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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 31-12-2021 11:19

The pros and cons of belonging

The willingness of a small but significant minority of opposition politicians to let the Kirchnerite government have its way is driving the leaders of Juntos por el Cambio coalition up the wall.

All societies are elitist in their way and the people who enjoy privileges denied to others are invariably convinced they deserve them. In former days, the beneficiaries went out of their way to draw attention to their good fortune, but after democracy, egalitarianism and so on came into fashion, many tried to fade into the background in the hope that nobody would decide they should be treated like ordinary folk.

Argentine politicians have been very good at this game. Over the years, they have acquired a large number of what they assume are rights, though entitlements would be a better word for them, which have enabled them to sidestep the disasters that have ruined the lives of a rapidly growing proportion of their compatriots. Those at the very top, people like Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, can break the law with impunity, while most of the men and women who rank under them have good reason to expect favourable treatment should they be caught doing something illegal. On occasion some do get sent to jail as a sop to public opinion, but, like the former vice-president Amado Boudou, most are quickly released, in his case because when inside he showed he was a reformed character by becoming a properly accredited electrical technician or, in that of former transport secretary Juan Pablo Schiavi, by studying “advanced chess” and taking ukulele lessons.

In Argentina, belonging to the political class is like being a member of the nobility in pre-revolutionary France or a samurai in Japan when the Shoguns were in power. It may not be quite enough to guarantee you an enviable income, but you will still be better off than people who are left to fend for themselves in an unkind world. For politicians, even minor ones, the rules are different. Less depends on what abilities you may have or your willingness to do gruelling jobs than on your loyalty to those who happen to play key roles in the political grouping you have joined.

However, now that the country is sliding downhill at an accelerating rate, inflation is picking up steam, Central Bank reserves are running out and public dissatisfaction with the way things are going looks liable to lead to widespread social unrest, even politicians are finding it increasingly difficult to decide what suits them best. This may be why hardly a day goes by without an opposition parliamentarian jumping ship, whether by accident or design, so the Kirchnerite government can get a wafer-thin majority in the Chamber of Deputies, the Senate or some provincial legislative body. Why do they do this? Does money or its equivalent change hands, or is it just that on one particular occasion they thought the government’s proposals rather better than what their own side had to offer and voted accordingly? The jury is out.

The willingness of a small but significant minority of opposition politicians to let the Kirchnerite government have its way is driving the leaders of Juntos por el Cambio coalition up the wall. As well as preventing them from making the most of their impressive triumph in last November’s parliamentary elections, it is having a negative impact on its reputation. For understandable reasons, people are asking themselves if the opposition is for real. Do its legislators see it as a government in waiting, or are they more interested in making the most of their current membership of the country’s political class and hope they will never be asked to do anything likely to annoy voters? 

The opposition did well in November because much of the electorate thought its candidates were far more honest than those of the ruling Peronist coalition and assumed they would be able to carry out governmental duties in a rational and fair-minded manner. Luckily for Mauricio Macri, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, Diego Santilli, María Eugenia Vidal and company, few bothered to ask them what they would do to repair Argentina’s broken-down economy.

This was just as well; had they felt obliged to answer, they would have had to choose between pretending to think that all it needed was a bit of minor tinkering, as they did when Macri was in the Pink House, or recognising that without some extremely painful “restructuring” it would soon end on the scrap heap leaving much of the population (but not many card-carrying members of the political class) to scavenge for whatever could be found amid the wreckage.

In the days that followed the legislative elections, many found the government’s refusal to admit defeat highly amusing, as in some ways it was, but it quickly became apparent that most opposition leaders were in no mood to celebrate a victory that, had circumstances been different, they would have hailed as historic, because they understood that the electorate had just informed them that in barely two years’ time they could find themselves in charge of a country which by then would almost certainly be in even more of a mess that it was in back in November. 

Adam Smith once remarked that “there is a great deal of ruin in a nation,” which was his way of saying that countries (or, at any rate, the United Kingdom after the American colonies broke away) can survive many catastrophes which in theory ought to bring them to their knees. Despite everything that has happened in recent decades, Argentina is still a going concern, but while there may be little limit to her ability to harm herself, this does not mean that her political elites can continue indefinitely to live off the rest of the population in the style to which they have grown accustomed. As things get worse for what is left of the middle class, pressures will surely increase for the political class to throw overboard many who cling to it in the hope of finding salvation, starting with superfluous public employees and activists of Kirchnerite groupings like La Cámpora.

Argentina is far from being the only country in which the political class, or “caste” as its fiercest critics call it, is confronting what could turn into a violent rebellion. In much of Europe and the United States, similar sentiments have been making themselves felt for years, but in few places can politicians be legitimately accused of having caused as much harm as they have here. The local consensus, which is shared by most outsiders who take an interest in what happens in this part of the world, is that the great Argentine crisis is due exclusively to politics, so it would be surprising if its practitioners were allowed to get away unscathed from the catastrophe they have collectively wrought.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

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

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