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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 16-11-2019 09:33

The risks of fragmented polarisation

Depending on how the economy features in the coming months and how the coalitions manage to sustain complex internal balances, polarisation could soon crack into fragmentation, with unpredictable political consequences.

At first sight, the country is exiting this year’s exhausting electoral process with a clear-cut bipartisan polarisation, with a clear crack in the middle that continues to widen and few communication channels linking the two sides of the equation.

Not so quickly.

The two coalitions that emerged from the October 27 general election will struggle to keep consistent internal lines of both language and speech within, as the country likely enters a new period of economic hardships that could trigger eventual political instability.

Less than four weeks from taking office, president-elect Alberto Fernández is keeping mum (officially) about his future Cabinet for reasons he only knows, which paves the path for names and rumours of all sorts to circulate. The first Cabinet is a statement of policy direction – in this case it is also a clue about the Frente de Todos leader’s ability to keep his eclectic Peronist coalition together in one piece.

Hoping to honour the name of the political brand that has brought him to office, Fernández is telling almost everybody that they will be part of his government. Only in the last week, he proposed to both the traditional Peronists unions of the General Labour Confederation (CGT) and the picket organisations that claim to represent the unemployed. His explicit message is that the country’s delicate situation needs everybody to lend a hand. But the implicit response he is getting is that most of the hands he shakes will be asking for perks and favours rather than giving something back in return.

There are objective reasons for that. Argentina will soon be entering its third year of recession. The economy contracted 1.6 percent in 2018, will shrink a further 3.2 percent in 2019 and is likely to contract at least an extra 1.9 percent in 2020, according to optimistic forecasts. Wages are systematically losing to inflation. Fernández’s first Cabinet will have very little to hand out and a lot to ask for. The tough conditions ahead require having a team ready to jump on the field from day one – if not earlier.

But none of this is happening in the corridors of the incoming power just yet. Fernandez is still mostly focused on keeping the internal equilibrium of his coalition. Sort out the politics and the policy will sort out by itself. The puzzle he is assembling has his two main Peronist allies controlling each of the two chambers of Congress: as vice-president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner will preside over the Senate and Sergio Massa, who emerged as the most-voted candidate for Congress in the October elections, will be the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies.

But this seemingly perfect balance looks less robust on close inspection. Fernández de Kirchner is already struggling to impose one of her supporters as Senate majority whip – she is reportedly aiming for Senator Anabel Fernández Sagasti from Mendoza (how many Fernándezes are there in Argentine politics?) – while Massa is resisting pressure to merge his Frente Renovador party into the general Frente de Todos caucus in the lower house. Massa relinquished his presidential candidacy this year for the sake of broad Peronist unity but, starting sooner rather than later, his every move will be geared toward running in 2023.

Macri’s ruling coalition, soon to be the main opposition group, is not free of its own contradictions either – quite the contrary. The crisis in Bolivia exposed internal views, thrusting them out in the open: while Macri and his Foreign Ministry stubbornly refused to use the word “coup” to describe the forceful resignation of president Evo Morales, or to even condemn the intervention of the Armed Forces in the process, most of the UCR Radicals were explicit about their stances. When the issue came down to a congressional vote on Wednesday evening, the Juntos por el Cambio caucuses only saved face by abstaining.

Macri knows that keeping his coalition with the Radicals alive is crucial if his ambitions to lead the opposition are to be realised. This week he gathered the alliance’s bigwigs at the Olivos residence, just as the congressional caucuses were under pressure over Bolivia. The president promised to gather the group together every two weeks, but will they come to see Macri when he is powerless after leaving the presidency on December 10?

Depending on how the economy features in the coming months and how the coalitions manage to sustain complex internal balances, polarisation could soon crack into fragmentation, with unpredictable political consequences.

The recent regional saga shows the unexpected can happen at any time.

Marcelo J. Garcia

Marcelo J. Garcia

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