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OP-ED | 15-04-2023 06:44

Means and ends

Politicians blame each other and the citizenry blames the politicians, but perhaps everybody needs to focus on finding some constructive alternatives.

This week’s renewed political infighting over this city’s electoral system has only served to deepen the disrepute of the political class and its distance from the country’s problems but the blame games no longer suffice because in the upcoming elections not only is the next presidency at stake but 40 years of democracy stand on trial. While this week’s tensions are only the tip of an iceberg – not only far from papered over in this city but extending inland with ex-president Mauricio Macri plugging a rival candidate to his own Juntos por el Cambio coalition in tomorrow’s provincial elections in Neuquén and the virtual collapse of that coalition in Mendoza, a disunity fully mirrored by a fractious Frente de Todos – they should never be allowed to erode the underlying credibility of democracy.

In this context it is easy to understand how it has become so fashionable to rubbish politicians for ignoring the agenda of the general public in their obsession with the spats of their own little world – so fashionable that anti-system politics is assigned serious chances of carrying the day later this year. Yet that old saying about people having the governments they deserve should not be forgotten – a cliché perhaps but home truths become clichés precisely because they tend to carry a strong element of truth to the point of being obvious. If the four decades of democracy including nine presidents (not counting the Federico Pinedos, minding the shop for a single morning) have failed to remove the structural flaws arising from half a century of constant military disruption, can the people entirely shrug off their responsibility – not only for electing those governments but also for defending such addictions as subsidised energy and transport which make populism so hard to beat?

That latter example serves to question the also fashionable call for consensus to replace political infighting and polarisation – consensus is often much easier to achieve over the wrong policies. This widespread notion of the populace as innocent victims of political parasites calls for some balance. In many eyes all the fault belongs to the state because everything is expected of it but this merely extends the blame game with anti-system politics serving to exempt society from any responsibility.

Yet all this would not justify going to the other extreme by exempting the political class from their heavier and amply remunerated responsibilities either. One very concrete failure of the political system which receives surprisingly little attention is the abject inability of Congress to session with the Senate dormant for the last five months until last Thursday. One constant of Argentine democracy over the last four decades has been its ultra-presidential focus which now works against it when the current incumbent owes his support to being plucked out of obscurity by the vice-president. Among the general need for constructive alternatives the evolution of a parliamentary democracy might be considered at the highest institutional level. Democracy is sometimes said to have failed but has it even been tried in the fullest sense?

If the notion of an innocent electorate requires some balance, so does the demonization of the state at the heart of anti-system politics, which is its natural consequence. A bloated bureaucracy and a public-sector payroll undoubtedly surplus to requirements do not negate the various ways in which the state serves to hold the social fabric together in a changing world. Dissatisfaction with healthcare and education is widespread and they are indeed flawed (especially the latter) but Argentina’s health services are nevertheless the envy of many countries while free university education may be abused by incomers from abroad and make the highest academic standards impossible but at the same time contributes towards this country’s surprising wealth of human capital. Social welfare benefits are heavily criticised both for their cost and for allegedly destroying the work ethic but while arguably a factor in mass poverty, they also serve to limit it to being a huge problem rather than a catastrophe. Just as all that money printed triggers some growth as well as a whole lot of inflation, so the current state offers some good which needs to be taken into consideration when moving to eradicate its many evils.

The politicians blame each other and the citizenry blames the politicians but perhaps everybody needs to lower their fingers and focus on finding some constructive alternatives.

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