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OP-ED | 22-10-2021 21:53

Pacts falling in line with the facts

The midterms might seem to be everything now (not least to the Frente de Todos government) but nothing lies beyond – the paradox is that in the heat of electoral battle, all politicians need to be looking ahead to future agreements.

For much of this century political life has been dominated by a rigid polarisation, to which no better alternative was presented than utopian dreams of some vague consensus which might carry the country forward (or back to largely mythical good old days). Today such ideas offer no more guarantee of success than before but something is going to have to fill the vacuum looming as from mid-November. The political realignment to come might be good or bad, visionary or opportunistic, ambitious or minimalist, optimistic or pessimistic but it now looks inevitable. The November 14 midterms might seem to be everything now (not least to the Frente de Todos government) but nothing lies beyond – the paradox is that in the heat of electoral battle, all politicians need to be looking ahead to future agreements.

While presenting a united electoral front, the government is fraught with contradictions, of which the U-turns over the Mapuche arson rocking the province of Río Negro – ordering in Border Guards one day, only for President Alberto Fernández to disavow any federal responsibilities the next – are only one example. These contradictions are not accidental but structural. If, from its birth, the ruling coalition was frequently caricatured as a puppet president controlled by his vice-president in an upside-down ticket, that picture has now fragmented into a more complex reality with parallel islands of power multiplying. The veto rights of a solar Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (with her grip on the Senate now increasingly shaky) always co-existed with satellite spheres such as the manoeuvres of Congress Speaker Sergio Massa and Economy Minister Martín Guzmán representing Argentina abroad at least but all these have in turn been recently eclipsed by such rising stars as the new Cabinet Chief Juan Manzur (possibly already on the wane) and the even newer Domestic Trade Secretary Roberto Feletti overriding all three economic portfolios ranking above him with his price controls. Even the debutante presidential spokesperson Gabriela Cerruti (newer still) does not seem a mere mouthpiece but to have a voice of her own. Ahead of the expected devaluation of the peso, presidential power has thus already been devalued within an ultra-presidential democracy.

Even if victorious next month, it thus does not seem that Frente de Todos will simply be carrying on from where they left off but if last month’s PASO primary defeat is repeated or compounded, it will not just be a case of the Juntos por el Cambio opposition stepping in and taking over. Quite apart from the constitutional dictate that Alberto Fernández was elected to run the country until 2023 and the complexity of any power-sharing (an opposition Cabinet chief?), any Juntos por el Cambio mandate would be more nominal than real and they know it. Rather than riding any bandwagon, they won mostly thanks to ballots being an incredibly clumsy binary instrument largely serving to express what voters least want – Frente de Todos lived by that sword amid Mauricio Macri’s economic woes in 2019 and now seem to be falling by it. And like voters in general, the opposition seems far clearer about what it does not want than what it does (with the recent debates contributing little to the electorate’s enlightenment).

In this state of total political flux agreements of some kind are going to have to emerge soon after the voting if the country is going to make it through the next two years without flouting the Constitution but there should be no illusions that this will automatically spell progress. Consensus is a virtue but consensus for what – perhaps nothing has enjoyed higher opinion poll approval in recent years than electricity and gas billing or transport fares next to free yet who would say these are good policies, given the subsidy overhang feeding the fiscal deficit and hence the inflation which these freebies defy? Even perhaps the most successful socio-economic pacts of all time, the Moncloa agreements, has been given a credit for Spain’s take-off which rightly belongs more to entry into the European Community.

The quest for consensus will not be easy because years of polarisation cannot be banished overnight, because it will offer a fertile field for all kinds of opportunism and because the defence mechanisms of vested interests are extremely powerful. But we do have the consolation that it will at least be tried, simply because all the alternatives to dialogue and pragmatism are running out.

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