One issue now dominates domestic politics: the transition.
A new president has been elected: Alberto Fernández, at the helm of a united Peronist coalition. He is scheduled to take office on December 10. A long election year is all but over.
Fernández defeated President Mauricio Macri, leader of the ruling centre-right coalition, 48-40 on October 27 to score a first-round victory. But how long will it take for this result to truly sink in? Macri, surely, is still probably looking long and hard at the outcome. The rest of the country must come to terms with a landscape that has swayed dramatically from right to left.
This week, the outgoing president called a meeting of his “expanded” Cabinet to drive home the message that he still has a future in politics. A lot was said about the long faces of exasperation pulled at the gathering by Buenos Aires Province Governor María Eugenia Vidal (who was thrashed in her own bid for re-election) and Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta (who did clinch re-election). Macri claims that, with an impressive 40 percent of the votes under his belt, he will be the leader of the opposition. But Argentina is changing. Such titles will mean little once the new president takes office, setting in motion a new reality.
The real centre-right protagonist will most likely be Rodríguez Larreta who will be mayor once again and have an office, meaning that he will get to interact on a daily basis with the new president and the new incoming governor of Buenos Aires Province, leftist economist Axel Kicillof. Yet by declaring himself the leader of the opposition Macri is aiming to keep his camp together, at least until the end of his mandate.
Macri is also striving to hold his head up high. His office has released a report claiming that the economic situation is better now than it was when Macri took over from then-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in 2015. The spinning of the report, which talks about a “healthier” economic situation than in 2015 that leaves Argentina “ready to grow” (it was released in a context of rocketing inflation and growing poverty) is presumably the work of Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña.
The Macri administration wants you to believe that the hard work has been done and Argentina will eventually be all the better for it. Is the Cabinet chief already dreaming of a Macri comeback? Judging by the looks on the faces of Rodríguez Larreta and Vidal, the Cabinet chief is delusional.
Effectively the centre-right coalition must now work harder to avoid falling apart. Macri has anointed a caucus leader in the lower house Chamber of Deputies, Cristian Ritondo. But the outgoing president’s coalition has three arms: Macri’s PRO, the Radicals (UCR), and the Civic Coalition, headed by the outgoing lawmaker Elisa Carrió. Ritondo has called for discipline, but already a section of the coalition, headed by the current Lower House Speaker Emilio Monzó, is guffawing. The Radical party has also voiced complaints and expect them to sort out their own future internal differences in complex conventions, events in which Macri will not have a say.
Alberto Fernández has called Macri’s economic report a “lie” fabricated by his Cabinet chief. The Macri administration tightened currency controls limiting savers (to purchasing just US$200 a month) after the election and has little to boast about economically. December 10, Alberto Fernández has said, is not a “magical” date. The currency controls will not be done away with overnight, he added.
Deep down inside the elected president is a bit of a bureaucrat, a grey operative used to working for others who looks like he is still coming to terms with the gleeful fact that he is now boss. The goal of transition is for events to unfold calmly, Fernández has said.
The president-elect also ridiculed in an interview the notion that the transition is really that difficult, quipping that at issue there is nothing more than handing over the telephone extensions of middle-ranking officials. But the president-elect still hinted that some appointments made by the outgoing administration could be reviewed nonetheless.
Macri, meanwhile, at the time this column was being written was poised to sign a decree regulating the transition, a move that could further increase tensions if it forces the incoming administration to show some of its cards ahead of schedule. Then there is Congress. The incoming government will not control the Lower House. But life will be easier for the new president in Congress if, say, the argument between the new Macri coalition caucus leader and the outgoing speaker of the Lower House escalates.
Effectively Alberto Fernández and Macri are engaged in a rhetorical argument over the legacy of the past four years. They met amiably enough after the election, showing off their institutional manners. But right now the transition is a trifle more tense. Still, it was far more chaotic and traumatic in 2015 when Fernández de Kirchner and Macri bickered openly and failed to agree on an inauguration ceremony.
There is a world out there and it is watching. US President Donald Trump has telephoned Alberto Fernández and, roll your eyeballs, said he had watched his big win on television. Fernández also visited Mexico City to meet with progressive President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
That visit was full of niceties. But the real meat is in the diplomatic argument unfolding with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. The president of Argentina’s giant neighbour will not attend the incoming president’s inauguration and he has all but likened – in public – the incoming Argentine government to a gang of Bolsheviks. Early on in the campaign Fernández irked Bolsonaro by insistently calling for the release of his arch-rival Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the jailed former president and leftist leader. The immediate challenge for Argentina’s new foreign minister, as yet unnamed, will be to somehow undo the row with Bolsonaro’s Brazil.
Yet all is not conflict. The president-elect has been down to some real diplomatic work. Fernández, on top of that phone call from Trump, met on Wednesday in Mexico with Mauricio Claver-Carone, senior director of the United States National Security Council’s Western Hemisphere Affairs division.
The Frente de Todos leader must come to terms with the region. But the region must also come to terms with this development: Argentina’s election result is a major shift for the continent, just when Chile is in the middle of a revolt against neoliberal economic policies. The regional backdrop is the Trump administration’s loathing of Bolivarian Venezuela. Fernández has vowed to embrace the stance of non-intervention championed by Mexico and Uruguay (hence the meeting with López Obrador).
Still the overall message from the calls and meetings with Trump and Claver-Carone is that Argentina and the United States will make an effort to “work together,” just when complex negotiations are looming with bondholders and the International Monetary Fund.
In the meantime the transition here has tensed up. But almost by definition it is anecdotal. It will not change the election result. Accept it.