We are told that the choice voters face several months from now could hardly be more straightforward. They will be asked if they are willing to continue trudging up the long mountain track which Mauricio Macri says will eventually take the country to those sun-lit uplands where democracy flourishes and the economy gets steadily better, or would they rather go back to where they were when Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was still in power and the country was sliding towards a cliff?
Though some insist that Macri’s economic policies are not that different from the ones pursued by the Kirchnerite administration, because they entail spending more money than the country can afford, in other areas the two have very little in common. Some members of Macri’s team may be light-fingered, but nobody thinks they have managed to salt away tens of billions of dollars.
As is the case in many other parts of the world, the government is under fire mainly because of its commitment to austerity, the assumption being that cheese-paring measures are not really necessary. That may be true in some places, but Argentina is not one of them. Were it not for the International Monetary Fund (IMF), she would be flat broke. This unhappy fact is recognised by those Peronist leaders people close to Macri describe as “rational,” but it means that to justify their desire to turf him out they have to deride him as a blundering ignoramus who never gets anything right.
Would they do better? There is no reason to think so. One of them, the former economy minister Roberto Lavagna, who poses as a safe pair of hands, says he would keep public spending high because he is dead against anything that smacks of belt-tightening while slashing taxes because they hurt business, but few have bothered to ask him to explain how he would manage to do this. In any event, large swathes of the electorate have let it be known that they are unimpressed by attempts by presumably level-headed Peronists to find a middle ground somewhere between Macri-style austerity and Kirchnerite prodigality, plus corruption on an industrial scale and phoney statistics. Unless this changes, in October and, as looks likely, in November, voters will have to choose between Macri and Cristina.
With the option before the electorate being so clear-cut, the campaign should be as short and sharp as it would be in the United Kingdom, where they get these contests over in a few weeks, but Argentine politicians like electioneering so much that, in addition to making the big one last the best part of a year, they have put in place a series of obstacles candidates must jump over before reaching the finishing straight.
In addition to doing their bit in all those provincial elections – which these days seem to be almost as frequent as football fixtures – before getting down to business politicians have to consolidate their alliances, a requirement they must meet by next week and, with considerable ingenuity, find ways of letting votes cast in favour of one particular candidate be transferred to the account of another who may stand for a radically different approach to the country’s problems.
For example, the governor of Buenos Aires Province, María Eugenia Vidal, would not object overmuch if, thanks to “a collection list” (that is an arrangement designed to steer votes towards people competing for the top jobs), supporters of Sergio Massa – a politician who loathes her boss Mauricio because he trounced him in 2015 – helped her beat back the Kirchnerite challenge.
But Massa, being the man he is, could well revert to being the Kirchnerite he once was, if he hasn’t already done so. After all, Alberto Fernández – who like Massa had subjected Cristina to extremely harsh criticism when he thought she was finished – did just that and, to widespread astonishment, suddenly became her presidential candidate, though hardly anybody doubts that she will continue to call all the shots.
Politicians may find all the manoeuvring, backstabbing and rumour-mongering highly enjoyable, but there are signs that the general public is getting fed up with what is going on. The spectacle provided by allegedly serious characters like Alberto Fernández and Massa – who one day treats Cristina as a thieving lunatic who took a wrecking-ball to the economy only to turn round and embrace her or, at least, start winking at her – annoys even cynics who take it for granted that, given the chance, both would be more than happy to see her clapped in jail.
Even more disturbing is the reluctance of would-be presidents and their hangers-on to come clean about what exactly they would do should they happen to come out on top. Instead of presenting plausible programmes of action that would withstand close scrutiny, they treat the electorate to sound-bites about how rotten Macri is and how trustworthy they are.
This is a serious matter. Though not that many people take note of what is being said in foreign parts, by now the literate must be aware that most observers think the Argentine economy is facing collapse and that, should word get round that Alberto (that is Cristina), will in all likelihood succeed Macri, it could come crashing to the ground, burying millions of people under the rubble, even before the votes have been counted. Such a prospect may appeal to those who would be delighted to see Argentina follow Venezuela on the road to revolutionary perdition, but it should alarm everyone else.
It might be thought that because the risks the country faces are so great, Macri and sensible opposition politicians, of which there are some, would present a common front, but even Miguel Angel Pichetto and Juan Manuel Urtubey are reluctant to give him their support, while Macri himself fears that getting help from such Peronist quarters would only make him look weak.
And then there is Lavagna, whose appeal may be limited but who nonetheless could siphon enough votes away from Cambiemos to let the Kirchnerites take Buenos Aires Province and, it is possible, the rest of the country. Is that what Lavagna really wants?
If, like Massa, he thinks defeating Macri would be more than enough to cure Argentina of her many ills, he would not be averse to serving as midwife for a new, and almost certainly disastrous, Kirchnerite administration.