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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 28-09-2019 04:09

The waiting game

Executives in the private sector can barge their way into meetings and demand solutions. But politicians looking like lame ducks are waved back to the waiting room.

Argentina will have to wait, though Maurcio Macri is an executive who is not used to waiting. The president shuttled to New York this week to deal with United Nations’ duties but also to see if he could clinch the pending US$5.4-billion payment from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Here’s the answer: “Our job in this setting is to help them get through this period, give them advice, work toward an eventual resumption of a relationship – some kind of financial relationship with them – which may have to wait awhile,” the IMF’s Acting Managing Director David Lipton said on Wednesday.

Macri was told what every ordinary person dreads: wait. Wait for what exactly? Lipton was most likely implying that the country must wait for the presidential elections scheduled for October 27 to see if it will receive the money after the result. The problem for Macri – the leader of a centre-right coalition that rose to power in 2015 promising a free-market bonanza to voters – is that he was defeated in the presidential primaries on August 11 by Alberto Fernández, the leader of a united Peronist front that includes the fiery former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as his running-mate.

Alberto Fernández is clearly the frontrunner. Macri needed to calm some of that electoral anxiety to also calm some of the financial anguish gripping the markets, which has prompted the massive withdrawal of dollar deposits from banks.

There was no instant joy for the president. Executives in the private sector can barge their way into meetings and demand solutions. But politicians looking like lame ducks are waved back to the waiting-room.

The problem for the president is that the IMF itself is in the middle of a transition too.

Kristalina Georgieva, a Bulgarian economist, is formally scheduled to take over as managing director on October 1. But perhaps Georgieva is not waiting until the turn of the month to tackle Argentina. The new boss met with Economy Minister Hernán Lacunza on Wednesday and said she wanted Argentina to succeed. “I look forward to working with the authorities as I take on my duties on October 1. Argentina is an important member of the #IMF and we want to see it succeed,” she posted on Twitter.

The IMF has no choice but to carry on negotiating with Argentina. Dialogue continues and Argentina is still a priority, an IMF spokesman said, highlighting that Georgieva’s first meeting was with the Argentine delegation.

So there’s a new face at the helm of the IMF. Pretty soon Argentina could also have another leader: Fernández. Regardless of the outcome of the election the problem now is that not bagging those US$5.4 billion ahead of the vote could trigger severe financial turbulence, of the kind that could cause a meltdown.

Be sure that Georgieva, Lipton and all the IMF technocrats you care to name in one breath are fully aware of the complex scenario. Argentina’s uncertainty is unmanageable once more. The Fund, like everyone else, must not only wait to see if Alberto Fernández is effectively elected president, it must then see how he will behave once he is in charge.

Candidates on tour

Fernández hasn’t won just yet though. Macri has no choice – for the sake of the future of his coalition and the candidates on his ticket – but to put up a fight.

The president has announced a tour of 30 locations ahead of the election as he tries to rally his base. He has downplayed the significance of the PASO primaries. The election, Macri has tweeted, hasn’t happened yet. The president, with his apparent denial, agitated a campaign that to many observers is over and done with. Alberto Fernández quickly replied that if the election did not happen, on October 27 voters “should make it happen again.”

The Peronist candidate found time to meet with Bolivia’s progressive President Evo Morales, following on from recent visits to Spain and Portugal. Much has been written about Portugal’s decision to shed austerity policies in order to shoot for growth. But now the talk is about Fernández emulating Bolivia’s brand of progress. Immediately, the notion prompted speculation about a super tax for the rich if the Frente de Todos front wins next month.

Macri also has a Latin American neighbour he can turn to for solace: Chile. After all, the current president, Sebastián Piñera, is a former multimillionaire businessman who first became president in 2010, only to see his centre-right coalition defeated by the progressives four years later. That wasn’t the end of the story though: Piñera won the presidency again last year.

It’s all speculation of the kind designed to fill the void between the primaries and the first round of the presidential election. The stories about a super property tax caught the attention of Peronist Senator Miguel Ángel Pichetto, Macri’s running-mate, who said affluent Argentines risked having their properties seized under Alberto Fernández. Here was Pichetto using scare tactics in a bid to sway an election. The vice-presidential hopeful has complained that his camp is not doing enough to wrestle votes away from Alberto Fernández.

Other presidential candidates are also in the race too, including Roberto Lavagna, the former economy minister credited by many with having pulled Argentina out the financial crisis in 2002.

Lavagna, a veteran economist with a Peronist background, is trying to convince Macri’s supporters that they should vote for him on October 27, in a bid to force a run-off against Fernández.

Momentum

What Macri desperately needs is some momentum for his faltering campaign, to help it take off the ground. The government this week announced a 5,000-peso bonus for private-sector workers in agreement with the General Labour Confederation (CGT). But like many of the government initiatives, the bonus announcement degenerated into a muddle of technicalities. On top of the confusion came some bad political news: the president’s coalition was defeated in Neuquén City elections by the provincial party, MPN.

There are times in life when waiting is all that can be done. Even the IMF appears to be waiting for October 27 (even though further meetings with Lacunza could happen ahead of the vote). The problem is that waiting is not easy and that dollar deposits could be consumed by the flames of anxiety.

Argentines want to be shown the money. The world wants to be shown a definitive presidential election result.

Martín Gambarotta

Martín Gambarotta

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