Argentina’s civilised mood of transition did not last much longer than the shutter of a camera. “Nothing has moved much since the picture” between the outgoing and the incoming presidents, said Santiago Cafiero, Alberto Fernández’s right-hand man and potential future Cabinet chief, this week.
It hasn’t. And neither have there been any substantial definitions from the president-elect and his team about what the future may bring. In Mexico this week for his first trip abroad since he was elected, Fernández continued to strike a delicate balance between left and right: back-to-back, he visited the Frida Kahlo museum and a Catholic cathedral; he met with the leftist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and the business magnate Carlos Slim; he gave an interview to Rafael Correa for a Russian TV station and met with Donald Trump’s Western Hemisphere envoy.
This centrist, catch-all approach is unlikely to be replicated at home quite so easily. The surprisingly good performance that Mauricio Macri put in during the general election (48.24 vs 40.26 percent) has given the outgoing president hopes for a political afterlife, though he still needs to validate it within his heterogeneous coalition. But in any case, Macri’s rightful ambition is pushing the incoming administration to highlight the differences, rather than the coincidences, with the incumbent.
This means the political schism that has popularly become known here as ’la grieta’ is back (if it was ever gone) and yes, here to stay. President Macri has urged his ministers to stress the good aspects of his legacy (yes, even the economy), although only a handful of his closest collaborators are taking the order.
The best example is Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña, the intellectual force behind Macri’s hardline anti-Peronist language over these past years who is now paying the political cost of the re-election defeat.
Peña published a document titled “Eight points about the economy” that starts like this: “At the end of 2019 the country is ready to grow. Without magic, without lies, without fiction. Thanks to the effort of Argentines throughout this year, we have overcome the 2015 legacy.” The message was reinforced by Deputy Cabinet Chief Andrés Ibarra, who touched on one of the most sensitive cords of the country’s current economic debacle after this week’s Cabinet meeting at the Casa Rosada, saying: “We are leaving US$10 billion in Central Bank reserves versus zero that the former administration left in 2015.”
Macri has reportedly tasked his staff with putting together a decree to “institutionalise” the transition and produce “timely information” for the incoming administration (likely a rephrased version of Marcos Peña’s report).
Fernández predictably questioned this version of events. He tweeted that the report was “absurd” and that it portrayed “a country that does not exist.” Everyday reality contradicts the government’s narrative, added the next head of state, citing the latest figures from the INDEC national statistics bureau, which revealed on Wednesday that manufacturing contracted by 5.1 percent and construction activity by 8.5 percent in September. “Cut the lies,” he concluded.
Fernández is worried about the hard choices his government will have to take in order to translate the delicate balance he is pursuing into economic policy and reality. Fernández has said he believes in fiscal equilibrium but also that he wants to improve real wages and give free medicine to pensioners, to name a few. How he will settle this policy goal tension remains an open question.
But in the meantime, he is reportedly pushing for Congress to work through Christmas, the New Year and January via special sessions in order to pass emergency legislation that will set the tone of his first months as president. There will be a lot of fingerpointing during this process, and the blame game will only deepen the crack that divides the political aisles.
Given the nature of Argentina’s economic problems, polarisation expands at the political system’s own peril. The remarkable political stability that the country is enjoying during this transition – which contrasts with cataclysms in many countries in the region and elsewhere – should not be taken as a given. Macri spent most of his four years in office blaming his administration’s economic ills on his predecessor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the vicepresident-elect. Alberto Fernández repeats that Macri is leaving “scorched Earth” behind.
At one point, Argentines might just not buy the interchangeable blame game anymore – and the international community, including a mammoth creditor called the International Monetary Fund, will surely not.