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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 15-07-2023 06:58

Zigzagging on the way to the top

Were Massa to overcome the odds stacked against him and win the forthcoming election, he would be most unlikely to let himself be bossed around by Cristina or anyone else.

Earlier this year, much of the British commentariat seethed with righteous indignation for weeks on end after convincing itself that the soon-to-be defenestrated prime minister, Boris Johnson, had played fast and loose with the truth when he told the House of Commons that he did not think he broke lockdown rules by eating a slice of cake at a gathering organised by his aides. To the enlightened, Johnson’s behaviour on that occasion had been so outrageous that he deserved to be sent into permanent exile.

In Argentina, they do things differently. Here, Boris would have handed over a few black-market dollars and been allowed to go on as before. Nobody pretends that most local politicians can always be relied upon to tell the unadorned truth and that any who break this rule should be kicked out of office. It is understood that while there may be some surpassingly virtuous people out there, the rest of them are as prone as their counterparts everywhere else, including the United Kingdom, to provide adulterated versions of the truth that make them look better in the eyes of those who pay attention to what they are up to.

Given the circumstances most find themselves in, they have little choice. With few exceptions, those who have managed to get near the top of the heap once associated themselves with factions which since then have fallen into disrepute or have made statements they would much prefer to forget.

The most notorious in this regard is the country’s Economy Minister Sergio Massa, who is now doubling as the Peronist movement’s presidential candidate and campaigning strenuously between trips to Washington to chat up Kristalina and Gita at the IMF. 

After starting his political career as an ardent free-marketeer in a fairly successful outfit formed by the late Álvaro Alsogaray, Massa drifted towards a heterodox variant of Peronism and then joined forces with Cristina Fernández de Kirchner – a lady whose dreams of becoming president for life he helped thwart and, while about it, suggested he would like to see behind bars – in order to become a minority shareholder of the ruling coalition which is nominally headed by another individual who had also been a ferocious critic of Cristina, Alberto Fernández.

In Argentina, this is about par for the course; there are plenty of opposition high-ups who followed a similarly serpentine path on their way to where they are now, though, luckily for them, they have been less blatant about it than Massa who, rightly or wrongly, is thought by many to be by far the shiftiest character in Argentine politics.

Is this harming his electoral prospects? There is no reason to think so. On the contrary, his dodgy reputation appears to be helping him overcome doubts raised by his evident inability to rein in inflation and his role as a leading member of a crassly incompetent government. Massa is assumed to be so slippery that he would find it easy to separate himself from his current associates and, after installing himself in the Pink House, embark on a radically different course without having to worry about whatever objections Cristina, Axel Kiciloff and other believers in the Kirchnerite gospel come up with. What is more, as far as many are concerned, low cunning is a quality the flat broke country will desperately need in the near future if it is to get itself out of the deep hole into which it has fallen.

As things stand, Massa remains a long shot, but even so he is in there with a chance and his main rivals, Patricia Bullrich and Horacio Rodriguez Larreta, are watching him warily. For them, he is a decidedly more prepossessing adversary than would have been Wado de Pedro, Cristina’s original favourite to head the Peronist ticket. Both fear that voters for the one who loses the August 13 primaries could prefer him to whoever wins the Juntos por el Cambio race, so while the two’s combined total seems likely to be exceed that of the government’s candidates by a handsome margin, it could split apart before the definitive elections take place.

There is also the problem posed by the libertarian Javier Milei; his poll ratings are going down as news gets out about his links with psychics and talking dogs, but he could still do well enough to make it hard for an opposition candidate to win a clear victory in October.

Massa is clearly banking on something like this happening in the coming months. He is also trying to frighten the electorate by warning it that, once in office, a government led by Patricia or even the studiously mild-mannered Horacio would order the cops to gun down rioters objecting to budget cuts. There is nothing particularly new about this. Over the decades, Peronists have thrived by reminding people that, though they are not that good at governing the country, they are second to none when it comes to preventing anyone else from doing a decent job. For over three-quarters of a century, such scare tactics have worked very well in Argentina, so it is not at all surprising that Massa is now using them.

Were Massa to overcome the odds stacked against him and win the forthcoming election, he would be most unlikely to let himself be bossed around by Cristina or anyone else. Opposition spokespeople who compare him to Alberto, who until very recently did his utmost to placate her every whim, are surely aware that, as soon as he thought it convenient, he would treat her as she and her husband did Eduardo Duhalde, the man who handed them the keys to the Pink House; without wasting time, the couple from deepest Patagonia told him to get lost and set about taking over the political organisation he had put together in Buenos Aires Province. If it suited him, Massa could even fulfil his promise to purge all public entities of the La Cámpora activists who hold posts in them and make sure that those accused of corrupt behaviour, such as Cristina, get sent to jail. By endlessly broadcasting videos of him breathing fire at the Kirchnerites in 2015, Massa’s enemies in the media are probably helping him get votes from people who want him to revert to what he was back then.

It is impossible to pin Massa down, but hard-core Kirchnerites suspect that, when it comes to the economy, he is very much a man of the free-market right. They should be taken seriously. So too should the many who are worried by his ties with businessmen who have prospered thanks almost exclusively to their political leverage, This suggests that, unlike Bullrich and, presumably, Rodríguez Larreta, he is fond of crony capitalism although, given his ruthlessness, if he found that his friends in the business world were causing him trouble, he would be certain to betray them without a qualm.

James Neilson

James Neilson

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

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