If Alice had a world of her own, “nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t.” In the world of Alice’s spiritual descendant, Alberto Fernández, the Peronist coalition of which he is the nominal leader won a resounding victory in Sunday’s parliamentary elections after losing in Buenos Aires Province by less than two percent. No doubt Alice would have approved.
Does the country’s president really believe what he says? Perhaps he does, or did on Sunday night, because in the week before polling day, he had heard prophetic voices forecasting a result so catastrophic for his government that he would have had little choice but to resign and hand power to the opposition, no matter what the Constitution has to say about the matter.
Though the actual nationwide result was painful for Alberto, from his point of view it was far better than what he had evidently been imagining and he could take comfort from the knowledge that his boss, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, had fared worse. She will soon find it impossible to continue treating the Senate as one of her hotels; half the people who frequent it will be reluctant to do her bidding.
As could be expected, opposition leaders ridiculed Alberto’s reaction to the drubbing the Peronists received. To their mind, it was both childish and sinister. They reminded him that admitting defeat in a gentlemanly fashion when circumstances demand it is what democratic politicians are supposed to do. Some suggested that he let his friends organise a costly street party to celebrate an imaginary election victory because he wanted to intimidate those who disagree with him. There is a strong authoritarian strain in the Peronist movement so they have good reason to suspect the worst; many “militants” would like to supplement their waning power over the electorate with some violent street protests, as they did in late 2017 when, to their fury, Mauricio Macri’s government made some fairly minor changes in the pension system.
However, while stirring up trouble in this way would make some sense if the Peronists were in opposition and Macri still ruled the country, this ceased being the case almost two years ago. Much as many of them dislike the idea, the Peronists are in government and, if the Constitution holds, they will simply have to stay there until December 2023. Until then, they will be responsible for managing a crumbling economy which could fall apart at any moment, depriving millions of people of what they need to feed, clothe and house themselves. Hard as it may be for them to understand it, the buck stops with them.
The prospects facing the country are so unpleasant that members of the government are determined to make opposition leaders share the “political costs” of the fierce austerity programme they know they will have to implement, but so far their efforts to get people like Horacio Rodríguez Larreta to take part in the “dialogue” they are seeking have been unsuccessful. As well as fearing he could fall into a Peronist trap, the Buenos Aires City mayor has to keep any eye on tough-minded associates such as Patricia Bullrich and Macri, who would not take kindly to any power-sharing arrangement that would oblige them to shoulder part of the blame for what they believe is going to happen.
There is more at play here than mere political manoeuvring. The opposition coalition, which enjoys the support of about 40 percent of the national electorate, assume that Congress is the proper place for meaningful negotiations while the Peronists tend to think in corporatist terms and therefore favour what one might call an intersectoral approach, with representatives of the unions, businesses big and small, religious congregations, “social organisations” and most political factions coming together to thrash out a common strategy.
Over the years, this corporatist way of doing things has been tried time and time again but has only served to make impossible the “structural” changes most economists have long considered necessary. What is more, corporatism lets the politicians off the hook by depriving them of full responsibility for what happens. They feel they are just minor cogs in a big machine they cannot be expected to control. This may be one reason so many prove to be far more interested in their own personal wellbeing than in that of their country.
This is certainly true of Cristina; she is well aware that, were it not for the political power she is credited with, she would already be behind bars or in exile. For her, the election results came as a stark warning. Even the slight increase in the proportion of votes won by the ruling coalition in Buenos Aires Province had its drawbacks as it was in large measure due to the efforts of old-style Peronist operators who thoroughly dislike her; if they thought it would help them keep on good terms with the local electorate, they would be happy to abandon her to whatever fate awaits her. Cristina’s influence depends on her ability to deliver huge numbers of votes. The moment her fellow-Peronists start seeing her as a liability, the knives will come out.
In September, when the primaries let her know that the government she assembled – in the hope that Alberto, a law professor, would somehow get all the many corruption charges she faces dropped so she would have nothing to worry about – was in deep trouble, Cristina’s immediate reaction was to send him a scathing message in which she ordered him to sack the ministers she found wanting, something he obediently did.
This time round, she presumably knows there is not much she can do to make her plight more bearable. Without elections in the offing, getting the government to go on a spending spree in the hope of winning more support would serve no useful purpose. Neither would going for broke in an attempt to turn Argentina into a copy of Venezuela or Cuba; she and her devotees would have too much of the country against them.
To make her situation even worse, Alberto has virtually challenged her to a duel by saying that in future just who leads the governing coalition should be chosen in primary elections in which not just the Peronists but also outsiders could vote. For Cristina, her son Máximo and adherents of the increasingly unpopular La Cámpora organisation, all this must be alarming. Bellicose Kirchnerites may think that confronting Alberto would be like getting “savaged by a dead sheep,” as the British Labour politician Dennis Healey said after being criticised by a softly-spoken Tory, but in a straight fight with Cristina and her devotees, he would surely enjoy the support of millions who, for as long as the country is saddled with him, want him to behave like a genuine president.