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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 03-08-2019 10:53

Things are looking up for Macri

The Kirchnerite ‘project,’ insofar as one exists, is almost entirely negative. Macri’s may be unappealing, but at least it is positive.

It is still far too early for them to start uncorking the champagne bottles and inflating hundreds of yellow balloons, but Mauricio Macri and his teammates clearly think their chances of winning the fast approaching general elections are growing by the minute. Thanks largely to US president Donald Trump and the outgoing managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde – who provided the government with enough money to prevent the local financial markets from going haywire and sending Argentina down the road taken by Venezuela – the economic climate is now considerably more benign than it was just a couple of months ago. As a result, voters are taking a closer look at what the Kirchnerite-dominated opposition has to offer and some, enough to make a big difference, seem to have come to the conclusion that it is not for them.

Few doubt that, if re-elected, Macri will continue to squeeze the economy in an effort to remove the many noxious substances that continue to clog it up but, unpleasant as austerity most certainly is, an increasing number of people appreciate that when money is in short supply, there are not that many viable alternatives. This simple fact puts Alberto Fernández in a bind. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner made him her front-man because she assumed he would be able to woo folk frightened by the possibility that a Kirchnerite government would be happy to sacrifice what is left of the economy on the altar of the eclectic ideology the movement’s militants have put together from bits taken from Peronism, the musings of Hugo Chávez, Catholic nationalism and student left-wingery.

For a while, Alberto played the part given him by his spiritual leader, but then, on realising that his campaign was running out of steam, he decided to stir things up by hinting that, once in power, he would sweepingly devalue the peso and look for ways to pay less interest on government bonds. In a country in which even the semi-literate keep a close watch on the exchange rate and know how harmful default can be, that did not go down very well.

The electoral strategies of the government and its foes are much the same: both sides are trying to persuade voters that the other lot are simply too awful to be allowed anywhere close to power. In this contest, Macri and his backers should win hands down; when for them the going was good, the Kirchnerites looted the country, all but bankrupted the economy and often behaved in an outrageous manner towards their critics. What is more, some of Cristina’s fiercer supporters have let it be known that, once back in office, they would replace the judicial system with one more to their liking and persecute anyone bold enough to oppose them.

But, Argentina being the country she is, corruption is not the decisive issue members of Team Macri hoped it would be. Too many people assume that all politicians, bureaucrats, judges and policemen are on the take and think picking on some because they were more successful than the rest when it came to pocketing stray banknotes is grossly unfair. As for the way Axel Kicillof handled the economy when Cristina was in the Pink House, many people remember that back then they felt better off than they do today. From their point of view, the technicalities alleged experts go on about are irrelevant.

The desperately poor and educationally challenged inhabitants of the squalid shantytowns of Greater Buenos Aires are not the only people who think this way. For what may be described as ideological reasons, large numbers of left-leaning intellectuals, plus people attached to the entertainment industry and others of a similar disposition, share their trenchant opinions.

Their intense dislike of Macri, the men and women who surround him and an economic system in which businessmen rather than individuals claiming to be all for social justice play a key role may be understandable. But while we know what those who want to see Cristina back where she was before (in her own words) she turned into a pumpkin are against, it is hard to say exactly what they are for. Alberto Fernández and even Kicillof are well aware that circumstances have changed so much that it would be worse than useless for a new Kirchnerite government to try and pick up where its predecessor left off in December 2015. If nothing else, the dreadful fate suffered by Venezuela – whose inhabitants are paying dearly for having supported Chávez when the money was pouring in – has taught them that while their kind of populism can win plenty of votes, attempting to make good on their campaign promises after they have been counted would be sheer folly.

For the Kirchnerite opposition the forthcoming elections are all about bringing Macri down and ensuring that Cristina and a select handful of others spend their remaining years in freedom. It is hard to believe that many think themselves capable of showing the world that their version of Chávez’s “21st-century socialism” is the way of the future. If returned to power, they would have little choice but to continue trudging along the same uphill path as the one Macri took after a run on the peso forced him to give up “gradualism,” but they would do so with marked reluctance and at the first opportunity they would veer off in a different direction. If things went as badly as might reasonably be expected, whoever is president at the time would run the risk of having to escape from an angry mob by helicopter.

The Kirchnerite ‘project,’ insofar as one exists, is almost entirely negative. Macri’s may be unappealing, but at least it is positive; he wants Argentina to undergo the structural reforms she would need in order to recover from the wasting disease which has kept her bed-ridden for the best part of a century and then, once back on her feet, to make proper use of her abundant natural resources and human capital. Of course, doing all this would require changes that the large, but shrinking, minority – which has learned how to take advantage of the country’s many problems – would much prefer to thwart. These ultraconservatives, among them political pros, trade-union bosses, businessmen who rely on government favours and many self-styled progressives, want things to stay much as they are and, no matter what happens in the coming months, will continue to do whatever they can to ensure that they do.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

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

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