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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 13-04-2019 09:22

Will Macri sell his soul for a handful of votes?

Macri is saying too frequently these days that he has introduced policies he does not like, in order to tackle the country’s economic emergency.

“This year’s election will be a battle for the soul rather than the wallets of Argentines.”

Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña is lucky that, in our permanent state of information overload, catchphrases like his might not stick in people’s minds for long, as they did in the past. An economy minister in the late 1980s, Juan Carlos Pugliese, went down in history for having said, amid a run on the peso, that he had spoken to Argentines “with my heart,” but that the selfish Argentines had responded “with your wallets.”

This will be the backbone of the government’s campaign strategy, which Marcos Peña leads: the axiom that ethics rather than economics will guide at least a fraction of Argentines as they go to the polls this year, when President Mauricio Macri seeks re-election. Is that anything more than an act of faith or wishful thinking?

Just in case, the administration will also try to put something inside people’s wallets sooner than later. During this week, President Mauricio Macri’s team has been debating internally a series of measures to boost, at least slightly, the public’s purchasing-power, which lost ground to inflation dramatically last year.

But the government is divided as to whether to sell its soul for a handful of votes. Macri is saying too frequently these days that he has introduced policies he does not like, in order to tackle the country’s economic emergency. Last year, his administration slapped on across-the-board export duties, a tax the president has repeatedly said is “very bad.” Now, as the high electoral season approaches, Macri’s pro-market economic team is mulling (and squabbling) over seeking some sort of price agreement to curb inflation, especially on food items. The basic food basket for a family increased almost 60 percent over the last year, according to official statistics, well above average inflation of around 50 percent. The latest polls circulating in the corridors of power show Macri now losing in the second round to almost any potential contender, including former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. And still, government spokespeople are obsessed about not appearing to introduce a populist-style “freeze” on prices, which they would instead rather call “a voluntary and temporary agreement.”

But the ruling party is not the only ones resorting to animism at the start of this long electoral race ahead. The main opposition force, led by Fernández de Kirchner, engaged in yet another new verbal bout with Peña this week during the Cabinet chief’s regular report to Congress in the Lower House. The Kirchnerite caucus welcomed the Cambiemos official with signs reading “Cut the lies,” and one deputy likened the Cabinet chief to Argentine striker Gonzalo ‘Pipita’ Higuaín for “repeatedly missing the goal.”

Peña could strike back easily: for around a decade the previous administration turned lies into official information via the intervention of the INDEC national statistics bureau, he shouted at them. Still, the opposition boasted that the hashtag #BastaDeMentiras was a trending topic on Twitter for a couple of hours. The Argentines who are still undecided about their vote are unlikely to find this spectacle good for their soul. Luckily, not many were watching.

Roberto Lavagna, one of the people trying to sneak in between these two hardcore poles, is also grounding his plans with soulsearching. Lavagna is critical of the economic course of strict fiscal equilibrium the administration has taken, and he believes the country can change direction and move toward growth via “consensus.” To his credit, he has the reputation of having helped steer the country out of the 2002 crisis, an economic and political meltdown that the present dramatically starts to resemble. Refusing to give a straight answer once again, the former economy minister said this week that he was only interested in running for president if there was also consensus about his candidacy. “At this point I am a proto-candidate,” he said, “if there is no consensus, I am not interested.” But the polls at this point show him in a virtual single-digit-territory tie with another third-man-wannabe, Sergio Massa, who is unlikely to drop his bid with alacrity unless the numbers change substantially over the next handful of weeks. The deadline to register candidacies is June 22, by the way.

Despite the ruling party’s political marketing, hard numbers rather than anima will dominate the agenda of the country’s through to the end of Macri’s tenure and the start of the next government. The managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, was quick to publicly deliver a reminder to potential presidential contenders in a press round on Thursday, at the start of the lender’s Spring Meeting in Washington. “Now that so much hard work has been done, in a programme where social protection has always been one of our three key priorities, it would be foolish on the part of any candidate to turn their back on the work that is underway,” she warned.

No margin for lost souls there.

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Marcelo J. Garcia

Marcelo J. Garcia

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