Will Macri’s real contribution to the country be the construction of a reasonable opposition?
Several prominent journalists have already turned. Some of the most important businessmen in the country claim they will be better off with him. Even the markets appear to be coming to the conclusion that Alberto Fernández will be Argentina’s next president, with an allegedly tame Cristina Fernández de Kirchner at his side, more concerned with the health of daughter, Florencia, and the myriad corruption cases against her than with securing absolute control of the state and an alignment with Venezuela and Nicolás Maduro’s failing Chavismo. “Macri is not a lame duck,” wrote Beatriz Sarlo in Perfil last week. “He is a duck that has been plucked.”
It’s clear that society needs to believe in a “good Alberto” in order to maintain its hopes that the future will be better than the immediate past. And there are good reasons for Alberto to succeed on the economic front. That “we have learnt from our past mistakes,” as his closest advisors claim – meaning an Alberto administration won’t trample on the free press while putting into place an authoritarian government à la Cristina’s second term – is also a possibility. Whether he will be able to express this new and improved version of the unified Peronist front remains to be seen, as will Cristina’s role in the hypothetical return to power of Kirchnerism. Yet, before getting onto Alberto, it’s revealing to ponder President Mauricio Macri’s role as the potential leader of the opposition. Will Macri’s real contribution to the country be the construction of a reasonable opposition?
Being out of touch with reality is a commonplace criticism lodged at those who have a different vision of reality than we do. Currently, Macri and Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña are being portrayed as such, in that they seem to be letting go fumes of optimism. While some polls give Alberto a lead of up to 25 percentage points in the upcoming presidential election, Macri has gone on the campaign trail with renewed fervour. Yet, the media appeared more interested in First Lady Juliana Awada’s recent trip to Madrid, where she was presumed to be looking for apartments after a hypothetical electoral defeat in October and hypothetical move after handing over power.
“We can reach the run-off,” Macri reportedly told International Monetary Fund interim chief David Lipton last week in New York. Regardless of his conviction, that’s what he needs to say. “The president feels he’s been lied to,” reported Clarín this week regarding the role of political advisor Jaime Durán Barba in the campaign, noting he’s been relegated to the Buenos Aires City campaign, where Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta has a good chance at retaining the all-important capital, despite a strong challenge from Matías Lammens of Alberto’s Frente de Todos coalition. It is not the first time pundits have claimed Durán Barba will be banished, and it won’t be the last.
As Jaime has explained in his columns in Perfil, polls are statistical tools that can fail, and Macri has won every election since 2003, until the PASO primaries, by defeating Kirchnerites. Durán Barba and Peña were instrumental in this.
Macri, and Buenos Aires Province Governor María Eugenia Vidal, need to gain as many votes as possible in order to position themselves as the leaders of the opposition in 2020, assuming Alberto takes the nation and Axel Kicillof wins Buenos Aires Province. Retaining the City will be key if the PRO party dreams of maintaining a coalition that will give the opposition legislative and political muscle. Macri lost in every province but Córdoba in the primaries, where he saw his 2015 margins narrow. Still, he has built a strong and ideological following of more than 30 percent of the country, people who are strongly anti-Peronist.
Which forces the question: what role will Macri and his party take in a hypothetical ‘Fernández-Fernández’ administration? Recent reports suggest Alberto has stopped answering Macri’s WhatsApp messages, yet their economic teams remain in contact. Will Macri represent the anti-Peronists, or will he take on a more institutional and patriotic role?
Economist Matías Kulfas, widely regarded as one of Alberto’s favourites alongside Guillermo Nielsen, recently laid out the “six rules of ‘Alberto-nomics.’” They are: a competitive and stable exchange rate, positive trade balance, fiscal balance, reserve accumulation, a reduction in foreign indebtedness, and lowering inflation. It is difficult to imagine that Macri, Finance Minister Hernán Lacunza, or Central Bank chief Guido Sandleris would disagree with these points.
Furthermore, Kulfas has focused on the power of the Vaca Muerta formation, which could generate some 500,000 new jobs and bring in US$35 billion or more in hard currency. He also highlights the potential of the mining, industrial, service and agricultural sector, which could add another US$35 billion a year. It is said that Nielsen has already presented a plan to the major players in Vaca Muerta guaranteeing fair ground rules, reducing legal and financial uncertainty for investors. A plan that would be made into law in order to give even more predictability.
Alberto has also indicated he plans to pay Argentina’s sovereign debt, even though he will renegotiate under the “Uruguayan model.” This means an extension of maturity dates for five years during which only interest rates will be paid, and no haircuts for creditors. While one could argue if this is economically feasible, as in the case of Uruguay it was accompanied by a strong fiscal surplus, it seems to go in line with Lacunza’s policy of “re-profiling” short-term domestic debt while submitting a bill to Congress seeking to renegotiate the sovereign debt.
The major difference, in economic terms, between Alberto’s plan and Macri’s failed economic model appears to be a focus on growing consumption to jumpstart the economy. While Macri’s focus was on belt-tightening to achieve a fiscal surplus, with foreign debt making up for the lack of dollars, Alberto wants a “social and economic pact” that will allow for a drop in inflation, improved productivity and real wage growth. He’s also aiming at a “sector-by-sector labour reform,” Kulfas explained. Again, beyond the feasibility of the measures, it is not anathema to Macri’s economic worldview.
Were Macri to lead the opposition, or if he decides to step aside and let the next generation of leaders within the PRO party, the Vidals and Larretas, take over, what role will they take when the Peronists put forward a reform package similar to the one they blocked during his presidency? How paradoxical will it be for his legislators to vote alongside Kirchnerites and moderate Peronists on a new budget? Will they be selfless enough to put personal battles aside and support, say, Kicillof’s policies in the province? Will the grieta finally be put to rest?
These questions, of course, are formulated under the assumption that we will have a “good Alberto” in the Casa Rosada next year. After nearly a decade of decadence under both Cristina and Macri, is it time to be hopeful once again? Or, as Gustavo Gonzaléz wrote in Perfil, has “the grieta damaged Argentine society’s frontal lobe,” permanently, one should ask.