If last week’s editorial was entitled “The tomorrow after tomorrow” in reference to the day after last Sunday’s midterms, there is still no certainty today as to which was the day after – was it Monday, as any common sense would dictate, or was it Wednesday with its exaggerated celebrations to mark a relaunch of the Alberto Fernández presidency? This question can only be conclusively answered around two years from now.
Let us not waste any more time questioning the results of last Sunday’s midterms – the most balanced interpretation is that Frente de Todos (rejected by two-thirds of the voters) irrefutably lost but remain ahead in Congress for the rest of this presidency. The election is now done and dusted, but it is not just a question of looking ahead or even at the most urgent problems of the present – it would do the government in particular a power of good to admit their defeat and read its message so that they can start addressing its causes.
The government glibly ascribes all its problems to the unpayable debt left by the preceding Mauricio Macri presidency and the coronavirus pandemic (with various voices tossing in media manipulation as also decisive). Both these factors did indeed weigh heavily without explaining everything. This presidency has paid little and received less in the way of foreign debt but that is not the only route whereby governments go into the red – if Macri ran up US$70 billion in debt in four years (mostly abroad), Fernández has accumulated arrears worth US$80 billion in under two years when including the Central Bank’s quasi-fiscal deficit (with all those Leliq bonds issued to absorb all the pesos printed to fund the fiscal deficit). As for pandemics, they undeniably represent a supreme crisis but also opportunities, as amply demonstrated by President Fernández himself with popularity ratings of 80-plus percent in the early weeks.
Undoubtedly a leading frustration for many voters was the persistence of an inflation this year close to the 53.8 percent left by Macri despite price controls, frozen utility billing and transport fares, a repressed exchange rate with extreme capital controls and the creation of almost a score of taxes (with little scope now for more with the new Congress reflecting voter resistance) – a cocktail distorting relative prices and negatively impacting the economy. This inflation was omitted from the new index-linking system introduced for pensions, which have probably suffered even more than real wages when retired citizens represent a cluster of over five million votes.
The whole world has suffered from the pandemic with some of its most solid governments also electorally damaged but various key aspects of the Frente de Todos administration’s handling of this crisis sealed its fate last Sunday. First and foremost, the excessively prolonged closure of schools all last year, followed by its vaccine policy leaving this country unnecessarily vulnerable by depending on just two brands for most of last year at the expense of all the others. The progress since then perhaps helped the government survive February’s VIP vaccine scandal but the exposure of the first lady’s birthday party last year at the height of quarantine destroyed what remained of presidential credibility.
The government was thus seen to be at fault in the two areas it blamed the most, the economy and the pandemic. There were other factors such as crime with security entrusted to an anthropologist until after the PASO primaries. That also extends to the inaction against Mapuche violence – if Frente de Todos (which lost most of this country’s central belt in 2019 even when winning) more or less held its ground in the north, it significantly lost in all Patagonia, save Tierra del Fuego (where the island’s artificial assembly industry had its privileges renewed for 20 years). A foreign policy with double standards towards countries like Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela trampling on democracy might be mentioned but probably did not top many lists of priorities any more than judicial reform.
Prematurely looking ahead to 2023, it might be said that three straight elections topping 40 percent for Juntos por el Cambio means that Peronism no longer has the monopoly of the percentage around which Carlos Menem constructed the current electoral system. Perhaps the main difference between the two protagonists of Congress gridlock (now extended to the Senate) is that the opposition has too many presidential hopefuls and the government too few. But best wait and see what the next two years bring.