rate is at 54.5 percent), the INDEC national statistics bureau revealed Thursday.

Tuesday’s clashes were just one sign of the volatility. Another sign is the controversy surrounding Juan Grabois, a left-wing Catholic activist on good terms with Pope Francis. Grabois, who is known for his social work with the poor, prompted uproar when he publicly came out in favour of land reform recently. On top of that a group of activists, brandishing banners of Grabois’ CTEP organisation, staged noisy demonstrations inside luxury shopping malls in Buenos Aires. Grabois, as confusion raged, disowned the shopping mall protests, which included agitators coming face-to-face with bewildered shoppers.

The question is if Grabois’ antics can in any way sway the election, say if moderate voters are scared off by the militant lip in the middle of Argentina’s humongous financial difficulties.

Ask Alberto Fernández – the Peronist candidate praised Grabois and refused to condemn his activism, saying he was being unfairly demonised. But he did not endorse land reform. The farm sector is a thorny issue. Fernández quit as CFK’s Cabinet chief 2008 in the middle of a fierce stand-off with farmers over export duties.

Arguably, Alberto Fernández will be the first president since 1983 who can actually boast some presidential executive experience in Government House before taking office. Fernández likes to remind everyone that he served as Cabinet chief under late president Néstor Kirchner between 2003 and 2007. On Wednesday night he called for moderation, urging people to “stay off the streets,” saying that he feared that the demonstrations could end up with somebody getting killed.

The fury of the moment will turn into something else. The dawning of a new era if you ask the Kirchnerite camp, once the votes are counted next month. But for now activists have pitched tents and set up camp in this City’s wide avenue to keep on demanding.

The chaotic protests are also a challenge for Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, a key member of Macri’s coalition who is seeking re-election. The incumbent needs to win with 50 percent of the vote next month to avoid a run-off and he is facing a strong challenge from the Peronist coalition candidate. A still unlikely upset defeat for Rodríguez Larreta would be catastrophic for the president’s centre-right coalition though. The mayor is now fighting for every single vote he can muster to hold on to his coalition’s bastion. Rodríguez Larreta has accepted the endorsement of José Luis Espert, a neoconservative presidential candidate who fiercely criticised Macri (and the mayor himself) during the primary campaign and garnered few votes on August 11. At times, Macri’s camp looks in disarray to the point that even the mayor’s re-election is in doubt.

Meanwhile, Senator Miguel Angel Pichetto – the president’s Peronist running-mate – is chirping his own right-wing tune, regardless of what Macri’s campaign team might make of it.

The senator has complained about “depressed” Macri administration officials, criticised immigration policies and downplayed the hunger issue. The senator for Río Negro, who defected after serving diligently as Fernández de Kirchner’s chief whip in the Senate, could be trying to secure a political future for himself beyond the result of the presidential election by emulating Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s incendiary (literally when it comes to the Amazon rainforest) and extreme right-wing president.

Histrionic right-wing posturing hasn’t worked in the past.

Social pacts haven’t worked either, come to think of it. But a pact would no doubt serve as a respite and Argentina needs a time out. The fear of a complete debacle has waned temporarily because the impression is that the terrifying dollar deposit drain has slowed down. Still, the speculation surrounding the International Monetary Fund’s pending payment of US$5.4 billion, ahead of the election, could yet trigger another bank run.

Martín Gambarotta

Martín Gambarotta


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