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OP-ED | 02-11-2019 12:39

Polarised – but balanced

Macri not only escaped political obliteration last weekend but also improved his fallen image by proving a good loser, in contrast to the bad winners in at least two of the three main victory speeches – he thus stands consolidated as the future opposition leader, for now

All Souls Day is the date imposed on our Saturday newspaper by the calendar to comment on the demise of the Mauricio Macri presidency with a tricky transition already in progress. Even if nobody is especially trying to make it worse than it is (unlike the previous transition), this process is fraught with a crisis so acute that it is forcing both the outgoing and future presidents into extreme role reversal – thus the promarket Macri is imposing the tightest of currency controls while president-elect Alberto Fernández owing his triumph to centre-left votes is trying to sweet-talk the oil industry into making the most of Vaca Muerta shale. But this transition is a work in progress and with no run-off lying ahead (not even in this city) there are still five more Saturdays to comment on its evolution (ditto for a final verdict on the Macri presidency) – this editorial will thus aim at an update from the previous weekend.

If life is supposed to imitate art (far more than art imitates life, according to Oscar Wilde), in Argentina life sometimes seems to imitate football. Just as in the Copa Libertadores semi-final, Boca Juniors won the return leg 1-0 after being totally outplayed in the first, but are still eliminated. So Macri staged a stirring comeback from his PASO primary disaster in last Sunday’s voting but Alberto Fernández is still the next president.

That is a simple way of looking at it but there are multiple complexities. Last Sunday Macri almost halved his PASO deficit but the jury is still out over whether this impressive comeback either hurts Fernández or helps Macri (or the country). The relatively slender singledigit majority (yet another surprising twist in this long campaign after no more surprises seemed possible) was both good news and bad news for Fernández – at first glance it might seem purely negative, not only when measured against the disappointed expectations of up to a 20-point triumph but also because it leaves him far behind his running-mate ex-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (the presumed magnet of a third of the electorate) in terms of votes he can call his own. Yet the failure to repeat the 2011 landslide also rules out any return to Kirchnerite hegemony – in particular lacking control of both houses of Congress, maintaining the traditional Peronist domination of the Senate but not even being the biggest caucus in a hung Chamber of Deputies with arguably the least reliable Frente de Todos ally, Sergio Massa, as Speaker. This will require constant negotiations from the next government – well within the comfort zone of Alberto Fernández and wholly alien to his running-mate’s style.

Macri not only escaped political obliteration last weekend but also improved his fallen image by proving a good loser, in contrast to the bad winners in at least two of the three main victory speeches – he thus stands consolidated as the future opposition leader, for now. However, both his own track record and history are against him. Memories of the last four years will make it difficult to present a constructive alternative to the future government. No ex-president has ever returned to the Pink House since Argentina returned to democracy in 1983, although several have tried, not even the future vice-president. If the latter’s decision to take a step back turned likely defeat into comfortable victory for her team, the pressures on Macri to resurrect his cause by similarly dismantling the other half of a widely deplored polarisation may well be enormous.

If last Sunday’s voting is more complex to interpret than PASO’s one-way traffic, so is the electorate’s message. Absolutely nobody was expecting Macri to top 40 percent, add two million more votes and win five provinces (including Santa Fe with Rosario one of the main victims of recession and, perhaps most surprisingly, San Luis with unbroken Peronist rule since 1983) amid a devastating economic crisis – the result defies the axiom of “It’s the economy, stupid.” But apart from being a puzzle for pundits, these results should make Fernández ponder his mandate – in particular he should banish the idea that the corruption trials will magically disappear from the public mind because economic crisis and political victory are everything.

Last but not least, congratulations to the future president – and the best of luck. It might be exaggerating to call Alberto Fernández “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” in Winston Churchill’s words, but this supreme pragmatist with his ideological following could move several ways in a tight situation.

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