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OP-ED | 04-03-2023 03:02

It takes two to tango even when dancing alone

Most of the reactions to the two-hour state-of-the-nation address of President Alberto Fernández to open Congress on Wednesday fall into its trap of placing their main focus on its explosive climax, thus limiting the debate to the judicial arena rather than tackling the deeper and more complex problems facing Argentina.

Most of the reactions to the two-hour state-of-the-nation address of President Alberto Fernández to open Congress on Wednesday fall into its trap of placing their main focus on its explosive climax, thus limiting the debate to the judicial arena – which is exactly where the government wants it to stay – rather than tackling the deeper and more complex problems facing Argentina.

The legislative branch could hardly have started the 40th consecutive year of democracy (mentioned more than once in the speech) on a worse footing than the gloves-off attack of the executive branch against the judicial and nor should all the blame fall on the speaker – virtually nobody present showed institutional respect apart from the two Supreme Court justices in the headlights. Before taking President Fernández apart over his speech, it should be pointed out that those opposition deputies booing fell sadly short of the institutional veneration they so often profess. Nor is the only absentee deputy (Máximo Kirchner) exempt from criticism either.

If the many critics of Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner sometimes assert that she is bipolar, then President Fernández would seem schizophrenic on the basis of Wednesday’s speech, which fell into two contrasting parts (unequal in length) with various contradictions along the way. The professions of moderation at the start of his speech were contradicted by his furious and overacted diatribe against the Supreme Court. The flood of data describing a booming economy was undermined by the single sentence: “The high inflation is a central factor in disorganising our economy,” with little reference to the data point that affects the country the most. President Fernández employed various Peronist catchphrases such as “Where there is a need there is a right” but was unable to add: “For a Peronist there cannot be anything better than another Peronist” because Supreme Court Chief Justice Horacio Rosatti, a previous Justicialist mayor of Santa Fe and the first Justice minister of the Néstor Kirchner presidency, is a lifelong Peronist.

While this editorial seeks to avoid the trap of being stuck in legal debate, the issue merits a paragraph. Although the Supreme Court has been purged in the past, the two previous instances had both more consensus and more solid grounds (condoning the 1930 coup and reversing the “automatic majority” installed by Carlos Menem to cover his corruption when he packed the tribunal) – rulings to up the Federal Capital’s federal revenue-sharing allocation to 2.95 percent (for a district housing almost seven percent of the population, which President Fernández somehow found outrageously excessive to the point of asserting that it had no right to anything at all) and an overhaul of the Council of Magistrates are not in the same league of institutional abuse. As for his claims of his veep being victimised by a kangaroo court to disqualify her politically (without actually using her words of lawfare and a “proscripción” ban), far from being “a simulated trial without observing the minimal forms of legal process,” it lasted 42 months with 114 witnesses while acquitting four of the 13 defendants.

The economy is rather more complex than either the president or opposition critics dismissing his speech as a pack of lies or Disneyland fantasy would have us believe. If there really is growth for three years running for the first time since 2008 (when he ceased to be Cabinet chief) with record employment and exports, doubled public works, bumper summer tourism, etc. made invisible by malicious media, then Alberto Fernández would be the automatic presidential candidate for re-election so something must be wrong. But if the opposition deputy and meticulous economist Martín Tetaz totted up 27 errors in two hours of speaking with endless data, then he must have said something right too.

Instead of dismissing the often real enough data as lies, critics need to look behind them. Thus 5.4 percent growth last year is credible enough but could be dismissed as the corollary of inflation as consumer-led growth – the simple arithmetic of 5.4 percent inflation and 94.8 percent inflation suggests that with so much money printed, one peso of every 20 printed feeds growth and the other 19 inflation. Much of the positive data stems from a comparison with the second not first half of 2019 when everything was in free fall due to anticipation of his own government. Some figures were downright lies – the 12 percent improvement in pensions, 15 straight months of industrial growth, full employment in 21 provinces and YPF shares quadrupled (unless he is counting in pesos).

Perhaps the biggest criticism of the speech is what failed to appear – no answers to inflation presented (not even his own Precios Cuidados/Justos policies), dodging it as a structural problem dating back decades, and lacking the legislative road map and policy announcements which are supposedly the essence of a state-of-the-nation speech.

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